Beijing Opera, one of over 300 operatic styles in China, is perhaps the best-known and most widely practiced theatrical tradition in the world. Blending song, dance, declamation and acrobatics, this popular Chinese art form dates to at least the 1600s. Qi Shu Fang is known both in China and in the United States as a master performer. Ms. Qi started studying Beijing Opera at the age of four and later went to the Shanghai Dramatic School. After winning first prize in a competition for rising actors, she was praised by the legendary female impersonator, Mei Lan-Fang. Historically, Beijing Opera had been a masculine art form with female roles played by males, but after 1949 women began to emerge as performers and Qi Shu Fang was central in that movement. During the Cultural Revolution she was picked by Madame Jiang Qing, Chairman Mao's wife, to play the female lead in one of the eight national "model operas" when she was 18 years old. Overnight she became a sensation throughout China. Her reputation as a performer grew due to her facility in martial arts, her riveting acting, and her striking singing. She was awarded the title of "National Treasure of China." Swarthmore College Professor Allen Kuharski says: "From a Western perspective, it would be as if one found the voice and acting of Maria Callas and the athleticism of Rudolf Nureyev in one performer's body." In 1988, she relocated to New York where she formed an opera company. She continues to teach in a community arts center and to perform, recently in such venues as Symphony Space and Lincoln Center. Films of her early performances can still be purchased in video stores in most Chinese communities around the U.S. and it is said that almost anyone from mainland China over 25 years of age can hum arias from her most famous operas.
For twelve centuries Chinese opera, of which there are some 360 distinct regional styles, has conveyed cultural values through art to Chinese people. In 1828 several opera troupes practicing regional from Anhui and Hubei provinces performed together for the Imperial household and also performed locally for the public. This collaboration was the source of musical styles that combined to form Beijing Opera. Over the last 200 years, Beijing opera has drawn in other regional musical aspects and evolved into a dominant style of Chinese opera performed in major cities of China, Taiwan, and in overseas Chinese communities here in the United States. In the 20th century, Chinese opera became a means of mass communication. By the 1950s, schools and institutes took over from troupes and families the role of passing on many artistic traditions, including Chinese opera.
Qi Shu Fang began studying Beijing Opera in Xian at the age of four in 1947 with her sister-in-law, Chang Mei-Chuan, who was a distinguished actress in the role of women skilled in martial arts. When Qi was thirteen years old, she moved to Shanghai to live with other family members who were actors. Her experience in Chinese opera through her family allowed Qi Shufang to enroll in advanced Beijing Opera classes in the Shanghai Theatre School and upon graduation to join the new Shanghai Youth Peking Drama Troupe. By the 1960s, she was already participating in large national festival performances and winning prizes in young actor categories.
The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) had a tremendous impact on Chinese Opera in China. The Ministry of Culture allowed only "model operas," a handful of plays with modern patriotic themes, to be performed. During that time conventional stock opera role-types such as kings, scholars, beauties, were replaced by new revolutionary ones -- heroic peasants, workers, and soldiers fighting evil bandits and enemies. Thousands of stories documenting the real and mythical history of China were banned, and many Chinese opera actors and musicians stopped performing. The government selected gifted and creative artists to fulfill the goals of political ideologists experimenting with art as propaganda. At the age of 22, Qi Shufang was among those select artists expected to perform precisely in modern Beijing revolutionary operas on stage and radio, television and film broadcast. Qi Shufang worked carefully within the dangerous shifting boundaries of political policy and became famous throughout the country. Millions of citizens saw her brilliant performance in "Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy" as the courageous peasant girl, Chang Bao, which means "Constant Treasure."
Political changes brought an abrupt end to authoritarian policies and performances of model operas. Traditional opera repertory and acting came out of hiatus and absorbed some of the stage, film, and television techniques developed during the model opera period. In the 1970s and 80s Qi Shufang performed in productions of traditional Chinese opera in Beijing, Chinese television broadcasts, and on tour to Japan and Europe.
In 1987 she immigrated to the United States. She and her husband, Ding Mei Kuei, began performing immediately with Chinese opera actors and musicians who settled in the New York at Mid-Atlantic region and founded the Qi Shu Fang Peking Opera Company the following year. Qi Shufang is well known and appreciated by Chinese opera lovers in the United States, but she has clearly sacrificed connections, opportunities and ongoing government support by leaving China. Qi Shufang and her company must choose repertory, rehearse in Qi's home in Queens, design and sew costumes, make arrangements for performing space, publicize performances, sell tickets, and then perform on stage at the high level artistry the audience expects. The ensemble also gives demonstrations in schools and communities in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. For twelve years, the company has enjoyed wide acclaim on thinly stretched budgets.
Her former student, now a Board member and the Company Manager, Dr. Cecilia Pang of Northern Michigan University says, "She lives the life of an immigrant and pursues the American dream. Her dream is to continue performing and promoting Beijing Opera in America." Qi Shufang's artistic gift, hard work, personal spirit and dedication to the art of Beijing opera have overcome every obstacle. For Beijing opera in the United States, Qi Shufang has become an American "Constant Treasure."
[The author would like to thank Dr. Pang for her assistance with this article.]