Chuanju

(Sichuan opera)
Regional Xiqu (sung-drama/opera) genre
Sichuan opera, or Chuanju, is the form of traditional Chinese sung-drama found in the south-western province of Sichuan as well as in some regions of the neighbouring provinces of Yunnan and Guizhou. One of the most famous and favoured traditional theatre forms in China, Sichuan opera is a fusion of five different musical systems, with four of these systems introduced from other regions (see Xiqu musical structure).
Gaoqiang, a variant of the music of the yiyang-style of Jiangxi, was brought to Sichuan in the seventeenth century. Its significant characteristics are the use of the bangqiang, or ‘helping chorus’, and the dominance of percussion instruments. In contemporary performance, gaoqiang is the most dominant and most frequently performed musical style. A second musical system belonging to the ‘Clapper opera’ was also introduced to Sichuan in the seventeenth century. Originating in Shaanxi, it has developed into the Sichuanese version known as tanxi or ‘plays for stringed instruments’. The third musical system introduced to Sichuan is the huqinqiang, a variant of the pihuang musical system from the operas of Hunan and Hubei provinces. Its name derives from the huqin, a two-stringed spiked fiddle, and indicates that the orchestra is dominated by string instruments. The last system brought to Sichuan is that of the Kunqu opera of Jiangsu province, a refined drama form popular with the elite. It was introduced to Chengdu, Sichuan, in 1663, when a visiting Kunqu troupe performed in one of the major guildhouses. The dengxi (lantern theatre) is the fifth and only musical form native to Sichuan. It is a small-scale folk opera, which developed from shamanic rituals for exorcizing evil spirits and beseeching the gods for good harvests. The melodies of dengxi are derived from the folksongs of Sichuan and neighbouring regions.
The integration of these five styles did not occur until the beginning of the twentieth century, when the famous Sanqing Company began to reform and enhance the performance styles and musical systems. Though an ‘integrated’ opera can include elements from as many as three of the above five musical systems, one system always remains dominant, and the repertoire is categorized according to the style dominant in each play.
In performance, stagecraft and repertoire Sichuan opera is in general similar to other regional opera styles, including Jingju (Peking opera). However, Sichuan opera is famous for its unique stunts, such as sword-swallowing, fire-breathing, juggling with burning candles, and the sudden appearance of a third eye on an actor’s forehead. The latter is a breathtaking skill in which the actor kicks up his foot for a split second, attaching a fake third eye to his forehead. But the most closely guarded secret, and certainly the local style’s signature spectacle, is a special effect known as ‘face-changing’ (bianlian), whereby painted full-face silk masks are changed up to fourteen times in magically quick succession.
The foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 ushered in a new era for the art of Sichuan opera, interrupted only by the ten years of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), during which all performances of traditional Sichuan opera were forbidden. It was one of the first regional styles to be revived after the fall of the ‘Gang of Four’ in 1976 and began to flourish again quickly. However, the Cultural Revolution and the rapid modernization process after 1978 have taken a heavy toll on traditional theatre. Alarmingly decreasing audience numbers and the dwindling popularity of traditional theatre with younger audiences made Sichuan the first province to implement strategies to rejuvenate its local opera style. In 1982 the provincial government launched a reform movement under the slogan ‘rejuvenating Sichuan opera’ (zhenxing chuanju). The main objectives have focused on ‘saving’ (qiangjiu)., ‘inheriting’ (jicheng), ‘reforming’ (gaige) and ‘developing’ (fazhan) the art form.
See also: Xiqu
Dauth, Ursula (1997). ‘Strategies of Reform in Sichuan Opera since 1982: Confronting the Challenge of Rejuvenating a Regional Opera’. PhD diss., Griffith University.
Hu, Du, Liu, Xingming and Fu, Ze (1987). Chuanju cidian [Dictionary of Sichuan Opera]. Beijing: Zhongguo xiju chubanshe.
Kalvodová, Dana (1972). ‘Theatre in Szechwan’. Interscena 1–II: 42–64; 2–II: 32–55; 3–II: 31–59; 4-II: 43–59.
URSULA DAUTH

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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