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Opera of Jianzhen's voyage to Japan on show in US

By LIU YINMENG | China Daily | Updated: 2019-06-10 07:36

Tian Haojiang sings the lead role of Master Jianzhen at a performance at Pasadena Civic Auditorium, in California, on Saturday. [Photo by LIU YINMENG/CHINA DAILY]

The story of an eminent monk who became the symbol of cultural exchange between China and Japan is being shown to audiences in the United States through the lens of a familiar art form in the West: opera.

The US debut of Voyage to the East: A Fearless Buddhist Master's Mission to Japan, an original Chinese contemporary opera produced by a group of Chinese artists, opened on Saturday in Pasadena, California.

The debut at the 2,997-seat Pasadena Civic Auditorium, where many Broadway musicals have been performed, was jam-packed.

The opera relates the story of the Buddhist monk Jianzhen, who lived from 688 to 763 during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). In Japan, Jianzhen is known as Ganjin.

Kathleen Sage, an opera lover who attended the debut, said it was the first time she heard the story of Jianzhen's voyage, but it was easy to understand the tale.

"It's very similar (to Western opera). ... It has beautiful melodies.... The music is slightly more oriental, but the story is wholehearted ... and the voices are beautiful," she said.

Elena de la Torre, who attended with her husband, Jeffrey, said the play conveys the importance of cultural exchange.

De la Torre said knowledge and education, such as provided by the opera, lead to understanding. "We understand that we are not so different, that we are very much alike."

Chinese Consul General Zhang Ping said the tale has applications to the modern situation.

"So, just as how each civilization is a little bit different from the others, there is a lot we can learn, a lot we can share among ourselves. It recreated Master Jianzhen's spirit in the present-day context," Zhang said.

The opera's tour is supported by the Jiangsu Cultural Exchange Association and organized by China-Jiangsu Performance Arts Group Co, Fo Guang Shan Hsi Lai Temple, and Fo Guang Shan New York Temple.

"Although the story took place in the East, we hope to transfer the value of the story across the Pacific Ocean, to the West. In doing so, we hope to improve Sino-US relations and play a greater role in the cultural exchanges between American and Chinese people," said Zheng Zeyun, president of China-Jiangsu Performance Arts Group Co.

The troupe was to give a second performance in Pasadena on Sunday and then move to the David H. Kotch Theater in New York City's Lincoln Center for two more performances on June 22 and 23.

Librettist Feng Baiming said he wanted to depict the persistence of Jianzhen and his commitment to his belief.

In 742, an emissary from Japan visited China and invited Jianzhen, the abbot of Daming Temple in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, to lecture in Japan.

The following year, Jianzhen and his apprentices embarked on the voyage, but they were shipwrecked on an uninhabited island. It would take more than a decade and five more attempts to reach Japan.

In 754, when 66-year-old Jianzhen finally arrived, he was blinded by disease. The Buddhist monk was warmly welcomed by the Japanese emperor and public. He set up a famous temple named Toshodai-ji in the city of Nara, Japan.

Among his fellow travelers were artists, doctors and craftsmen, and Jianzhen also brought a large number of books and cultural relics.

"Jianzhen is absolutely one of the greatest cultural ambassadors from China to the world and to Japan ... because he not only brought Buddhism there, but also architecture and medicine," said Tian Haojiang, who plays the role of the Buddhist master.


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