Bangzi


Bangzi
(Clapper opera)
regional Xiqu (sung-drama/opera) genre
Bangzi is a major style of opera prominent in northern, western and central China in several dozen regional genres. Originally designating a pair of woodblock percussion instruments marking the main beat, the term defines by metonymy genres based on a modular system of arias known as bangziqiang or ‘melodies for Bangzi’. The arias are composed in modes both melodic and rhythmic. Melodies are essentially heptatonic with lyrics structured in parallel distichs of seven or ten characters that often start on the second part of the main beat. Arias also incorporate extra ornamented and melismatic phrases like the shisan hai, a series of thirteen vocables which highlight singing skills in Hebei bangzi. Bangzi music consists also of traditional ‘labelled melodies’ (qupai) and folk melodies, along with instrumental interludes and percussion patterns. Bangzi operas share the two-string fiddle (banhu) as the lead melodic instrument and large portions of repertory.
The characteristically high-pitched, loud and animated ‘sound’ of Bangzi music conjures up its folk roots and the harsh open spaces of its north-western origins. Interpretation also thrives in tragic and highly emotional scenes. Individual dialects, particular artistic idiosyncrasies and repertoire provide for the diversity of genres. Qinqiang from Shaanxi provides an outstanding example of the versatile rhythmic forms and colours that can be found in Bangzi modes, with its ‘happy sound’ (huanyin) and ‘sad sound’ (kuyin). Bangzi’s modular system of arias brought a major artistic innovation to Chinese opera, since its musical/poetic units could easily be rearranged from one play to the next, allowing for more flexibility than the music of earlier opera genres.
The accessibility, local flavour and emotional impact of Bangzi facilitated its broad expansion. Its earliest forms, Qinqiang and Puzhou bangzi, were born three and half centuries ago around the Shaanxi and Shanxi areas. Through exposure to other cultures during their progression, they absorbed local dialects, artistic features and new plays, thereby creating new genres. The Qing dynasty (1644–1911) marks the years of prosperity for Bangzi, during which it penetrated to Sichuan, Henan, Shandong, Hubei, Anhui, Zhejiang, and even further south, to form separate genres or influence other operas. By the late eighteenth century, the style reached Beijing, Tianjin and the surrounding Hebei province. Supported by rich merchants and bankers from Shaanxi and Shanxi and appreciated by the lower classes, including peasants, what would later become Hebei bangzi took root successfully in the area.
Bangzi’s traditional repertory, adapted from historical novels, folk stories or oral literature, exceeds several thousand plays. Qinqiang’s ‘Yisu she’, a progressive theatrical institution created by intellectuals in Xi’an ‘to make changes in customs and traditions’, as its name indicates, has spearheaded the renewal of Bangzi repertoire since 1912. Their 1977 creation of The Xi’an Incident (Xian shibian), depicting the 1936 kidnapping of Chang Kai-Shek on a visit to Xi’an by mutinous troops in order to force him to form a united front with the Communists against Japan, illustrates how new productions can use a significant moment in China’s recent history to serve a didactic purpose. The standard repertoire has undergone successive revisions in the 1930s, 1950s or 1980s, and plays inspired by classic drama in which the heroine achieves retribution, such as The Injustice to Dou E (Dou E yuan) and Qin Xianglian, have remained popular. Contemporary adaptations of world classics like Shakespeare or Greek tragedies have toured abroad; Hebei bangzi’s Medea has been performed in Athens and at La Scala in Milan in the 1990s.
The future prospects of genres like Hebei bangzi is hard to predict. Despite the recent national and international acclaim of actresses like Pei Yanling (b. 1947), known as the demon-queller Zhong Kui on stage and screen, and the effort to adapt the singing so that male parts can join female roles in duets, dwindling resources have led many actors to turn at least partially to other professions. Hebei bangzi’s audiences have shrunk, and its most loyal base is now to be found in the countryside. Qinqiang has fared rather well throughout the twentieth century, as has Yuju opera from Henan, thanks to its accessible language and melodies.
ISABELLE DUCHESNE

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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