Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Chinese Opera or Xiqu?

Within days the controversy over the name of the future home to Chinese xiqu at the West Kowloon Cultural District seems to have lost its appeal to public and media attention.

Hardly surprising. Pretty typical indeed, if I may. For one thing, too few of us here find this traditional art form worthy of any concern. Most of us just can't be bothered. For another, as I mentioned in the previous post on this matter, those who made the fuss had their own agenda. The English translation, like many other so-called issues hitting newspaper headlines, is little more than the latest fallen prey to the anti-government rascals.

But as a fan of the art and former student of translation and cultural studies, how to name properly in English this antique gem of China is a worthy and important question. I have been pondering this for quite some time but still can't make up my mind.

Personally I have reservations about "Chinese opera", although it is too prevalent to be discarded, as the recent dispute shows. For those who are not familiar with Chinese culture, the term "Chinese opera" makes great sense because it provides a quick, almost immediate, understanding of what xiqu is. Unfortunately this user-friendly convenience eclipses the unique aesthetic nature of Chinese xiqu, so much so that few people, even Chinese fellows themselves, bother to question whether Western and Chinese "opera" are truly equivalent.

Notwithstanding the importance of vocal singing in both Western opera and Chinese xiqu, there are fundamental differences between them. While vocal singing is vital to Western opera, Chinese xiqu means a lot more than that. Acting, for example, is indispensable. It encompasses facial expressions, body movements (eyes, hands, arms, feet, legs and other parts of the body trunk) and the integrated, seamless manipulation of props and costumes (such as the long sleeves). Depending on the personal skills and preferences of individual actors and actresses, emphasis or priority may be given to any of these elements. But no one can afford to ignore any in order to become truly successful. You never see any reputable actor or actress who possesses some of the required skills but not all. How well they can do in each of those areas is another matter. It may be fair to say that Chinese xiqu is more an integrated package of performing skills than Western opera, in which vocal singing is paramount. This is why "Chinese opera" is far from sufficient in explaining the art form.

Having said that, the phonetic translation of xiqu is equally frustrating. For those who do not speak Mandarin Chinese, or those who are not familiar with the mainland Chinese romanisation system, it makes no sense. There is no hint to what it means and how it is pronounced whatsoever.

Advocates of the phonetic term, however, do have a point. They aspire that Chinese xiqu would one day become something like kungfu, rather than Chinese martial arts. It will stand out on itself, denoting something genuine and unique about Chinese culture. But we have to understand that the prevalence of kungfu was little more than a coincidence, thanks to the sweeping legacy of Bruce Lee, that can hardly be imitated. If we want to make xiqu a new buzzword for the global audience, we need to have in place a rigorous, sustainable, highly integrated and professionally implemented worldwide promotion campaign that will last at least for decades. But the key question is: Who is in the position to develop and oversee this sort of stuff?

In retrospect, the debate over the English name of the Chinese traditional theatre at West Kowloon Cultural District might have been an unwitting challenge to the Western domination of cultural discourse. Despite its obvious shortcomings, the phonetic translation may be considered an attempt to defy the intellectual framework defined, and taken for granted, in Western terms. For more than a century many Chinese people have thought we are inferior to the West. Thanks to the rising economic clout and political influence of China (although many of us are sceptical and even resentful of the communist regime), more of us are now becoming aware that we are on equal footing with any other nation of the world. Our culture is equally respectable and valuable. The blunt refusal to borrow the Western concept of opera to explain something genuinely Chinese already delivers a strong message about the growing self-awareness of the Chinese cultural identity.

Contemplating the choice between "Chinese opera" and "xiqu" also prompted me to recall Zhou Enlai's famous description of the Chinese folklore Butterfly Lovers, "the Chinese Romeo and Juliet". Indeed, anyone who bothers to take a closer look at the plots will realise that the Butterfly Lovers is actually nothing close to Romeo and Juliet. The comparison was somewhat awkward, if ridiculous. But it clicks the Western mind almost immediately. There was a long way to move from "the Chinese Romeo and Juliet" to the "Butterfly Lovers", and certainly it will be a daunting uphill battle to promote "xiqu" among the non-Chinese global audience, when so many of us, ethnic and cultural Chinese, don't really understand what it truly is.

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