The idea of kicking off the upcoming Year of the Monkey with a series of Peking Opera performances of the Monkey King is too perfect to resist. And only Peking opera star Yan Qinggu was suitable for the titular role.
With a fan base that stretches across the globe, he doesn’t hide his excitement about playing a character who continues to inspire hit films and television shows in China.
“The Monkey King is such a classic and unique romantic character who can easily connect with audiences, regardless of their culture,” he says. “He is like Batman or Superman whose existence as a vigilante allows them to reach criminals when the law can’t. The Monkey King is an almighty force.”
As a protégé of the legendary Zheng Fanxiang, who set the bar for performing as the Monkey King in southern China, Yan explains that the character must capture the essence of magnificence and grace.
“There are certain rules to follow to bring out this figure,” he says before demonstrating. “You have to relax your body, let your shoulders and elbows down while concentrating all your energy at the waist. That should be the engine that leads every move.”
While he routinely astounds audience with his agile yet graceful movements, Yan recalls how awkward his early training was. At 11 years old, he began to learn the art of being a wusheng – an acrobatic role in Peking opera that often depicts young warrior characters.
“If you watched the movie Farewell, My Concubine, you’ll get an idea of what our lives are like as opera actors” he says.
Though it wasn’t as life-threatening as depicted in the film, Yan recalls his childhood as a time of being nauseous from countless summersaults and painful stretching. As one of the few protégés of Zheng’s performing, Yan understands why fewer people are learning the art form.
“It’s tedious, extremely physically demanding and doesn’t promise any fortunes,” he admits. “Hardly any parents nowadays would send their kids to suffer for Peking Opera.”
The situation is even worse for the wusheng roles, with most people interested in learning to become a dan – the singing role popularized by Mei Lanfang and predominantly depicting women.
His concerns were echoed last month by The Guardian, which described the Peking Opera industry as “less a career than a calling,” when covering the National Peking Opera Company’s recent visit to England.
“Things are more optimistic in Japan compared to China,” he says. “To be honest, the environment is more supportive there. It’s a pity, but we tend to shut this homegrown art form out.”
As a performer, Yan is taking on the challenge of introducing the art form to a new generation.
“It only feels strange if you’ve never seen a show,” he says. “Each flamboyant costume and movements tell a story. While it’s not as easy to understand as other forms of pop culture, it’s an art that has stood the test of time.”
> Fri Jan 1, 1.30pm, RMB 80-580. 701 Fuzhou Lu, by Yunnan Zhong Lu 福州路701号，近云南中路