Young Women Take On a New Character in Chao Opera

    Written by Catherine, Photo by Zanith

    The girl is practising in Tanzi course.

    “One! Two! Three! Four!” A man’s deep voice started to echo as usual at half past two on a sleepy Thursday afternoon. Zheng Yuezhi and Zeng Chuxuan hurried forward to the training classroom.

    Fastening their shoelaces, binding their belts and tying up their hair, the two five-foot six-inch tall girls, the only girls studying to be a male character in the entire Shantou Arts and Traditional Opera School, were ready for their Chao Opera class seconds later.

    Playing the opposite gender in Chinese opera is not news. But among young people studying Chao opera in this generation, more girls are playing male roles now, especially the Chao opera character “Sheng,” a male character known for his bravery or knowledge. The fact that more  females are playing Sheng characters reflects the difficulties in carrying on the traditional opera culture. Low salaries and the aging of the audiences are problems of Chao Opera nowadays. Schools also have fewer and fewer male students, as young men seek more lucrative careers. Female students are filling the gap left by the lack of male students.

    For most girls, playing male characters is a “part time job” ; however, Zheng Yuezhi and Zeng Chuxuan are specializing in Sheng, an unusual field of study for such young women.

    There are many characters in Chao Opera. It has several standard characters played in each performance: Dan, Sheng, Jing and Chou. Dan is beautiful girl classified into several roles, for example: Guimen Dan, Hang Dan, Zheng Dan and Huashan. Sheng is the name for a kind of male character, which is divided into Wen Sheng and Wu Sheng. Wen Sheng is handsome and knowledgeable while Wu Sheng is brave and good at fighting. Up to now , actresses playing Sheng character have focused on Wen Sheng. But they still need to learn whirling, jumping and fighting.

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    The Chao Opera is a characteristic ancient local opera. Based on the Yellow River which separates China into northern part and southern part, the various China folk opera types are divided into northern type and southern type. Beijing Opera is one of the northern types, while Chao Opera is a member of southern types. As a brand of Southern drama, Chao Opera flourished in the period around the end of Yuan Dynasty and the beginning of Ming Dynasty, at least 722 years ago. The appearance of this style of drama put Chinese drama into the same league as some of the great drama systems of the world, such as those in India and Greece.

    “One! Two! Three! Four!” teacher’s voice continued ordering the mechanical rhythms.  Zheng Yuezhi and Zeng Chuxuan started to press their legs on a wooden handrail. They pushed their faces to touch their knees hard with a repeating rhythm which they had already got used to.

    It’s the second year of their Chao Opera studies.  Zheng Yuezhi and Zeng Chuxuan get up for training at six o’clock everyday, they train at least five hours each day for the opera but also study more conventional subjects for four hours a day.

    Chao Opera’s history appeals to numbers of enthusiasts and researchers. But the reason for Zheng Yuezhi and Zeng Chuxuan choosing learning Chao Opera is actually having no relation to Chao Opera history.

    “I was not doing well of my study in normal schools,” Zheng Yuezhi gave a stretch and said, “And my mom enjoys watching and listening Chao Opera, especially the Sheng character. So I chose this specialization.”

    She regarded learning Sheng character of Chao Opera is the outlet for her future. Also she considered being a Sheng to repay her mom.

    For Zeng Chuxuan, the appeal of performing was linked to portraying a member of the opposite sex.

    “It’s cool to be an attractive and charming man on stage,” Zeng Chuxuan said. Different from Zheng Yuezhi, Zeng Chuxuan’s purpose was simpler. Despite doing well in junior school, Zeng Chuxuan’s deep love of Chao Opera made her quit the common road of the majority kids. In the last summer of 16, she finally successfully persuaded her parents and arrived at the Shantou Arts and Traditional Opera School.

    To be a Sheng Zheng Yuezhi and Zeng Chuxuan need to take Tanzi course. Tanzi course is a basic skill course, which aims to improve Sheng students’ flexibility and teach them how to do cartwheeling, jumping, fighting and other physical skills in Chao Opera.

    The skills seemed a little bit tough for girls. Despite physical disadvantages, girls do have some advantages to learn Sheng. Huang Youde, the teacher of Tanzi course introduced the advantages.

    “First is their flexibility,” He said, “Then is their voice.”

    Unlike Beijing Opera which is sung by falsetto, Chao Opera is sung in natural voice. All Chao Opera are in the melody of F key. It’s a little bit high for normal boys’ natural voice, while it’s easy for the majority of girls. Girl who learn to be a “Sheng” character only need to train their voices to be more resonant. But boys have to work harder on the premise of having a beautiful voice. Besides, girls will look more handsome after makeup. Meanwhile, girls are considered to be fit for Wen Sheng’s elegant character and temperament.

    “Though girls may sing and look more beautiful than boys,” Huang Youde said and glimpsed at the two ladies who were practicing hard at the other corner, “But if there were enough boys we would stick to use boy Shengs. Actually, we are in a difficult time.”

    “Chao Opera needs more potential students” Huang Youde continued speaking, “In order to find potential students the school needs to enroll a big number of kids then select from it. And technically speaking, to choose a boy Sheng is harder than to choose a girl Sheng.”

    But nowadays, fewer kids choose to study Chao Opera as their major, especially boys. In Shantou Arts and Traditional Opera School, there are 280 students now studying Chao Opera. 2/3 is girls while the other 1/3 is boys.

    One of the reasons is that the market is narrowed down. Further more, Chao Opera artists’ salary is lower than other industries. The main market of Chao Opera is basically people in countryside and people who are older than 40-year-olds in the city.

    “If a student who just graduate from school can earn 1000RMB/month, he should be very joyful,” said Huang YouDe. “Normally speaking, 700 RMB to 800 RMB is the salary average per month.” But according to the statistics, monthly personal income average of Guangdong province is around 1300RMB.

    “800 is enough,” Zeng Chuxuan said, “Not a big deal.”

    But these two young girls do not care about the conditions. More than considering career and future, Zheng Yuezhi and Zeng Chuxuan said they were focusing on the joys of their work. Despite all that outer conditions, the two girls have discovered that specializing in the “Sheng” character has brought them at least one obvious advantage.

    “Once my friends were bullied by boys, I will help.” Zheng Yuezhi stood up akimbo with an angry face and roared suddenly: “Wang Jin Long, you’re a playboy!”

    Her voice shocked students around. Then there was a roar of laughter.

    “It’s a line in the opera we recently rehearsal called Mei Ting Xue,” Zheng Yuezhi giggled, “Scared, right?”

    Catherine & Zanith
    Cheung Kong School of Journalism and Communication. Shantou University