Li Xudian performs in a Shaoxing opera.
Shaoxing opera, also Yue opera, is the second most popular opera form out of over 360 opera genres in China. Originating in Shengzhou, Zhejiang Province in 1906, Yue opera features actresses in male roles, as well as femininity in terms of singing, performing, and staging. Over time, it grew in popularity. Only Peking opera is more popular. It is highly popular in Zhejiang, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Fujian, while its audiences are all over China.
Prior to 1906, Yue opera was initially an entertainment for people in Sheng County. Its singing lyrics are mostly collected from conversations between farmers when they were working. People love these ballads because of their vivid description of daily lives. Yet the Second Opium War interfered with the local economy of Sheng County in Jiangnan area. Locating near Shanghai, Sheng County once had a hard time of earning livelihood. Farmers started to take this folk art as their secondary job to earn more money.
Over years, the accumulation of lyrics built up the fundamental source materials for initial Yue Opera, and the folk music gradually developed its own regular patterns. Performers also began to integrate some simple acting pieces and accompanying instruments into the folk music. It gradually became well-known among Sheng County and neighbor counties.
At the end of the first month of the lunar year Zhēngyuè (simplified Chinese:正月) in 1906, artists all gathered together in Mr. Chen Wanyuan (simplified Chinese: 陈万元)'s house. Although these artists had never performed together before, Mr. Chen and residents encouraged them to cooperate in performance.The first piece of performance was thus generated. Fortunately, the result of that show turned out to be a great success, and residents were really delighted and willing to talk about it.
More and more counties gradually invited them to perform. Because the music's tones were really similar to those of Shange (Shān Gē,山歌) people named this art Small Literal Class (pinyin: Xiao Gē Wén Shū Bān, simplified Chinese:小歌文书班).
As Small Literal Class expanded its sizes and popularity, it entered Shanghai theaters. Due to its unique, elegant and soft singing style compared with other political and magnificent performances, Yue Opera had its customer markets in Shanghai. It soon changed its name to ShaoXing Literal Opera (pinyin:Shào Xing Wén Xì 绍兴文戏) in 1916, to better represent its performances as art pieces that reflected regional culture. However, both the singing style and Banhu Fiddle (accompaniment) that ShaoXing Literal Opera utilized were too under-developed and vulgar compared with other delicate operas in Shanghai. It soon lost its prestige and popularity in this big city.
Going back to Sheng County, ShaoXing Literal Opera performers like Jinshui Wang(simplified Chinese: 王金水) put great efforts in improving their performance and singing style. Noticed that group of artists such as Jinshui absorbed the essence from different operas including Beijing Opera they have seen in Shanghai. During this process, Four Gong Pitch
(pinyin: Sì Gōng Qiāng, simplified Chinese: 四工腔) became the remarkable fruit from this revolution. This music pitch is extraordinary because it resolved the unnatural status women have when they play male roles. ShaoXing Literal Opera further developed systematic training of singing style and sound practice. It utilized Erhu and other linear fiddle as alternative accompaniments to make adjust music transactions.
After Jinshui Wang came back to Sheng County, he was deeply impressed by the prosperous and artistic atmosphere in Shanghai. Having seen different forms of opera during that time, Jinshui saw the business opportunities in founding female-performed opera. In February, 1923, he opened a female-performed opera class and spent huge amount of money attracting and rewarding young women to join. Noticed that "class" here is more like an organization that members work and study at the same time.
However, the first female class existed for only six years. Back in 1920s, both women's social class and arts performer (also known as Xizi, 戏子) were very humble. Governments assumed that operas that were performed by females could skew the value government encouraged. Under great pressure and limited business market, the first wave of female artists left the class after six years.
Fortunately, the progress these artists achieved were noteworthy. As female-performed opera accumulated its influence, more and more female classes were founded after years. By the beginning of early 1930s, Zhejiang Province had about two hundred female classes as well as two thousands students.
Reasons for the rise of Shaoxing Literal Opera in early 1930s
There are two well-known explanations for the rise of Shaoxing Literal Opera at that time. One of them is economic incentive. Back in 20th century, Chinese young women only have two options for earning livelihood. They were either sent to a wealthy family as a child bride, or to the factories to work. In 1929, the Wall Street Crash had tremendous global influence. Lots of factories in Shanghai turned down. Thereof, lots of women had no options except attending female-performed opera classes for livelihood.These women usually received three months acting training, and then participated in real performing pieces to gain more experiences in acting.
Another explanation was that the performing style of Shaoxing Literal Opera accorded with female's nature. As young women tend to be more glorious on stage according to Sheng County's newspaper at that time, the tender and gentle features of Shaoxing Literal Art became more outstanding under such highlighting. Furthermore, Four Gong Qiang worked more vividly and delicately under women's performances.
Originated from the folks and ballad singing of rural area in Zhejiang, by drawing the experience of other developed Chinese opera forms such as Peking opera and Kunqu, Yueju Opera became popular in Shanghai in early 1930s. During the Second Sino-Japanese War, Yueju performers in Shanghai launched a movement to reform the Yueju performance, including learning from Western cultures, which made Yueju opera remarkably different from other forms of Chinese opera. After the foundation of People's Republic of China, Yueju opera was welcomed by the government and Communist Party of China at first, and reached a pinnacle popularity in late 1950s and early 1960s. However, during the Cultural Revolution, like other traditional Chinese art forms, Yueju performances were outlawed, which caused a serious setback in its development. Since the 1980s, Yueju became popular again, while being challenged by new amusement forms.
Yueju opera features are elegant and soft, which made it suitable for telling love stories. It was initially performed by men only, but female groups started performing in the style in 1923, and during the 1930s, the form became female-only.
- Yuan Xuefen
- Wang Wenjuan
- Fu Quanxiang
- Lv Ruiying
- Zhang Yunxia
- Jin Caifeng
- Qi Yaxian
- Bi Chunfang
- Fan Ruijuan
- Yin Guifang
- Xu Yulan
- Lu Jinhua
- Zhu Shuizhao
- Zhao Zhigang
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- Yueju Opera: Century-old art
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- Welcome to Mildchina: Yueju Opera
- China’s disappearing traditions: Carvings in lime, singing Yue
- History of Yue Opera
- Yue Opera