Ganju Opera's enduring legacy passes on

Chen Li ignites youth interest with hands-on teaching style

By ZHAO RUINAN in Nanchang | China Daily
Updated: June 8, 2024
Chen Li performs the classic Ganju Opera The Red Pearl, which has been staged more than 100 times in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities nationwide. 
[Photo provided to China Daily]

On March 22 at 6:50 pm, just 10 minutes before a Jiangxi Opera appreciation class was scheduled to begin, the lecture hall at Nanchang University in Jiangxi province was already packed with over 100 people.

More students and online followers continued to pour in, prompting Chen Li from the university's Culture and Art Center of Jiangxi Opera to relocate the class to a larger venue.

Chen has taught the course for many years, focusing on the history, melodies and performance characteristics of Jiangxi Opera. The performance art is also known as Ganju Opera, adopting Jiangxi's nickname.

The class recently gained popularity among young students. Chen's teaching style, which combines traditional lecturing with live performances, sets her class apart.

To spark enthusiasm from her students, Chen decided to dress in a costume and transform the classroom into a stage for a performance. Wearing traditional garments and wielding water sleeves immerses the students in the world of Jiangxi Opera.

Chen devotes her energy to giving her students an interactive adventure. "I invite my students to come to the stage and experience the whole performance process for themselves," Chen said.

"To capture the students' attention, it's important to teach in ways they enjoy," Chen added.

Chen Li teaches a Ganju Opera appreciation class at Nanchang University in April in Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi province. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Historical roots

Ganju Opera has deep historical roots. During the 1950s and 60s, it thrived in Leping city with more than 400 ancient stages, over 20 percent of which were well-preserved from the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911). In 2001, Ganju Opera was recognized as a national intangible cultural heritage. Chen is the inheritor of the Ganju Opera.

Zhou Xiaoli, a freshman at the university, once wore a costume and performed in Chen's class. She found Chen's interactive teaching method captivating and developed a keen interest in traditional art.

"It was a first-time experience for me and my classmates, so everyone was very excited. When the teacher demonstrated the movements, her every expression and action carried the charm of traditional culture," Zhou said.

"We didn't know much about Ganju Opera before, but this fresh and interesting class made me love it."

In early March, a student posted a video clip of the first class on the short video platform Douyin, and it quickly went viral. Many people from outside the university also joined the class.

"We never expected the class to become so popular. For a class that began at 7 pm, many would arrive at 5:30 pm, and finding a seat became a challenge," Zhou said.

Chen performs the classic Ganju Opera, The Red Pearl. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Chen, also a national first-class actress, won the Chinese Drama Plum Blossom Award, the country's top honor for opera and drama, at the age of 22 in 1990.

In 2018, Chen performed in the Spring Festival Gala with other opera artists. It was Jiangxi Opera's first appearance on the Gala stage in 35 years.

"As a representative figure in Jiangxi Opera, I need to think more about the future of the art form," Chen said.

Talent drain

Due to evolving market demands and the influence of fast-paced entertainment, Ganju Opera faced a significant talent drain over the past decade.

In 2005, Nanchang University established the Culture and Art Center of Jiangxi Opera and appointed Chen as the head.

In 2010, she brought several members of the Jiangxi Ganju Opera Theatre to teach and study traditional art at the university.

Chen's role hence changed after joining Nanchang University. "Now I perform and teach. I need to think carefully about practical aspects and elevate them to a theoretical level," Chen said.

"The university has tremendous educational resources and research teams. I want to fully utilize this platform, work closely with experts, and involve students actively to better promote Ganju Opera."

Chen instructs students in the art of performing spear tricks at a rehearsal room in Nanchang University in April. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Future, hope

Over the past decade, Chen has devoted her energy to integrating Ganju Opera into people's lives and finding ways to popularize it.

"To make Ganju Opera popular, we must attract young people," Chen said. "With their support, Ganju Opera has a future and hope. If young people don't understand or like it, how can Ganju Opera survive and be passed down?"

Chen walks the walk. The class's increasing popularity is a far cry from its humble beginnings when students seldom attended. One of her strategies was to apply for school funding to create an online course with a professional team featuring multimedia resources to catch attention.

She then merged the class with stage performance. "In the online course, students learn theory; in the offline course, they listen to and participate in opera," she said.

Wang Shihuai, a student majoring in performance at the university, was also impressed by Chen's class.

"At first, I thought the teacher would use videos to teach, but she personally demonstrated with props, involving everyone. Chen's classes intrigued me to Ganju Opera," Wang said. "I was told that I would have more systematic courses to learn Ganju Opera movements in the next semesters. I will definitely seize the opportunity to study the traditional art form and appreciate its charm."

Such a course, Wang said he believes, enhances everyone's understanding and love for traditional culture and raises societal awareness of it.

Chen said that many universities offer cultural arts courses, "but they often just cover textbook knowledge without showcasing traditional culture in an engaging way."

"I think it's time to change. For example, when teaching The Peony Pavilion, the drama masterpiece written by Tang Xianzu in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), I start by discussing the background of the character Du Liniang, her occupation, and attire, then teach students to perform her classic movements in the drama."

"I believe I've found a way for students to recognize, accept, and love traditional opera," Chen said.

Chen has also been working to introduce Ganju Opera to the world stage. In 2009, she brought it to Europe, starring in The Injustice to Dou E in Paris to great acclaim.

"When the performance ended, the French audience applauded for over 10 minutes. As a Chinese opera performer, I felt so proud," Chen said.

Chen said that Jiangxi Opera performances could promote cultural exchanges between China and other countries. "So far, the Ganju Opera Theater of Jiangxi province has created many performances for international guests, aiming to introduce Jiangxi and better tell China's stories on the global stage," she said.

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