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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Disappointment In Theatre Land

Peking Opera is one of those art forms that grows on one. I have to admit that when I first came to Beijing its allure totally escaped me. But after watching CCTV’s Channel 11 with its opera master-classes each morning, and having also attended a couple of performances, I started becoming… well, if not a fan, at least appreciative of some of its finer aspects. So a visit to the Beijing Museum of Traditional Opera seemed a logical step to further my interest.

Alas, I wish I hadn’t bothered.

This museum claims it was the 100th museum to have opened in Beijing. That may or may not be the case, given the myriad museums that have sprung up in the capital… and nowhere can I find anything like a definitive number of museums there are here.

From the outside, the place looks like a common courtyard house with a set of red doors and stone steps leading up to the entrance.

But behind its portals, this place is steeped in history. For it’s the home of the Huguang Guild Hall (湖广会馆) which was built in 1807 and was once home to high-ranking officials in the Qing Dynasty.

Successive ministers during the reign of Emperor Qianlong and Emperor Jiaqing lived here, including Liu Quanzhi and Wang Jie.

Another claim to fame is that Sun Yat-sen, the now-celebrated revolutionary, came here on five occasions, and chaired the first meetings here of the Kuomintang Party on August 25, 1912.

The place also featured Peking opera performances by well known artists of the time, such as Tan Xinpei, Chen Delin, Wang Zhijun, Yu Shuyan and Mei Lanfang.

The local government declared Huguang Guild Hall a culture relic protection site in May 1984, and in December 1986, Zhang Kaiji, a member of Beijing’s CPPCC and Chief Architect of the Municipal Architecture Design Institute, put forward a proposal to reconstruct the Guild Hall into an Opera Museum. The restoration of Huguang Guild Hall was completed in April 1996 and opened to the general public the following month. In September the next year the Traditional Opera Museum was opened.

The place itself apparently has three courtyards, as well as a central opera tower where performances still take place every day. And here’s the rub. If you go to visit the museum, you only get into one room and get to see practically nothing. Instead you are “advised” to buy an expensive ticket for a short performance of Peking opera in the evening when of course you can then go into the guild hall itself and see the rest of the place. Talk about a hard sell! If you turn up in the daytime, expect to be fleeced!

The exhibition showcases the history of opera development in China that includes various relics, picture, costumes and models. To say it is underwhelming would, I think, be an understatement.

You’ll find a few notice boards with a potted history (in Chinese only) of Sun Yat-Sen’s appearances here, as well as famous (or not so famous, if you are a foreigner) people who have passed through its doors.

It has been said that Peking Opera is a harmonious combination of Grand Opera, ballet, martial arts and acrobatic displays. Performances are physically demanding of the artists who have to perform, sing and dance at the same time. It usually takes a student more than ten years of training to learn the requisite skills.

In days gone by, Peking Opera was performed in the open – at markets, teahouses, or temple courtyards. In order to be heard over the crowds, the orchestra was forced to play loudly while the performers had to develop a piercing style of singing, which many in the west have unfairly likened to the sound of a cat being strangled. The stages were lit by oil lamps, but they light these gave out were pretty dim; so the costumes were designed to be gawdy and made to stand out from their garish colours.

Around the walls are a few photographs of some of the famous artists…

And there are also a couple of costumes worn by opera master Yang Xiaolu and props that were used in performances going as far back as the late 19th century. This garment was made of a cloth known as Sculptured Silk and was used in the roles of king, prince or senior military officer.

There is a small, motley collection, too, of models standing in glass cases to give you an idea of what stage performances look like. Here. For instance, is Meng Liang who was a fierce general from the Yang family. In his early years he was a hero of the Green Forest. After that he became a northern general in the Song army.

To bulk out the exhibits, there’s an old wind-up gramophone from the Republic of China period, though even in Chinese we are not informed why it is here and what is its relevance to the rest of the exhibition.

And in 1997 the son of Ma Ying-jeou, who was a former chairman of the KMT, visited the Guild Hall and signed this paper as a souvenir.

Perhaps the nicest things to see on this micro-visit are some old frescoes painted onto the walls of the courtyard immediately outside the museum.

Naturally they feature scenes from operas held here in the past…

… though there is nothing written about what they represent or when they were actually painted.

After 5 minutes (or 10 minutes if you linger in front of every item on display) you have seen everything there is to see.

I guess if you really (really, really) want to see this museum, you should part with the necessary handful of notes and watch a Peking opera performance held inside the Guildhall itself. But if you decide on a whim to visit in the daytime, don’t say you haven’t been warned!

On Beijing subway line 7, go to Hufangqiao Station and take Exit D. Walk for a minute eastbound to the traffic lights, then turn right and the Huguang Guild Hall in on your right.