“Finding the Spirit of China” Qinxin Tian: Contemporary Chinese Opera Storyteller
Feature picture: Tian Qinxin's speech in the "China is Saying" program of Fujian Southeast TV. (Source: Photo courtesy of the program group)
When it comes to telling Chinese stories, spoken drama has its unique role to play. To meet the changes of the times, Chinese spoken drama has reached a new historical stage. A group of cutting-edge directors are exploring Chinese forms of expression by studying traditional Chinese culture. Their understanding of art and beauty has introduced them to modernity and helped to establish a distinct stage language. One of them is a leader who will go from the backstage to the front desk today and tell us how she expresses her art form in a new China and how she tells a new Chinese story.
Tian Qinxin's speech in the "China is Saying" program of Fujian Southeast TV.
Narrative aesthetics: China's view of drama is very relaxed
Tian Qinxin: Chinese culture has a temperament of moderation and a temperament of neutrality, which is paradoxical. The stories we write in the creation of drama are all integrated with the Chinese temperament, and a freehand spirit. China is a great country of poetry, and our drama should be based on singing and dancing, which is what Mr. Wang Guowei said. employ poetic device (in opera) to express the soul of life in an artistic way. The Chinese are actually very expressive, so our art expresses this flow of life.
Chinese drama ranges from pre-Qin and Han dynasty Bai opera and Tang dynasty army stories, to Song and Yuan dynasty Zaju and Kun Opera over 600 years ago, and Beijing Opera over 200 years ago. The way the Chinese watch drama is influenced by the neutral beauty of Confucianism, the cultural spirit of Taoism’s transcendence and emptiness, as well as the exaggerated facial expressions of Chu and Sao culture. Some are also influenced by the artistic conception in Zen, just like Chinese traditional paintings. Thus, one may argue that China's view of drama is very laid-back.
Chinese believe “no pain no gain.” Although the structure is relaxed, the inside is rigorous, which takes time to build. Chinese art and its culture are filled with the spirit of the Chinese people. That’s to say, the diligence is inside our bones.
Chinese art is profound. The spirit of Chinese art are purely to be literary, to learn and to develop as a person. Only in this way, will we be able to see Chinese art and its culture and ultimately, to understand it. I think education in China is still problematic. In the all-round Western cultural trend of thought of the 1980s, we felt that everything in the West was good, but without this "stomach", we it swallowed whole. [Yet], I am Chinese, and I have Chinese blood, nerves, and muscles. I am in a country with a 5000-year-old civilization. As a Chinese, I feel happy, safe, and self-confident. Only when Chinese people know that they are Chinese can they employ Chinese expressions. Therefore, in our film and television drama works, the creators must acknowledge that they are Chinese. In addition, we have to absorb and be open to the world and technology and learning, then we can do our own things well.
Structural aesthetics: "Big Production" is an exploration towards the world
The opera Survive or Die created in 1999 employed a variable and mobile stage structure that was inspired by Chinese opera. Before the production, I thought there might be some actual scenes in a countryside opera. But I didn’t use actual scenes. Instead, I followed the idea of impressionistic art that has been practised in Chinese opera. So, the spirit of Chinese opera was reflected throughout the performance, which gave an immediate focus. And it received a positive response from audience when it was staged.
It was also endorsed by many contemporary literature researchers who hadn’t expected such a strong expressiveness from Chinese opera. This is down to traditional Chinese opera, but it was presented in a modern way. I exercised a cinema-like structure (in this opera) but it was an extraction of the aesthetic of Chinese opera.
After that, Orphan of Zhao was my second piece. It was a very Chinese story which was presented in a western structure. The stage structure adopted a German expressionism style. I was studying western stage art at that time. So, I decided to use a big window frame, place a door in the middle and segment the stage. I chose a colour of German red rather than Chinese red, that is what we called at that time ‘a posh red’.
The poetic character was also infused into the performance. To be honest, we were just playing out without following any logic. Chinese spoken drama has been evolving for more than a century. We are still in the process of exploring. The stage structure in traditional opera was simple.
Now, we can see modern western theatre style has migrated to China. There are big theatres in almost every Chinese city, with a large stage and high dome - Chinese are small in size, it just looks physically disproportionate. This is not an impressionistic space for Chinese art. There are many arguments over how to achieve a structural (stage) engineering in such a modern theatre. Some suggest “luxury performance”, others disagree the idea.
I think we should look at this debate from an objective perspective. Stage engineering is part of the process of exporting Chinese opera, and so is the structural aesthetic.
Just like the movie Wandering Earth. Why it won such a high box-office? Technology has caught up with Hollywood, which is cheerful. Chinese opera should keep up pace with the world’s too if it’s not taking a lead.
A miracle in modern society: I look forward to a better Chinese opera
As an artist, what do I need to be reminded of is what the new generation is? It’s not an era which we just physically enter but where people’s mindsets are still behind. This is a generation where we are supposed to present Chinese stories with a more internationalised vision. I believe this is what contemporary artists should be doing, whether it’s TV drama production or opera.
I had been to Baise in Guangxi province with the Department of Culture and Tourism. I met a master student from Tsinghua University there. He told us, “You are from Beijing. I was studying in Beijing for seven years. Seeing you here, I feel like seeing my family.” I asked what he was doing then, he said he was the first secretary of a village in Baise. Our scriptwriters were extremely curious about why he had chosen to help poverty alleviation here and why he had been the first secretary. He said his grandfather died on the battlefield during the War to resist US aggression and Aid Korea. He had never experienced any historic moments like founding of the People’s Republic of China or the Chinese economic reform. Now, here comes poverty alleviation, he believes this is a world’s miracle that he should devote himself to.
I have been working on an opera called On the Way of Poverty Alleviation. How to do realistic stories? Go back to the old route? We visited scenes three times, which took us seven days, covering 26 sites across Baise. We saw the image of many villages have come out of poverty.
We also gathered substantial materials to establish the character of the first secretory. We want it to be as real and natural as possible. We want to show “the miracle of China” through a young Communist Party member. You can see the image of a new generation of Chinese Party member from him. We want audience across the world to see this Chinese story.
China is a country with a 5000-year civilisation while it is showing the world a different image with its new looks. The world is looking at us from people’s appearance to the nation’s development and more importantly, our spirits. We need a national soul that carries our physical existence. We have a good friend – that is art. We can enrich ourselves by appreciating many other artworks, through which, we can also have a better conversation with our own life.
So, what I look forward to, is a better Chinese opera that delivers a more comprehensive message, with more techniques and that is more delicately produced, which can take Chinese opera into the world’s opera.
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