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The Arts

Chinese Opera

The Tang Dynasty is perceived as a golden age of the arts in China. Formalized theater in China can be traced back to shadow plays, puppet shows reminiscent of Punch and Judy, and vaudeville styled shows of that era. Many of these acts have no permanent structures of exhibition and its players shared much in common with the busker or mime.

Today, one is literally spoilt for choice with more than 300 different schools, styles of opera, and scores of other regional variations. By far the most popular form of Chinese opera is the highly stylized Beijing Opera. A relatively young school, it evolved during the late 18th Century from the Anhui, Kun and Qingqiang operas.

Beijing opera is a melange of song, literature, dance, mime and martial arts with a characteristic high pitched click of a redwood clapper for marking time and the two-stringed huqin as the backbone of the orchestra.

Many Beijing operas are re-tellings of popular legends, folktales and classical literature. As such, the viewer is often familiar with the plots and is thus able to appreciate the fine details in the delivery of song and subtle gestures employed by the actors. Expect an explosion of color and energy amidst minimalist props but don’t blink or you’ll miss that flick of the sleeve (which might be intended to say, “I’ll have four of those if you’ll let me have them for the price of three”), or the macho toss of an elbow in one direction and the simultaneous turn of head in the opposite direction (which might be intended to mean, “ I’ll shove this into your pancreas and not even bother to look at you in the face while doing it”). On the other end of the spectrum, there is the 20-minute long fluttering of hands or fingers, which means that the actor is conceiving a plan.

A brief hiatus during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) resulted in the suffering of Beijing opera and other kinds of theatrical arts in China. Traditional Beijing opera was only allowed again in 1978. Up till then, traditional pieces reflecting the Old Societies were banned from performance. In their place the famous Eight Model Plays were the core of ‘reformed’ opera. They featured communist activities during the anti-Japanese war and the civil war with the Nationalists, as well as the class struggles after the founding of the People's Republic. Many outstanding Beijing Opera actors and actresses performed in these operas. Although ‘Class Struggle’ was the theme of most of these plays, the latter introduced some new forms of stage performances and many people who grew up during the Cultural Revolution would still prefer the music and singing from the Eight Model Plays.

The Four Treasures of the Study

The highest form of Chinese visual art would be a combination of painting, poetry and calligraphy. Understand that Chinese script originated as pictograms, hence the close connection between the written word and visual art.

Painting is considered a scholarly pursuit and the quality of ones’ handwriting is a reflection of ones’ character. The instruments of work for such a scholar (brush, inkstick, paper and inkstone) were considered so integral in the creative process, as it was only through these ‘treasures’ that Chinese art achieved tangible expression and became known as the ‘Four Treasures of the Study’.

During the Dynasties of literary and artistic prominence, such as the Tang (618-907 AD) and the Sung (960-1279 AD), the quality of these four treasures reached such heights of excellence that they became works or art themselves. Some such examples are the Tang dynasty Chu Ke brush and Tuan Hsi inkstone. The Li T'ing-Kuei inkstick and Ch'eng Hsin T'ang paper of the Five Dynasties period (907-960 AD) are other examples of such art.

Inkstones were relatively durable, being made of fine whetstone material, and were able to facilitate the grinding of ink without harming the bristles of the brush pen. They were carved with ornate designs and handed down as family heirlooms. Many books from those periods have also survived the passage of time with the paper still intact and script unfaded, standing testimony to the quality of manufacture.

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