October 28, 2009

In All the World There is No Other


In All the World there is no Other
This past weekend was an emersion in Chinese language and culture. It was a homecoming, of sorts, with plenty of opportunities to speak Chinese and watch a live performance of Beijing Opera. I’m referring to the festivities celebrating the gift of 1500 Chinese films to the University of South Carolina. The new collection, supported by the Confucius Institute and the Chinese National Film archive, is now the largest resource of Chinese films in North America. It will probably take some time to catalogue and digitize, but it will be a great contribution to scholars of cinematic history when it becomes available.
My husband and I attended a get together at the home of Patricia Willer, Assistant Vice Provost for International Programs. There we met scholars and performers from the Beijing Language and Culture University and the National Academy of Theater Arts. The performers were particularly engaging and we were able to discuss a little bit about shared art forms. I am now encouraged to watch some more Chinese films and do some more Chinese reading. Now that my poetry book is finished and I have returned to writing my China books, I found some renewed inspiration for my work.
After a short dedication ceremony at the USC library, my husband, myself, and our guest returned home for a midday break. Usually once we make a 45 minute drive all the way back to Orangeburg from Columbia, there is not much cause to turn around and drive back again for another event but this night was an exception. As part of the celebration, we were invited to return for a free performance of Beijing Opera. That was too nice an opportunity to pass up so we drove all the way back into Columbia for the performance.
The evening Beijing Opera performance by the National Academy of Theater Arts was a spectacular feat of showmanship and artistry with a well-crafted, organized lecture/demonstration. Before the performance of selections from famous operas, the audience was introduced to the traditional musical instruments used in Beijing opera. These instruments included the er hu - a two- stringed bowed instrument held upright and sometimes called by its misnomer "Chinese violin." The others were two percussion instruments; the small gong and percussive clappers, the moon guitar and the suona. (The suona, which sounds somewhat like a crumhorn, is one of my favorite instruments for its vibrant exuberant sound.)
After demonstrating how these musical instruments are played, there was a brief explanation of eye and gesture movements and what they signify. The audience was also introduced to the stock characters of the Beijing opera - the female roles, the young hero, the old sage, the clowns, the warriors. There were interesting subdivisions here. For instance, the female, or Dan roles were further subdivided into warrior woman, young "flower" girl, robust cheerful woman, and old crone. Here is where being a Chinese speaker can be fun and interesting. When the scholar from the National Academy of Theater Arts was introducing the stock female characters, he described the old woman character as "old and ugly." This was transformed by the translator into English as "Well...lets just say that this character is the older woman." Nice homage to American style political correctness here - no one likes to think of their floppy skin as ugly. I suppose its all relative though. And here I was just getting ready to run off to join the opera as the "old crone" character!
The costumes worn by the actors were intensely colorful and elaborately embroidered. Bright red silks with gold trim, elaborately painted faces, bejeweled headdress decked out with long feathers - all enabled the actors to enter the stage with a big bang! And this is where Beijing Opera shines. It is an immediate and sudden transformation onto a higher plane of pure art. And from that higher plane, fundamental truths are revealed about human character in a lively and entertaining way. One feels the pathos and cruelty of war as a general delicately sheds tears into his sleeve for a mother he is prevented from visiting. The sense of suspense is palpable as two men fight each other under the cover of darkness. And a young woman in spring, herself in the flower of youth, softens the heart.
It can be difficult to take everything in at once, because the Beijing opera is concomitantly acting, visual art, dance, marshal acrobatics, poetry and song. In an effort to allow the audience to follow the action, the Chinese characters of the songs were projected onto a screen along with the English translation underneath. One had to keep watching the acrobatics, listening to the music and flitting eyes up and down to the printed words.
In earlier times, I was most attracted to the Beijing Opera for the colorful costumes and the acrobatics. This past weekend, for some reason the poetry and song moved me more. The poetry sung by the warrior character, his face painted black with swirls of white was so beautiful - full of triumphal energy. In a feat of enviable flexibility, he kicked up his heels over his head, singing out a song the last line of which stayed with me well after the performance. The English translation read "I am the one in a million." In perhaps a more literal translation of the pithy Chinese words ( shi wu shuang) he sang out "In the entire world there is no other." The line stayed with me because it reinforced the realization of a miracle in every soul being a unique creation. I am grateful to the Beijing Opera for reminding me of that. Truly, in the entire world there is nothing else quite like it.

1 comment:

Patricia Perrine, PhD, RC said...

Or perhaps it is a statement that he has attained enlightened knowledge that all is one, therefore he is all? Just a more zen interpretation....