Dang Zhongxin: Breathing New Life into an Antique Opera

Dang’s fondest memory is of a story told by his father. In the spring of 1949, ordinary folk from his village organized the first Hop show in years to celebrate the end of the war and liberation of the region. It was warmly welcomed by a big audience including PLA soldiers and local farmers. “Whenever he remembered that time, my father would recreate the spectacle of that celebration excitedly and in vivid detail. And from that moment, I dreamt that I would one day perform the opera as well,” recalled Dang.

From a young age, Dang would accompany his father to rehearsals. At the performances, he and other young admirers would stand close to the stage, intently watching every move. There wasn’t much in the way of entertainment in rural China back then, so the opera was a big delight. Dang would even skip meals and naps to watch it. “Sometimes the show would last five to six hours. The longest could even take nearly a whole day and night. Even then, I still insisted on watching every scene to the very end,” Dang recalled. “If I got hungry, I would grab a steamed bun but never leave my spot near the stage.”

It was at these early performances that Dang started copying what he saw. His talent and perseverance helped him to stand out from the crowd. His first performance opportunity came one day when one of the actors quit suddenly. Dang jumped at the chance to fill the spot and was welcomed by the rest of the troupe. “The reception for my first performance was not bad and the experience only increased my love for the opera.” Dang was only 10 years old.

He went on to serve an apprenticeship under the famous opera artist Dang Yunlong. In 1964, 17-year-old Dang appeared in a government video. By then, he had already become a leading actor on the scene.


Scripts Salvaged

As with most dramatic art forms, the script is the foundation for the performance. Most Hop scripts were originally hand-written editions passed on from generation to generation. Under the protection of a designated guard, the opera scripts were not allowed to circulate freely among the performers and were only taken out from under lock and key at rehearsals. What’s more, the actors were only given their specific lines and dance routines, which meant that often, they wouldn’t know the complete contents of the script until performance day.

There were once more than 500 volumes of Hop scripts in Xingjiazhuang. But less than 300 had survived the ravages of war by the time the PRC was founded in 1949. During the “cultural revolution” from 1966 to 1976 large numbers of antique paintings and literary works were burnt as symbols of feudalism. Hundred-year-old opera scripts were marked for destruction, without exception. A critical turning point for the future of Hop Opera occurred as Dang was standing before the cultural pyre in his village. Overcome with a sense of pity for the precious scripts that had been protected for centuries, Dang rushed to the fire when nobody was looking and rescued the scripts before they were burnt to cinders. He salvaged about 30 volumes, among them, the oldest copy, The Agate Cup, was the original edition from 200 years ago.

His recollections over, Dang retrieved a box from his bedside cabinet that he carefully held out to show us. Inside the box was a pile of yellow, rough straw paper – the scripts: Some of the brush-written characters were fading, some of the script cover pages were damaged, and some scripts still had obvious burn marks. Dang’s rescued scripts are the only original Hop Opera editions that survive today, and as such, they form the foundation of the future of this time-honored art.

After the “cultural revolution,” Xingjiazhuang resumed its Hop performances. To improve the performance conditions, during his tenure as the village head Dang raised funds for the local troupe to acquire a number of storage trunks, costumes, props and other performing essentials. To ensure the old art would be passed on, he championed apprenticeships at the village troupe, which have successfully cultivated dozens of young opera actors in the village.

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