Beyond The Painted Face, Keeping Traditions Alive

Xia Qingling, 2011 winner of China’s Plum Blossom Award, the highest award for theatre professionals, talks about her uphill struggles as a Chu opera artiste. Bibiana Low, who was on an Overseas Immersion Programme at the Wuhan Institute of Technology, finds out more.

Xia Qingling shows the difference in singing between Chu opera and Peking opera. Photo courtesy of Suzannah Lum.

BY
BIBIANA LOW

Published on
August 3, 2020

Dressed in a pink shirt-blouse and a plaid pleated skirt, Xia Qingling, 52, exudes poise and grace, charming everyone in the room.

But the Chu opera actress was not always so sure of herself.

Xia’s journey with Chu opera – or Chuju, the definitive opera type of the Hubei province – began because of her parents’ love for it. She would later join the Huang Pi Chu Opera Troupe (黄陂楚剧团), the birthplace of Chu opera, where she was spotted by an arts school in Wuhan. Thus began her 40-year love affair with Chu opera.

During the four decades, Xia felt like giving up Chinese opera many times. “40 years is a very long time, and during this time society has developed drastically. Like life, it has gone through its highs and lows,” she says.

40 years is a very long time, and during this time society has developed drastically. Like life, it has gone through its highs and lows.

Xia Qingling, 52

Award-winning Chu opera actress

Xia’s graduation from the arts school coincided with the opening of the Chinese economy. Foreign art forms that many Chinese found fascinating resulted in the loss of interest in Chinese opera and dwindling audiences.

In a theatrical tradition where each artiste has to rise through the ranks, Xia had not yet earned the chance to be in the spotlight.

“Chinese opera has a set of conventions which are still followed today. At that time, there were many seniors before me who were playing the main roles and thus the roles that I could play were very limited,” she explains.

Her interest began to “sway” and thoughts of giving up perturbed her. She even considered a more profitable career in singing or acting instead, which she is equally qualified for.

“I have sung at karaoke bars and opened a restaurant and a bar, but those endeavours did not last very long,” she laughs, clearly embarrassed at the thought. 

Eventually, Xia found her way back to Chu opera which she still felt strongly connected to emotionally. Despite the monetary temptations from more lucrative careers, she found herself most suited for Chu opera. 

The next 10 years remained a struggle for Xia. The art of Chuju, unlike major opera types like Peking opera (Jingju), was lacking in many facets of artistry as its history was relatively short. 

She realised some revolutionary changes had to be made to Chuju. With the opening of the Chinese economy, more women were joining the Chu opera industry. However, female roles in opera were traditionally played by men; the audience could not accept the familiar tunes sung by women. 

Audiences were attracted to new foreign art forms and dwindling audiences for Chuju was another challenge. These and her personal challenge to be accepted as a good Chu opera actress motivated Xia to search for the correct ways to alter the singing style that would win the liking of her audience.

Xia went in search of a vocal coach who could show her how to combine the elements of singing and acting to find the “right feeling”. Finding the answer rekindled her passion and opened her eyes to a new direction for Chu opera.

“This 10-year period also saw many self-discoveries and my growth in this art form, where I had learned that Chinese opera is a never-ending journey of learning,” she adds.

Living out the Chu opera spirit of “give me what you have, but you can’t take what I have away from me”, Xia acquired the skill to incorporate what she has learned from others to diversify her style of performing.

This 10-year period also saw many self-discoveries and my growth in this art form, where I had learned that Chinese opera is a never-ending journey of learning.

Xia Qingling, 52

Award-winning Chu opera actress

xia qingling chu opera hua dan wuhan

Xia Qingling plays the role of hua dan (vivacious lady). Photo courtesy of Wuhan Chu Opera Theatre.

Her hard work finally paid off in 2011, where she was awarded the prestigious Plum Blossom Award, the highest theatrical award by the China Theatre Association for her excellence in the roles of hua dan (vivacious lady), gui xiu (elegant lady) and qing yi (virtuous lady). 

However, rather than feeling happy about the win, Xia was in a state of conflict. “I was just at the right place, at the right time,” Xia states. 

In the years that followed the award, Xia has worked on preserving the art so as to retain as many performance pieces as she could for her students so that they can continue the cycle of inheritance for Chu opera.

Besides teaching and guiding young Chu opera actors at the Wuhan Chu Opera Academy (武汉楚剧院), Xia has also been going to schools as a guest lecturer to impart her knowledge of Chu opera to students.

“The road of inheritance is very long. Even when I am 70 or 80 years old, I will continue my work in passing this art form down to the next generation, as long as I still have the capability,” she says confidently.

Xia also performs at various villages every year even after her rise in fame. “We are the people’s artistes. It is important to remain humble and the simplicity of life at the villages keeps me grounded,” she remarks.

Grateful for what Chu opera has given her, Xia says with tears in her eyes: “Chu opera has provided me with a life-long haven and has given me the motivation to keep breaking down boundaries and become a better version of myself. Chu opera has also taught me to live life with a grateful heart.”

Chu opera has provided me with a life-long haven and has given me the motivation to keep breaking down boundaries and become a better version of myself. Chu opera has also taught me to live life with a grateful heart.

Xia Qingling, 52

Award-winning Chu opera actress

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