Peking Opera, having always boasted an excellent reputation as the “National Opera”, is a form of artistic expression that possesses unmatched beauty. When the opera troupes of Anhui entered Beijing, they intermingled with the Kunqiang and Hubei opera troupes, so that “Pihuang” gradually became the primary form of performance, which incorporated the essence of the singing from local operas such as Kunqu, Sichuan, Bozi, and Nanluo, eventually going on to become the quintessence of Chinese culture. In the two centuries that followed, theaters began to flourish all over China, with countless repertoires and famous artists appearing. Among them, the Mei school of art created by Mr. Mei Lanfang has never waned. Its influence spread far and wide, and even became famous overseas.
Mei Lanfang was born in Beijing in 1894, though his ancestral home was Taizhou. Born into a family of famous actors, he learned from his family members and also from many teachers and went on to become a pioneer of the newly emerging dan (a female role) actor genre in the early 20th century. His performance style was rigorous and refined yet elegant and beautiful, appearing reserved but actually full of complexity: his singing was exquisite, pure and full; his spoken lines were delivered in a sweet but rich voice, strong but not rough. The Mei Lanfang art school he founded subverted the previous Peking Opera style of having the laosheng (an aged male role) as the main focus and created a new era by dividing the main focus equally between the laosheng role and the dan role, which was imitated by others in the opera world.
On stage, Mei Lanfang presented two images: “One is showing, the other is being shown.” “Showing” is the actor himself, and “being shown” are the characters in his operas. What Mei “was showing” were artistic creations full of Oriental elegance, and one can appreciate the beauty and rhythm conveyed by his singing and dancing; at the same time, there was also a kind of “hidden” magic that transformed the actor into the mortal body of thousands of opera characters and brought them to life on stage. Actors and characters can become one, and with their myriad rehearsed movements, actors can create a highly animated character, “pull” themselves out of the character’s body at any time, and “look at themselves and their performances with astonished eyes.” This is the charm of Peking Opera and Chinese opera in general. As a pioneer in the overseas dissemination of Peking Opera art, he visited Japan, the United States, the Soviet Union and other countries many times, demonstrating the unique value of Chinese opera in the world’s great houses of art. He made positive contributions to exchanges and mutual learning between the Chinese and foreign civilizations.
The preciousness of Mei Lanfang’s art lay not only in his unique talent and hard work, but also in his progressive ideology, his political ideals and loyalty to the nation. From the contemporary costume dramas that broke feudal superstitions and feudal ethics after the May 4th Movement, such as A Strand of Hemp and The Tide of Officialdom, to the historical dramas that inspired the fighting spirit of the whole nation, such as Impossible Love and Resisting the Jin Troops in the early days of the War Against Japanese Aggression, the Mei Lanfang opera troupe was always in step with the changes of the times and the ups and downs of the country. After the full-scale outbreak of the War Against Japanese Aggression, Mei refused to join forces with the collaborationists and abet the Japanese, so he and his family went to live in exile in Hong Kong and then in Shanghai. He stopped singing and dancing and grew a moustache for eight years to express his inner feelings. During this period, he relied solely on pawning and selling his paintings. At this time of national crisis, he showed great integrity and dignity, “preferring death over living in disgrace.” In the 1950s, Mei started a new artistic life, innovating the old and bringing forth the new, seeking to create “literature and art for the people,” building a drama performance system with deep national characteristics, and completing his transition from “king of the opera world” to an artist of the people, becoming a literary and art worker with a high degree of cultural self-confidence.
General Secretary Xi Jinping has emphasized that “the broad and profound Chinese civilization is the unique spiritual identity of the Chinese nation, the foundation of contemporary Chinese literature and art, and a treasure of literary and artistic innovation.” The stage image created by Mr. Mei Lanfang throughout his life was a beautiful dream rooted in the outstanding traditional Chinese culture, with ultimate perfection and beauty. He portrayed the ups and downs of life in contemporary and ancient times; with various characters that exhibited emotions that audiences could relate to.
“Peking Opera Maestro Mei Lanfang: His Art, His Life,” jointly organized by the National Museum of China, Mei Lanfang Memorial Museum and the Taizhou Municipal People’s Government, showcases precious cultural artifacts and documents related to Mei Lanfang’s artistic life. It thus fully demonstrates the artistic creations of Mr. Mei Lanfang in different historical periods through a panoramic lens, allowing visitors to experience the personal charm and moral demeanor of this master of a generation up close, and to savor the love of life and strength of spirit contained in the works of the Mei School of Peking Opera art.
We sincerely hope that through this exhibition, we can encourage all Chinese people, including many literary and art workers, to become deeply concerned with the great cause of national rejuvenation, tell the Chinese story with love and vigor, and enthusiastically depict the grand atmosphere of the new era and new journey of socialism with Chinese characteristics.
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