Li Xudian performs in a Shaoxing opera.
Shaoxing opera, also known as 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 lyrics are mostly collected from conversations between farmers while they were working. Audiences love these ballads because of their vivid description of daily life. The Second Opium War interfered with the local economy of Sheng County, located in the Jiangnan area, near Shanghai. Since Sheng County agriculturalists were experiencing difficulty earning their livelihoods, they started to turn this folk art into a second source of income.
Over years, the accumulation of lyrics built up the fundamental source materials for Yue opera, and the folk music gradually developed its own style. Performers also began to integrate simple acting and accompanying instruments into the folk music. It gradually became well known, both in Sheng County and neighboring counties.
At the end of the first month of the lunar year Zhēngyuè (simplified Chinese:正月) in 1906, artists gathered together in Chen Wanyuan (simplified Chinese: 陈万元)'s house. Although these artists had never performed together before, Chen and other residents encouraged them to cooperate. The first performance was thus generated. Fortunately, the show turned out to be a great success, and residents were delighted and willing to talk about it.
Over time more and more counties invited them to perform. Because the music's tones were 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 in size and popularity, it entered Shanghai theaters. Due to its unique, elegant and soft singing style compared with other political and spectacular performances, Yue opera found an audience there. 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 under-developed and vulgar compared with other, more delicate operas in Shanghai. It soon lost its prestige and popularity in this big city.
Returning to their roots in Sheng County, ShaoXing Literal Opera performers like Jinshui Wang (simplified Chinese: 王金水) put great effort into improving their performance and singing style. These artists absorbed the essence of different opera styles including Beijing Opera they had seen in Shanghai. During this process, Four Gong Pitch (pinyin: Sì Gōng Qiāng, simplified Chinese: 四工腔) became the remarkable fruit of this blending. This music pitch is extraordinary because it resolved the unnatural status women have when they play male roles. ShaoXing Literal Opera further developed a systematic training in singing style and sound practice. It utilized erhu and other linear fiddles as alternative accompaniments to adjust music.
When Jinshui Wang came back to Sheng County, he had been deeply impressed by the prosperous artistic atmosphere in Shanghai. Having seen different forms of opera during that time, Jinshui saw the business opportunities in founding an opera performed by women. In February, 1923, he opened an opera class and spent huge amount of money attracting and rewarding young women to join. ("Class" here is an organization in which members work and study at the same time.)
However, the first class existed for only six years. In the 1920s, the social status of both women and arts performers (also known as Xizi, 戏子) was very humble. Governments assumed that operas performed by women would lower the value of the art. Under great pressure and in a limited business market, the first wave of female artists left the class after six years.
Fortunately, the progress these artists achieved was noteworthy. As the influence of their opera grew, more and more female classes were founded. By the beginning of the 1930s, Zhejiang Province had about two hundred female classes as well and two thousand students.
The rise of Shaoxing Literal Opera in the early 1930s
There are two well-known explanations for the rise of Shaoxing Literal Opera at that time. One of them is economic incentive. In the early 20th century, young Chinese women had only two options to earn their livelihoods. 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. Many factories in Shanghai closed down, and as a result, women often had no option but to attend female-performed opera classes to earn a living. These women usually received three months acting training, and then participated in performances to gain more experience in acting.
Another explanation was that the performing style of Shaoxing Literal Opera fit with women'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.
Originating in the folk song and ballad singing of rural areas in Zhejiang, by drawing on 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 their opera remarkably different from other forms in China. 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 has become popular again, while being challenged by new amusement forms.
Yueju opera features are elegant and soft, 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
- Ma Haili| (2012) "Development of training and performativity in Shanghai YueJu", 3:3, 334-348 doi:10.1080/19443927.2012.720122.
- Yueju Opera: Century-old art
- Jiang, Jin (2009). Women Playing Men: Yue Opera and Social Change in Twentieth-Century Shanghai. University of Washington Press. p. 352. ISBN 978-0-295-98844-3.
- Gao, Yi long. The historical story of Yue Opera 越剧史话 (1 ed.). 上海文艺出版社.
- "Hometown of Yueju Opera Marks 100th Anniversary". Reprint from China Daily, April 6, 2006. China Internet Information Center. Retrieved 2 August 2010.