Real People, Real Lives
Cultural ambassador Yuan Huiqin and the overseas journey of Peking Opera
By Wang Ruohan  ·  2024-03-14  ·   Source: Web Exclusive
When the classic Peking Opera Women Generals of the Yang Family starring Yuan Huiqin was staged at the Mei Lanfang Theater in Beijing on the evening of January 5, the performance hall was packed with people. According to theater staff, tickets for the performance had sold out immediately. The audience included people of all ages and even some from overseas, all coming together on the night to appreciate the charm of Peking Opera.
Yuan Huiqin (left) stars in Peking Opera Women Generals of the Yang Family at the Mei Lanfang Theater in Beijing in December 2023 (COURTESY PHOTO)

Opera luminary 

Yuan is a veteran Peking Opera actress with over 46 years of experience, honored with the highest accolade in Chinese opera, the China Theater Plum Blossom Award. In addition to being a Peking Opera performer, she carries another significant identity. As a member of the 12th, 13th and 14th national committees of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), she conducts research in the field of opera, gathers public opinions, and makes proposals for improvements to China's governance.

As a CPPCC member, Yuan feels honored and obliged to truly fulfill her duties, she told Beijing Review.

Yuan in the Tiananmen Square during the First Session of the 14th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing in March 2023 (COURTESY PHOTO)
After becoming a member, Yuan submits proposals every year, covering topics such as opera education and opera preservation. In response to the rise of digital technology, Yuan actively explores the integration of Peking Opera art with digital technology and has also made proposals in this field and organized the filming of the classic Peking Opera Silver Spear to create a digital movie. She has also submitted proposals and received responses from the Ministry of Finance regarding healthcare for martial arts actors, among other accomplishments.

As a member, Yuan explores the role of culture in promoting the economy. In regard to protecting and promoting outstanding traditional culture in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, she proposed, "The Greater Bay Area is a region with rapid economic development. I believe that the more the local economy develops, the more cultural heritage is needed to support its sustainable development." The Guangdong Provincial Government accepted her proposal, hoping she would continue her in-depth research and provide more suggestions.

Last December, Yuan, representing the National Peking Opera Company, signed a strategic agreement with the Macao Federation of Cultural Circles, a nonprofit organization established in August 2023 to promote cultural exchange and cooperation. In the future, they will jointly conduct Peking Opera training, promote and popularize outstanding Chinese traditional culture.

"I've felt very gratified in recent years. Everyone has been using this platform (the CPPCC) to contribute wisdom and insights to the country, and we have received positive responses from relevant departments. I think our work has been very solid and has reached a very good state," Yuan said.

Cultural communicator 

As an artist, Yuan has worked hard to pass on Peking Opera and share it. "I think it's more important for us now to share our wisdom-filled fine traditional culture with people all over the world, truly allowing people from all countries to understand the art of Peking Opera. Also, I hope people all over the world can share and enjoy the excellent arts of all countries," Yuan said.

In 2017, Yuan led a small team of young Peking Opera actors to visit countries along the routes of the Belt and Road Initiative, including Kazakhstan, Russia and Sweden, where they not only performed but also held lectures. While young actors performed classic Peking Opera excerpts, Yuan provided explanations, introducing the profound Eastern wisdom embodied in Peking Opera.

To best engage audiences overseas, Yuan provided explanations of Peking Opera that do not require an in-depth understanding of Chinese history and culture. She also compared Chinese and Western cultures to add meaning and context to her lectures.

When introducing the play Farewell My Concubine, Yuan explained that the King of Chu, facing defeat in a crucial war and bidding farewell to his beloved concubine, experienced a tragic love story, much like Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

The garden of world civilization is full of a great variety of flowers. Yuan said, "As long as I still have the ability, I hope to open a door for overseas audiences to appreciate Peking Opera. I believe that once they enter [the garden of Peking Opera], they will discover the myriad of beauty within."

Yuan's love for art and passionate sharing of it have won the love of audiences worldwide. Yuan recalled a performance she gave in France, which deeply moved the audience. When performing Women Generals of the Yang Family at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, Yuan portrayed Lady She. In a scene called The Shocking Change in the Longevity Hall, Lady She is celebrating her grandson's 50th birthday but is suddenly informed of his death on the battlefield, which turned the celebration into mourning.

The moment marks a significant dramatic conflict. Initially, Yuan worried that the French audience wouldn't understand the content due to language and cultural barriers. However, during the intermission, staff from the Chinese embassy in France assured Yuan that the audiences understood the performance and many had been moved to tears by the character Lady She.

"As a Peking Opera performer, the recognition and love from audiences at home and abroad have given me the motivation to persist in the pursuit of the art. Because of my performance, they came to love Peking Opera, which makes me cherish this art even more," Yuan said.

The National Peking Opera Company is one of the institutions entrusted with the mission of promoting the China's outstanding traditional culture, with its artists usually performing overseas two or three times each year. In the future, Yuan hopes to carry on the tradition of Peking Opera, make innovations and share the works with overseas audiences.

Many of Yuan's friends asked her, "You're retiring. You've already achieved fame and success, why do you still work so hard?"

Yuan replied, "Even if I retire, I will continue. Firstly, along my artistic journey, I received help and cultivation from the country and my teachers. I must ensure that this beautiful art is passed down, which is my unshirkable responsibility. Secondly, since I now serve as a member of the CPPCC and hold administrative positions in the theater, I must do things that match my responsibilities. I will try my best to promote the art of Peking Opera and help more people learn about its charm."

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

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