Foshan Cantonese Opera by Foshan Museum

Foshan is one of the four famous ancient towns in China, a national historical cultural city, the origin of Cantonese Opera.

The Cantonese Opera, praised by Premier Zhou Enlai as “Red Bean in South China”, is also called Guangdong Opera or Guangfu Opera. It belongs to the Pihuang system, generated with elements of Kun Opera, Yi Opera, Han Opera, Hui Opera, Qin Opera and Xiang Opera, a combination of traditional Chinese cultures and Linnan cultural tastes. Tian Han, the famous opera writer, described the performance of Cantonese Opera as “passionate and sentimental”. With a world remarkable repertoire of 11360 operas, Cantonese reveals the tastes of Linnan culture with rich beautiful tunes, unique costumes and masks, traditional music with nutrients from the local Bayin, Muyu and folk songs, routine operas, and delicate stages.

As early as in Han Dynasty, the performance arts in Foshan were already popular. The records have been discovered showing opera performances in Ming Dynasty like “Miscellaneous Stories” and “Performance in Lunar July Seventh”. The Foshan “Qionghua Guild Hall” was built in the middle period of Ming Dynasty, which was the earliest organization of Cantonese Opera. Nowadays, in the sector of Cantonese Opera, the saying still goes that “Bahe comes after Jiqing, and Jiqing comes after Qionghua”. In Ming Dynasty, the folk performances were very popular in Foshan, when local opera organizations mushroomed. In Jiajing Age (1522~1566), the opera Guild Hall emerged, called Qionghua Guild Hall, located at Dajiwei, Foshan. As this place was also used for offering to the founder of opera “Huaguan”, thus it was also called Qionghua Palace. It was a place for training local opera performers, also an organization for opera troupe management. Along Shuishe near the Guild Hall was erected a stone stele, carved with characters, “Qionghua Ford”. The opera performers went to other places by water from this ford. As a guild of Cantonese Opera, Qionghua Guild Hall had strict management regulations. The Hall consisted of eight chambers, namely Shenhe, Zhaohe, Qinghe, Fuhe, Xinhe, Yonghe, Dehe and Puhe, respectively managing their members. The emergence of Qionghua Guild Hall indicated that Foshan became the center of Cantonese Opera at that time.

At the beginning of Qing Dynasty, the opera activities in Foshan were very popular. With the elements of Cantonese music, folk song melodies, performing and singing in Cantonese, integration of south school of wushu, and musical instruments like gongs, drums and flutes etc, it has become a local opera with popular style, featured with vividness, popularization in language, specialty in tunes and novelty in actions. The Cantonese Opera Teams always took red boat as traffic vehicle for circular performance, thus the performers of Cantonese Opera were also called “Red Boat Folks”.

 According to records, in Foshan there once appeared over 30 opera performance centers. In Qing Dynasty, a poem described: “Prosperous is opera performance, with red boats berthing along beach in the evening. Especially in Tiankuang Festival each year, thousands of audiences come to watch Qionghua.” It shows the popularity of Cantonese Opera performance activities.

In 1854, Fenghuangyi Cantonese Opera performer Li Wenmao and Chen Kaihe, the leader of Guangdong Tiandi Assembly, rose up in Guangzhou, changing the members of several thousand red boats into soldiers, wearing opera costumes and red muffle, called “Red Muffle Army”. The insurrectionary soldiers fought with Cantonese Opera vaulting skills. After capturing Foshan Town, they set Qionghua Guild Hall as headquarter. The insurrection of Cantonese Opera performers led by Li Wenmao is an unprecedented event in the world history of opera.

After defeat of the insurrection, the Cantonese Opera was once prohibited. The performers were scattered to the street or the villages to perform for living, under constant pressure from the officials. Liu Huadong, a Nanhai native, educated the Cantonese Opera performers to perform in the name of “Beijing Opera” in order to dodge persecution by the Qing Dynasty.

In 1868, Governor Rui Lin selected opera teams to celebrate the birthday of his mother. Some famous Cantonese Opera actors like martial role Kuang Xinhua, female role He Zhang (called Goubi Zhang), young martile role Da He, young male role Shi Yelen, male clown Gui Masan and other opera performers were recruited for performance, where He Zhang reversed his role to act as the Princess Yang Guifei, and his excellent performance was highly recognized by the family of the Governor. Then Kuang Xinhua and He Zhang took the opportunity to petition on behalf of the Cantonese performers to the Governor for lifting the ban on Cantonese Opera. In 1869, Lan Yun presented a memorial to the Qing Court for lifting the ban on Cantonese Opera, and then Cantonese opera teams were approved for performance again. Kuang Xinhua and other Cantonese opera performers advocated establishment of Bahe Guild Hall in Guangzhou with the name containing the meaning of “peace at every direction” to replace Qionghua Guild Hall in Foshan. As a result, the center of Cantonese opera activities was moved to Guangzhou, and Foshan became the switching center for circular performance of opera teams.

Most of the cultural celebrities of Cantonese opera were from Foshan. In recent one hundred years, such celebrities include Huang Luyi and Zhang Shiming around the Revolution of 1911, who made important renovation to Cantonese opera, great masters Sit Gok Sing, Ma Si Tsang and Bai Jurong, and famous performers like Li Xuefang, Jiang Hunxia, Xin Zhu, Li Haiquan and Liang Yintang etc, who have played an important role in the formation and development of Cantonese opera. Before the Revolution of 1911, Huang Luyi, together with others, established Zhishi Team to make reforms to Cantonese opera and train the performers. The Cantonese actor Li Wenfu also participated in the Huanghuagang Uprise. At the beginning of the 1920s, the rise of Shenggang Team with “masters of Sit Gok Sing and Ma Si Tsang ” promoted reform and prosperity of Cantonese opera. The Cantonese opera has enjoyed great development after foundation of the People's Republic of China. Since the implementation of reform and opening, the Cantonese opera has played an increasingly important role in the people's spiritual demands and the foreign cultural exchange.

After several hundred years of development, now Cantonese Opera is popular in Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, also extensively spread to Asia, America, Australia, Europe and Africa together with the overseas Cantonese, becoming the most influencing opera with most audience abroad, an important component of world culture.

After foundation of the People's Republic of China, the Cantonese Opera has maintained good development due to its popularity in Foshan. The Cantonese opera performers in Foshan have created over 40 modern operas that are very popular. In 1963, Team one of Foshan Youth Cantonese Opera Troup performed “Four Fat Chickens” in Guangzhou for Premier Zhou and was praised by Premier Zhou. Since the implementation of reform and opening policy, the Cantonese opera in Foshan has been further promoted. Foshan Youth Cantonese Opera Troupe has created a list of new operas like “King Shunzhi and Princess Dong Efei”, “Iron Blood of Opera Performer”, “Beauty's Sadness”, “Foshan Huang Feihong” and “Xiaozhou Hou”, which won several prizes in national and provincial artistic contests. In this year, Li Shuqin, the vice director of Opera Troupe and a leading female role player, won the 21 st Meihua Award, a prize for Chinese opera. In the cultural exchanges with foreign countries and with Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, the Cantonese opera performers in Foshan have played important roles. In 1981, Foshan Youth Cantonese Opera Troupe visited Macao for its debut of commercial performance. To date, they have carried out over 30 performances in the USA, Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. Besides, they once created the record of 28 continuous performances with full audience. It is one of the most popular Cantonese opera troupes among the overseas audience.

For years, the folk performances of Cantonese operas are very active in Foshan. According to statistics, there are over 400 amateur Cantonese opera and Cantonese music bodies, with over 5000 members, giving over 6000 performances each year.

In December 2003, the Municipal Government held the Cantonese Opera Culture Week under the theme of “Charm of Foshan from Qionghua”. Up to 90 opera leaders and experts from the Capital and other provinces and cities came to Foshan to discuss the development of contemporary operas. The Culture Week was featured with performance of new operas by Foshan Youth Cantonese Troupe, famous operas by famous performers, appreciation of famous Cantonese music by famous performers, tryout of top ten folk Cantonese music singers, series of activities of “Opera of Wanfu Platform” in Zumiao, Foshan, and exhibition of historical materials of Cantonese opera, which attracted Cantonese performers from Hong Kong and Singapore and other places to perform Cantonese operas on Wanfu Platform with English, Portugal and Malay. That event was an unprecedented cultural entertainment for domestic and overseas Cantonese fans, and contributed to integration of resources, promotion of the art of the Cantonese opera, discovery and training performers and fostering the young generation of audience and creation of featured brand in the process of construction of cultural famous city.

The Provincial Committee, Provincial Government and Provincial Department of Culture have attached great importance and support to the Cantonese Opera development in Foshan. On December 17, 2003, Guangdong Cantonese Opera Art Theatre, organized by Guangdong Cantonese Opera Theatre and Guangdong Cantonese Opera School, was established in Nanhai District, Foshan. Recently, Guangdong Provincial Department of Culture and Foshan People's Government decide to set the Cantonese opera Qionghua Prize, aimed to further promote growth of Cantonese Opera artists. The above measures will have promoted development of Cantonese Opera in Foshan.

The “Charming Foshan · 2004 Qionghua Cantonese Opera Art Festival” held from August 28 to September 23 of 2004, the, was an unprecedented assembly of Cantonese opera in the history of Cantonese Opera in Foshan or even in the whole Guangdong Province.

copyright of Foshan Museum