Fri, March 23, 2012
Lifestyle > Culture

Singing the praises of Chinese culture

2012-03-23 00:23:01 GMT2012-03-23 08:23:01(Beijing Time)  China Daily

Ji Chao, a graduate from the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts, is an aficionado of traditional Chinese culture, including poems and ancient operas. Zou Hong / China Daily

Smile. Make eye contact.

And zuoyi.

So begins Ji Chao's class on traditional Chinese manners.

Every Saturday the 24-year-old teaches youngsters about Chinese opera, including zuoyi, a greeting with hands folded together and raised in front of the chest while bowing.

"These are really easy things to do and they express Chinese culture, which the young generation should know," said Ji, a graduate from the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts.

Ji studied calligraphy for four years in university and spent his spare time learning to play the guqin, a seven-string zither, as well as learning about traditional culture and reciting Chinese poems.

During weekends, he passes on his knowledge of Chinese opera, especially Peking Opera and Kunqu Opera, to kids aged 3 to 10 at the sinology school of Guozijian and Confucius Temple, as well as a weekly children's workshop at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing.

To make his class as interesting as possible, Ji has created cartoon figures wearing Kunqu Opera costumes and masks, which he shows on a screen. The students also have fun while dressing in hanfu - a traditional Chinese outfit - and practicing zuoyi with each other.

Although the operas were once like the pop music of today, the number of people learning their techniques has dwindled.

"Is tradition losing its grip on young Chinese people? I don't think so," he said. "The children are happy when they see the colorful opera costumes and makeup. What they need is a chance to take a look and learn in their own way."

Ji said that he is neither a stickler for etiquette, nor a strong advocate for a general revival of traditional Chinese opera.

"I know that the traditional culture and Chinese operas cannot go back to their heyday. It's fine to let them exist in a corner of today's society. But I don't want to see those traditions and cultures simply being ignored," he said.

Hou Changjuan, who has brought her 5-year-old son to Ji's workshops several times, said she really appreciates Ji's effort.

"I'm not thinking of letting my son become a professional. But I want to enrich his life and expand his exposure to traditional Chinese culture," said the mother. "I wish I had a chance to have such a workshop when I was a kid."

For Ji, re-examining the past helps him discover himself. When he was a child, his grandmother took him to watch Chinese operas every day in his hometown of Xi'an, Shaanxi province. He has been a big fan of Qinqiang, an ancient folk Chinese opera of northwest Shaanxi province.

"I have never been bored with their centuries-old histories. From the children in my classes, I can see that they are as interested as I am," Ji said. "In my opinion, tradition helps us resolve problems of everyday life. For example, reciting poems and literature accompanied by the guqin is a good way to learn the philosophy of life."

One of Ji's goals is to tell children what traditions and Chinese operas are really about.

"There are many TV series portraying ancient Chinese society. However, most of the detailed information is wrong, such as the clothes, the manners - even the history is being rewritten," Ji said. "That's a bad thing for educating the young generation."

The same remakes also appear on stage today. Many traditional Chinese operas are presented in modern ways to cater to audiences. The new versions of Chinese operas such as Red Cliff and Farewell My Concubine have real war boats and horses on stage to be spectacular.

"The stage design is glorious and offers a visual feast to the audiences," Ji said. "But one of the core concepts of traditional Chinese opera is the actors and their performances. One simple chair can represent thousands of horses, and a few steps walking across the stage means crossing mountains."

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