Classic Peking Opera work to grace the silver screen

By Chen Nan | China Daily | Updated: 2022-10-28 08:40
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Zhang Huoding, one of China's most celebrated Peking Opera performers, plays the lead role of Xue Xiangling in the movie version of The Jewelry Purse. [Photo by Yang Shaoduo/China Daily]

Cinema audiences poised to watch The Jewelry Purse.

It has been more than 82 years since the classic Peking Opera The Jewelry Purse premiered.

Written by the celebrated playwright Weng Ouhong (1908-94), the work is one of the best-known performed by Cheng Yanqiu (1904-58), a master of the art form.

Audiences will soon be able to watch The Jewelry Purse in cinemas, as it has been made into a movie with the same title, which is expected to be screened next year.

Zhang Huoding, one of China's most celebrated modern-day Peking Opera actresses, plays the leading role of Xue Xiangling in the movie.

Also known as jingju, Peking Opera is a vivid, highly stylized form of the genre, combining acrobatics, martial arts, music, drama and dance. With a history of more than 200 years, it was inscribed on UNESCO's World Intangible Cultural Heritages List in 2010.

The art form is passed down from one generation to the next largely through master-student training, with trainees learning the basic skills through oral instruction, observation and imitation.

Zhang was trained by Peking Opera master Zhao Rongchen (1916-1996), and Zhao was trained by Cheng.

Cheng and three other Peking Opera masters, Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), Shang Xiaoyun (1900-1976) and Xun Huisheng (1900-1968), were hailed as the "Four Great Dan" when the art form had its heyday during the first half of the 20th century.

"Dan" refers to "nan dan" (a man playing a female role), a practice that emerged when women were forbidden to take to the stage. These masters established the four "dan" styles, which have been learned and carried forward by other artists over the years.

Cheng's performing style is known as the Cheng School, which counts Zhao and Zhang among its students.

Cheng was not only responsible for the singing style of The Jewelry Purse, but also played the leading role of Xue, a wealthy bride.

On the way to her wedding, Xue helps a poor woman, Zhao Shouzhen, by giving her an embroidered pouch containing some of Xue's precious jewels. Years later, when Xue — separated from her husband and child by a destructive flood — is penniless, hungry and grieving, she finds work as a maid, where she meets Zhao, who has become wealthy and receives Xue as an honored guest. Zhao takes care of Xue until Xue's family finds her, and the latter's original act of kindness is fully rewarded.

Yin Xiaodong, president of the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts, a leading institution for traditional Chinese opera and the main driving force behind the movie, said: "The Jewelry Purse is extremely well-known among Peking Opera fans. Like many such pieces, it tells a story that reflects traditional Chinese values, such as kindness and gratitude. It is a great way to promote and preserve the ancient art form by making it into a movie." Zhang has taught at the academy since 2008.

It took about eight years to complete shooting for the movie, which is now in post-production.

Yin said the project to turn The Jewelry Purse into a movie was launched in 2015, with collaboration among the National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts, Shanghai Jingju Theatre Company, National Peking Opera Company and Shanghai Film Group. Experts and a number of Peking Opera artists worked together for years to prepare the movie.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, shooting plans for the film were frequently postponed.

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