Elias Edström*

Abstract: Beijing opera is a form of traditional Chinese theater arts, which, together with other opera styles, has seen a steady decline in the past years. This highly refined and stylized way of performing faces challenges and many initiatives are under way to spread the knowledge and beauty of this art form, considered the quintessence of Chinese culture (guo cui 國粹).
In this paper, I write about how I, as a non-Asian, use Beijing opera as a foundation in my artistic work. I comment on my struggles with cultural appropriation; give a back story of the development of Beijing opera as opposed to Western drama; and also discuss the tradition of Beijing opera performances in Finland. My main point is to show a way forward for this art form and, by using my own experience as an example, I give an idea of how one could contemporize Beijing opera.
In the end, I reflect on the results and effect my performances have on the audience.

Keywords: Beijing opera, physical theater, contemporize, Finland, Matchbox Company, traditional Chinese theater

As a style of physical theater, Beijing opera, or jing ju, together with the rest of the traditional Chinese theater styles, is the most comprehensive stagecraft system in the world, as far as I am concerned. There are several elements, such as song, recitation, dancing, fighting and acrobatics, to name a few, which, combined in a unique way, give the actor all the tools for expressing himself/herself on stage.

In this increasingly globalized world, it becomes all the more difficult for traditional art forms to survive. Despite its protection from UNESCO[1] and all efforts to modernize and commercialize it, the traditional Chinese theater is in steady decline in China.[2]  Its viewers have been dwindling over the years.

During my studies at the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts (NACTA), I experienced this first hand. With the stylized movements and strong conventions unchanged, lighting, video projections, microphones and other modern technologies were added in an attempt to modernize the theater. In my opinion, this gave nothing to the art form and only served to draw attention away from the actors’ craft and focus the attention on lavish set designs or an impressive lighting design.

Cultural Appropriation?
The performance of The Last Warrior (an adaptation of the traditional Chinese play The War Chariots 挑华车). Elias Edström as Jin Wuzhu, Helisnki, 2015

At the same time, as a person of non-Chinese or non-Asian heritage, it is also valid to ask: why am I allowed to criticize the Chinese theater and what right do I, as a white person, have to perform or change traditional Chinese theater?

In this matter, there are two arguments I would like to bring forth. Firstly, in the past decades, there has been a revolution in Western classical art forms. When it comes to opera, ballet and classical music, more and more Asian and non-European artists have come forth, bringing the art forms to a new level of brilliance. Examples range from cellist Yoyo Ma to the ballet dancer Cunxin Li and so on. Today, it is very common to see a non-European as a part of an ensemble performing European art on stage and, in my view, this is a very positive development both for the art forms themselves and for culture in general.

Secondly, I think it is worth taking a look at what the Chinese themselves do regarding the teaching and spreading of Chinese culture in general and, more specifically, theater. The Chinese government has, since 2004, mainly used the well-known Confucius Institutes, “non-profit public institutions which aim to promote Chinese language and culture in foreign countries.”[3] In my experience, both from Finland and from talking to people who have taken courses in the U.S., the Confucius Institutes do just that; “promote Chinese language and culture in foreign cultures.” However, there is a difference between promoting something and actually having an in-depth learning experience free from political bias.

In 1942, Mao gave a famous speech on art in Yan’an, China and as Mao himself said: “The purpose of our meeting today is precisely to ensure that literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part, that they operate as powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy.”[4] The conclusion was that art should serve the purposes of the party.

In October of 2014, the current president, Xi Jinping, gave a speech that echoed and affirmed that claim: “Our nation’s writers and artists should become the savants, the pioneers, the early advocates of their era. . . . They should write about and document the people’s great path, the era’s requirements for progress, highlight the beauty of convictions and integrity, carry forward the Chinese spirit, bring together China’s might and inspire all of the nation’s people of every ethnicity to vigorously march towards the future.”[5]

Many analysts have concluded that this basically means using culture and art as a propagandist’s tool[6] and letting art serve as marketing for China; that is to mean, the Communist Party.[7] Even the great Mei Lanfang resisted the reforms and politicizing of Beijing opera at first.[8]

My argument here is that censoring and utilizing art only to bring forth a single aspect of culture and way of thinking for political reasons is polluting the arts. My view is that society exists where people gather and culture is what we do together. Art is an expression of that culture and society, where the artist can project his/her/their own opinions, views and thoughts. Of course, these opinions can be political, but to say that art is only allowed in society to express certain ideas or perspectives and not others is, again, in my opinion polluting the arts.

Elias Edström performing Zhang Fei
in the traditional Chinese play Lu Hua Dang
芦花荡, Beijing, 2013

In my work with theater and Beijing opera, I have strived for the performances to be as authentic as possible, although none of the actors are Chinese. We perform traditional plays according to the choreography taught by our teacher, Lv Suosen. But, we also acknowledge our ethnicity by performing in our own native language. 2013 was a historical year, since we performed an entire play (not an excerpt, as visiting Chinese groups usually do), in our own language, by a Finnish cast. The orchestra was brought in from NACTA and, to my knowledge, this is the first time a performance of this type has been made.

Elias Edström and Antti Silvennoinen performing the play The Righteous General is Banished, Finland, 2013
New Creative Fusions
Timothy Pilotti and Elias Edström featuring in the performance Vem äger skogen!? Finland, 2011

My point is that we try to respect the tradition, educate the audience and spread this theater form without its political implications in Finland and abroad.

The next step in my artistic development came after returning from China following my first exchange in 2009. How was I supposed to utilize what I had learne, so as not to scare the audience with the strict style and specific conventions, but still maintain aspects and perhaps even the essence of the style? These thoughts resulted in the performance Vem äger skogen!?,[9] in 2011. The performance combined Western physical theater techniques with stage techniques I had learned in China, and was very well received, becoming the best performance of our festival according to our teacher, Prof. Maya Tångeberg-Grischin.

This experiment of fusing elements together with Beijing opera has worked well, since that is how the style itself has evolved over the years; Beijing opera was born from a similar fusion process. Chinese culture in general has functioned largely based on the principles of absorption and assimilation: “. . . By absorption and assimilation, we mean that any culture and ideology which are useful are to be taken in and assimilated by Chinese culture. This is something that the Chinese have been good at since ancient times.”[10] So, in effect, the performance was a continuation of that tradition as well.

The Development of Theater; Europe versus China

We can look at the historical development of theater in Europe and China and compare. Greek drama had a script with both recitation and song. Although no performance has been preserved, we can imagine that such a large stage required big movements. Also, masks had a primitive megaphone mouthpiece to help project the voice. We also know that the plays included stories about war and that the Romans decades later used gladiators to reenact these bloody tales.

In modern times, all these elements have been separated and deconstructed. The song is now represented in traditional opera, dancing is now isolated in ballet, drama exists in the form of the realistic psychological theater that dominates the stages in the West and so on. The development in China, however, was the opposite. The baixi[11] performances of the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) could be compared to the vaudeville performances of the early twentieth century. There was song, dance and storytelling presented as individual performances, separate from each other but during the same event. It was only when these elements and artists started to collaborate that theater was born.[12]

Combining Two Worlds

Sigurd Ring (Elias Edström) and Hilma (Talvikki Eerola) exchanging blows, Helsinki, 2016

After completing my Masters in Beijing, I was faced with a dilemma. How do I combine these two worlds, Western physical theater and the traditional Chinese theater, in a way that would make sense for a Finnish audience? How do I reconcile these two strong sides of my personality and these two strong cultures? And more importantly, how can I stay true to both styles and build an artistic foundation out of my thoughts and experiences? These questions are something that I am still trying to answer. At this point, I would like to share with you what I have found got so far.

After performing traditional Beijing opera plays and graduating from NACTA, I felt it was time to move on. In 2016, I directed and starred in a play called Sigurd Ring.[13] The play was written between the years 1814-16 by the Swede Erik-Johan Stagnelius—a play which I adapted to a more “Chinese” dramaturgy. The major changes I made were: cutting out almost all the text, leaving small quotes here and there, while adapting it to match the form of Beijing opera recitation.[14] I also wanted to strengthen the female character to become a strong leader and warrior, but still to maintain the vulnerabilities and the emotions of the original character.[15] As for the stagecraft and visual world, I decided on borrowing a lot of costumes, make up and movements from Beijing opera, but giving them a symbolic meaning more in line with Finnish culture.[16] I also tried to bridge the divide between cultures using a jazz drum kit to replace the four-person orchestra and a kantele[17] to replace the musical instruments.

This proved to be both familiar enough and exotic enough to attract a large audience, as well as to earn us a nomination for “artistic courage and diversity within the Swedish-speaking theater.” This is the road I am currently on.

Hilma (Talvikki Eerola) pulling away her lover, Ragnar (Saku Mäkelä). From the play Sigurd Ring, Helsinki, 2016

Here, I would like to give a bit of a background as to what kind of environment inspired me in the first place. Theater visits from China have been going on since the first time Beijing opera came to Europe, in 1955. With the exception of the Cultural Revolution period, traditional theater visits from China became a recurring phenomenon. The founding of the “Asia in Helsinki” festival in 1996 expanded on this. As appreciation and knowledge of this traditional art form grew, the requirements became more specific. For instance, the first time an entire full-length kun qu play was performed abroad, the play was Lady White Snake in Finland in the year 1990. Finnish subtitles, which are now commonplace, were also made, to the amazement of the actors. As a direct consequence of these performances, the group Wusheng Company was founded by Antti Silvennoinen and me in 2011; in 2017, I founded Matchbox Company. These groups both utilize the crafts of the traditional Chinese theater as a foundation for the means of expression and are quite unique in the world.

Taking Notes from the Relationship between Classical Ballet and Contemporary Dance

As I have tried to show, traditional Chinese theater has always been a strong inspiration and a craft I have devoted a large portion of my life to learning. At the same time, I have tried to reconcile the techniques and use them in my own way to create something new and inspiring. I like to compare this relation between traditional Chinese theater and the new performances I am working on with the relationship between ballet and contemporary dance. The relationship between ballet and contemporary dance is of a symbiotic nature. Ballet is the tradition and foundation of Western dance, but, at the same time, it has strict conventions and a very specific and demanding technique.

Contemporary dance is, in a way, more free and breaks these conventions, in order to explore new movements, dynamics and means of expression. However, often contemporary dancers have a strong foundation or background in ballet, and without this strong foundation it is difficult to build further. An example of this is the world-famous dance company, Tero Saarinen Company. The founder, Tero Saarinen, was himself a ballet dancer at the national opera and got his start in ballet as a teenager. At the same time, without the contrast of contemporary dance, ballet might seem dated and old—even boring. In my experience, I have learned a lot about dance and its possibilities by watching and practicing ballet, but, at the same time, watching contemporary dance keeps dance fresh and exciting. I believe that the ballet audience would dwindle if contemporary dance did not exist, but, at the same time, contemporary dance would lose a great technical foundation and tradition if ballet ceased to exist.

Therefore, it is my strong opinion that Beijing opera, in its development, should take a lesson from the development of dance. You need the traditional Beijing opera to provide a sense of tradition, technical brilliance and foundation. However, if Beijing opera is too strictly controlled, it will suffocate, whereas, an innovative Beijing opera could bring new aspects of physical theater. By innovative Beijing opera I mean a theater that is not afraid to break conventions, experiment and use the techniques in a new way to create new means of expression and further develop the art form. This does not take away anything from Beijing opera, the same way contemporary dance does nοt remove anything from classical ballet.

Sigurd Ring (Elias Edström) mourning the death of Hilma (Talvikki Eerola), Sigurd Ring, Helsinki, 2016

What follows is an example of when breaking conventions gave birth to something new. In my production, Sigurd Ring, the character Sigurd Ring has a black and white costume and make-up. In combination with his platform shoes, he gives a cold, impersonal and detached impression. Sigurd follows the conventions of Beijing opera and executes the traditional techniques. At the opposite end, we have the female lead, Hilma. She dons bright colors of pink and blue, while her face has standard Beijing opera female makeup. She wears no head gear and shows her own hair, which is not allowed in Beijing opera, and she is barefoot, which is also not allowed. This showed a clear contrast between the two and served to further strengthen the antagonism between the two.

Results

The results of Matchbox Company’s artistic work pertaining to the innovation of Beijing opera have been promising. Matchbox Company’s first play Sigurd Ring was well received and nominated for the Antonia prize in 2016, “for artistic courage and diversity within the Swedish-speaking theater in Finland.” In 2018, we completed our second project Prinssi Rei,[18] which was also well received, and the feedback and results we are seeing have been encouraging. We offer a different kind of theater experience which is very rare, if not unique, in Finland and Europe in general. Beijing opera continues to be the foundation and, through our performances, people can also understand Beijing opera better. They can recognize things on stage such as movements, rhythms or costumes, which already somewhat bridges the culture gap.

Due to the vast number of techniques, expressions and principles in Beijing opera, there are vast possibilities of utilizing them on stage. In my experience, this kind of theater performance offers a different experience altogether, which talks to the senses in a way realistic spoken drama cannot. By using movements and physical means of expression the audience has an impression of the character and uses his or her own mirror neurons in order to empathize with the characters. Together with music and lighting, and the absence of lavish props, the evocative atmosphere paves the way for the audience member’s own interpretation and fantasy. In this way, the audience member and the actor join forces in creating the imaginative world in which the play takes place.


[1] https://ich.unesco.org/en/lists?text=&inscription=0&country=00045&type=0&domain=0&multinational=3&display1=countryIDs#tabs

[2] http://europe.chinadaily.com.cn/epaper/2011-05/27/content_12591702.htm

[3] http://english.hanban.org/node_7716.htm

[4] https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-3/mswv3_08.htm

[5]New York Times on the speech as well as translated parts: https://sinosphere.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/10/15/xi-jinping-speech-arts-culture/?_r=0

[6] https://www.chinafile.com/conversation/xi-jinpings-culture-wars

[7] Radio Program, by the China expert Pertti Seppälä, as he discusses Xi Jinping’s speech, given in the Autumn of 2014 and published in October 2015: http://yle.fi/aihe/artikkeli/2016/08/11/kiina-ja-sen-rajoittava-kulttuuripolitiikka. The speech in Chinese: http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2015-10/14/c_1116825558.htm

[8] Min Tian, “Learning the ‘Practical Lesson’: The Interpretations and Appropriations of Mei Lanfang’s Art by the Soviet Theatre,” New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, p. 8

[9] The whole performance can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1NyxRiabOfs

[10] Zhang Qizhi. Traditional Chinese Culture. Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 2004, p. 65

[11] 中國戲曲武打概論 (Zhongguo Xiqu Wuda Gailun). Beijing: 中國戲曲出版社, 2006, p 33-34

[12] Ibid.

[13] Sigurd Ring trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emYFODTN_qw&t=2s

[14] The recitation in Beijing opera usually follows this pattern. You start with four lines of poetry describing the character followed by a presentation of the character’s name and an attribute (rank, title, etc.). After this, the character explains to the audience his task, dilemma or generally the goal of the character.

[15] In the original script the character Hilma comes in crying for she has seen a premonition of what will come to pass. She is unstable throughout the whole play until her brother and lover tell her to drink poison, which she does and dies.

[16] For instance, the white color on the costumes of Beijing opera means evil and dishonesty, while, in Finland, the white color is usually associated with cleanness, neutrality, or even with an impersonal quality.

[17] Kantele is a traditional Finnish instrument very similar to the Chinese Guzheng or Guqin

[18] Prinssi Rei trailer: https://youtu.be/iIYJUWcHiB8


*Elias Edström is from Finland. He is the first non-Asian who graduated from the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts in 2015 with an M.A. in Traditional Chinese Theater Directing. In Finland, he was one of the founders of the group, Wusheng Company, which has specialized in performing traditional Chinese plays with an all-Finnish cast, in Finnish and/or Swedish. In 2017, he founded Matchbox Company, a theater group aiming to combine various performing arts genres and styles (from physical theater, Beijing opera, circus and  dance ), in order to create new and exciting performances.

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Moving Forward: An Essay on How to Contemporize the Traditional Chinese Theater without Severing the Tradition
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