Global Times: Yisu Theater in Xi’an vital contributor to Qinqiang Opera’s popularity and ability to keep up with the times

Global Times: Yisu Theater in Xi’an vital contributor to Qinqiang Opera’s popularity and ability to keep up with the times

XI’AN, China, May 21, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — For generations, Qinqiang Opera has been a prominent traditional Chinese opera, especially in Northwest China’s Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. The Yisu Theater based in Xi’an has been actively involved in performing and readapting operas since 1912 as a reflection of its dedication to modernizing conventional beliefs and practices to meet the demands of today’s developing society. The troupe is particularly revered for its contributions to the nation’s early revolution. In a bid to increase knowledge of and respect for Chinese culture, it strives to entertain and educate audiences via this unique art form.

Peng Liyuan, wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping, on Friday morning invited the first ladies of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to visit the historic Yisu Theater in Xi’an, capital of Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province.

Nestled amid a bustling area in Xi’an, where the First China-Central Asia Summit was held, the cultural gem has stood the test of time and is thriving among the young generations.

Boasting a history of over 110 years, the Yisu Theater, located on the northeast side of the iconic Bell Tower in Xi’an, is a renowned cultural and artistic organization that has made significant contributions to the development and preservation of traditional Chinese opera, particularly Qinqiang Opera.

It is said that the opera was called “Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s opera” during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and was later renamed Qinqiang Opera, literally “Qin accent” opera.

The opera first originated from local folk songs and dance forms in the Yellow River Valley in what is today’s Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. As an opera, Qinqiang evolved in the political, economic and cultural center Chang’an, an ancient capital that is today’s Xi’an.

Qinqiang was added to the country’s list of intangible heritage in 2006.

Qinqiang performances typically feature a solo singer accompanied by percussion instruments, such as Chinese drums and cymbals, and are often based on historical or legendary stories.

The singing style is characterized by a strong and powerful voice, with a focus on the clear and precise pronunciation of the lyrics.

Revolution tradition

The Yisu Theater is a top troupe for the art of Qinqiang. The Yisu Theater was established on August 13, 1912, by Li Tongxuan and Sun Renyu, who were members of the revolutionary group Tongmenghui. The name “Yisu” carries a symbolic meaning. The term yi refers to the transformation and evolution of art forms, while su means folk customs.

Throughout its long history, the Yisu Theater has been dedicated to the principles of the Chinese phrase Yifeng Yisu, literally “to change prevailing habits and customs.”

This reflects its commitment to transforming traditional customs and practices to align with the needs and values of today’s developing society. By doing so, it aims to enlighten and educate the public, fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation of Chinese culture.

During the war time, when the troupe of the then-Eighth Route Army sought ways to promote revolutionary ideas in Xi’an but was limited by the Nationalist Party, it was the Yisu Theater that offered the military troupe a place to perform rent free.

It was also the Yisu Theater that acted as a place to distract high-ranking officials during the Xi’an Incident in 1936. Generals Zhang Xueliang and Yang Hucheng specially arranged continuous performances at the theater for three straight days as a cover for the detention of Chiang Kai-shek, a bid to make him change his policy from “first internal pacification, then external resistance” to fighting against the Japanese invasion.

The liberation of Xi’an in 1949 led to the handover of the theater to the ­people’s government in 1951, strengthening its presence in China’s modern history.

During the final year of the Korean War (1950-53), 45 performers from the Yisu Theater went to the Korean Peninsula as part of performances showing gratitude to the Chinese People’s Volunteers army. They performed 600 plays in five months, often under extreme conditions.

Later in 1958, it reached another milestone by producing the first color Qinqiang film Flaming Steed. This cinematic production brought Qinqiang Opera to the silver screen for the first time, showcasing its vibrant performances and captivating storytelling to a wider audience.

In the 1960s, a Qinqiang movie named Sandixue, literally “three drops of blood,” produced by the Yisu Theater, portrayed the heroic struggles and sacrifices of the Chinese people. The emotionally charged masterpiece later became part of the society’s regular repertoire, increasing its reputation and making Qinqiang even more popular.

Modern adaptations

After the reform and opening-up in 1978, the theater traveled overseas to countries such as Australia, Pakistan, South Korea, Japan and the US for exchanges and performances.

As time went on, the theater introduced several popular modern plays such as The Bride In Liuhewan Village and Qinqiang, while launching new adaptations of classic plays that presented these works in a modern way.

Hui Minli, chief of the Yisu Theater, told the Global Times that the goal of these new adaptations is to achieve a balance between staying true to the originals and making them appeal to people of all ages.

“The new adaptations aim to achieve a balance between elegance and popularity,” Hui told the Global Times.

“The relationship between the audience and the performers is like fish and water. When more people appreciate and care about the development of traditional culture, its dissemination will definitely improve.”

The Yisu Theater has remained in sync with the nation and resonated with the times. Its “century-­old repertoire” continues to innovate and adapt to the changing landscape, bringing new plays to stage since 2012, including Daughter of the Party, Dream Weaver and Blazing Youth that tell inspirational stories of those who are willing to sacrifice themselves for others.

Reaching out

The theater also underlines the importance of reaching out to people rather than just performing at their home venue.

“We have been performing on the frontlines in rural areas for months. We also perform for the general public, including the elderly, the young, and the less privileged,” Hui said. “The streets fill with people ­whenever we perform.”

Recently, the artists of Yisu Theater spent the early weeks of May touring villages inside Shaanxi as well as two villages in Gansu Province, which are over 400 kilometers from Xi’an.

While the theater is considered a place that honors the past, it also looks to the future. The theater serves as a nurturing ground for emerging artists, providing a platform for them to develop their skills and share their unique voices with the world.

Classic and creative

Qu Peng, a 40-year-old artist with the Yisu Theater, said that more than half of the performers in the theater’s 60-person troupe are young people and that a group of 20 new apprentices have invigorated the squad.

“The Yisu Theater is at the top of the echelon of Qinqiang Opera,” Qu told the Global Times on Thursday.

“Joining the theater is a prestigious moment for a graduate from a traditional Chinese Opera school, as was the case for me when I joined it two decades ago.

“Without the infusion of fresh blood, even the finest theater troupe cannot ensure its continued development,” Qu noted.

He Yuxin, 22, is now one of the Yisu Theater’s starring actors. She has been practicing the art since she was 10 years old.

“Here [in Shaanxi Province], you may even think it was a little bit late if a child only started to learn this at the age of 12,” she told the Global Times.

As a fairly young performer at the theater, He has dedicated herself to bringing the classic art closer to the public by adding skillful acrobatic elements. However, she noted that it is a “slow” art that needs people to take time to learn and understand.

“Qinqiang is a totem of China’s historical folk culture that is meant to be classic. We can be creative, with a show’s choreography for example, but we should never do something like adding rap elements to it to mess it up,” she said. Hui, who has been decorated by the country’s prestigious Chinese Opera prizes, the Plum Performance Award, Wenhua Award and Magnolia Award, also believes it is important to cultivate a young fanbase. As such, she often leads the troupe to visit universities and appeal to young audiences.

“When introducing traditional opera into campuses, many college students come to appreciate Chinese traditional culture, and their interest is very strong,” Hui said.

“Only by incorporating these traditional cultural elements into their hearts will they develop a sense of exploration and allow children to experience the spirit of Chinese aesthetics.”

Through workshops and mentorship programs, the Yisu Theater cultivates creativity and encourages the exploration of new artistic frontiers.

The Qinqiang specialist is not shy about infuse modern elements into the art form.

“Chinese Opera is constantly evolving over time. It also requires creative transformation and innovative development,” she told the Global Times.

“Injecting certain cultural elements that are popular among young people today does not mean we are abandoning the essence of Chinese Opera.”

When producing a Qinqiang show, Chinese instruments should never be ignored. The banhu, a traditional bowed string instrument, is considered a core part for orchestrating the musical performances. The erhu and sanxian are also frequent players in a Qinqiang opera.

But modern performances also often feature instruments that originate outside the region, which has helped the operas to garner more fans.

The theater’s latest adaptation Journey of Zhaojun has been hailed as a trailblazer in infusing diversified elements, including symphony music and lighting, into a traditional Chinese opera.

The theater also uses social media as a platform to promote Qinqiang Opera. Performances livestreamed from the Yisu Theater often attract hundreds of thousands of viewers.

When the troupe was tours rural areas, some long-time enthusiasts who live in cities like to travel to the countryside to watch the performances, Qu said.

The theater has also opened its doors to schools, inviting students to experience the glamour of live performances and participate in educational programs that deepen their understanding of Qinqiang Opera.

A cultural district has now been established around the theater. The district also boasts a museum about Qinqiang as well as the theater’s own history. The block is now a hot tourist magnet in downtown Xi’an.

As Qinqiang solidifies its foundation in Shaanxi as well as its neighboring provinces, the story of the Yisu Theater and Qinqiang will continue to grow.

SOURCE Global Times

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