This year marks the 115th anniversary of the birth of Mei Lanfang, considered as one of the greatest Peking Opera artists in modern history. Mei Lanfang is known for his portrayal of dan characters, a type of young female role. He founded his own innovative style of the art form that continues to evolve and further increase in popularity to this day.
Peking Opera began just over 200 years ago and up until 1949, men played all of the roles, including the female characters. During his stage life, Mei added his own flair to traditional female roles, shaping a style of his own and forming the Mei school of Peking Opera. He is also credited as popularizing the art form overseas.
"My father broke the distinction between almost all types of female roles and founded the Mei school," explained Mei Baojiu, son of Mei Lanfang.
"He was highly accomplished in singing, dancing and acting. In addition, he reformed the stage design, music score and makeup of Peking Opera, taking the art to new heights," Mei Baojiu added.
Over the past 100 years, the Mei school of Peking Opera has attracted thousands of students and followers, many of them female.
"Not all males can take female roles in Peking Opera," explained 77-year-old Du Jinfang, a master in Mei-style opera. "It requires good looks, figure, voice, talent and persistence toward this profession."
Du Jinfang was chosen by Mei Lanfang when she was just 17, as she resembled him and his younger children.
"I remember when I was young, my mentor Mei Lanfang, his daughter Mei Baoyue and I staged The Drunken Beauty together, when he started to sing, the audience began to laugh," Du recalled. "Backstage, he asked the manager of the theater why, later he figured out that it was because the three of us looked so much alike."
Inheriting the extensive repertories of Mei Lanfang, Du's stage presence and interpretation is flamboyant and engaging.
Du's work The Legend of White Snake was staged Monday in Beijing, starring one of Du's pupils, Ding Xiaojun. Differing from traditional works, the production was complete with choreographed battle scenes, glittering costumes and modern intonations.
"My teacher adapted and expanded the story of White Snake based on a few excerpts performed by Mei Lanfang," Ding explained.
"The action scene represents the innovation in fighting techniques and costume design of the Mei school. It greatly dramatizes the show," she added.
As one of the current generation of Peking Opera performers, Ding cites her influences as television, film and new media.
"The centuries-old plots that bear no relevance to modern society are of little interest to today's youth," Ding explained. "The problem we are facing now is the lack of stage opportunities and audience members."
"It's not that we are not interested in Peking Opera," commented Zhang Xin, a college student who attended The Legend of White Snake. "We bought tickets to watch the show in order to have a taste of it."
"But the lines are hard to understand and young people today do not have enough opportunities to be exposed to it," Zhang added. "I'm sure if Peking Opera stars organized concerts like pop singers do, they would draw a huge crowd."
In recent years, the government has gone to great lengths to preserve Peking Opera and encourage its development. Modern theaters such as the Mei Lanfang Theater have been built to boost audience numbers. The teaching of Peking Opera has also been introduced into primary and secondary school curriculums.
"For me, Peking Opera is something you have to spend time to understand," Ding explained. "The next step for us is to walk onto campuses, to spread Peking Opera among younger generations."
"There are signs of recovery for Peking Opera," Ding added. "As living standards improve, people pay more attention to cultural pursuits."