Stage Fright 7

The Uncertain Future of Grassroots Chinese Opera

How will China save its vanishing local operas?

Everyone used to know when Pei Guansheng’s opera troupe came to town. In the late 1970s and early 80s, his 50 performers would tour across northwestern China’s Gansu and Shaanxi provinces, sometimes performing up to three shows a day to rapt audiences who sat on stools from dawn to dusk.

Back then, opera was “the most widespread form of entertainment,” says Pei, whose troupe, which he managed until 1984, specialized in a form of opera called Qinqiang. “Everyone could hum a little bit from famous works.”

But today, Qinqiang, like other forms of traditional opera in China, is fighting for its life. “What the smartphone is doing now to television, is the same as what television did to opera,” says Pei. While the government has labeled traditional opera as “cultural heritage” and funneled funding into training new artists and supporting troupes, much of the money has gone toward Peking opera, called “China’s national opera” by the State Council, the country’s cabinet. That has left hundreds of lesser-known regional and local varieties struggling to find audiences and new performers.

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The Uncertain Future of Grassroots Chinese Opera is a story from our issue, “Upstaged.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


author Alex Colville

Alex Colville is the former culture editor at The World of Chinese. Blown to China by the tides of curiosity, then marooned here by the squalls of Covid, Alex used to write for 1843, The Economist, and the Spectator from the confines of a cold London flat. When he’s not writing for TWOC, he can be found researching his bi-weekly column for SupChina from the confines of his freezing Beijing hutong.

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