Zhang Yan, a delegate to the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and a first-class actress with Sichuan Opera Troupe, is no stranger to audiences. Chinese know Zhang as a heroine in many famous Sichuan Opera performances, including Hibiscus Fairy and Ripples Across Stagnant Water. Her dedication to the performing arts has earned her the China Theatre Plum Blossom Award — the highest theatrical award in China.
Zhang was born in 1975, in Xindu, a county in Chengdu, capital of Southwest China's Sichuan Province. Her grandmother, who loved Sichuan Opera, often took her to the theater. She fell in love with the performing arts, and she longed to perform on stage, in colorful costumes, and with the loud sound of gongs and drums, since early childhood.
In 1984, Xindu Sichuan Opera Troupe recruited young performers. Zhang, then 9 years old, applied and passed the interview. Sixty children were recruited from among the more than 1,000 applicants. "It was my grandmother's love for Sichuan Opera that influenced me, and inspired me to make my career path in the performing arts," Zhang says.
However, it was not always easy. At first, Zhang was excited and thought she was ready for any bitterness. "It was my dream (to perform on stage), so I dared to take on any challenges," she says.
Every day, she got up early and practiced hard. The repeated and boring training almost crashed her pink dreams, and she even cried on her mother's shoulders.
"It is your own decision. Just hang in there, go through the hardships and make your dream come true," her mother told her.
Twenty of the 60 children quit. But Zhang made up her mind to stay, and she kept training hard. She began performing on stage several months later. The intensive training, and performing on stage, equipped Zhang with a wealth of skills and experiences.
In 1988, Zhang was admitted to Sichuan Opera School, in Chengdu, where she devoted herself to performing the role of dan (women) in the opera. After years of severe training, Zhang greatly improved her skills, and she grew into a professional Sichuan Opera performer.
In 1991, Zhang performed the lead in Hibiscus Fairy. It was her first time playing the lead in a Sichuan Opera. Her performance earned her several bursts of applause. "Hibiscus Fairy is one of my most-performed Sichuan Opera plays. Many fans call me 'Hibiscus Fairy,'" Zhang says.
Zhang joined Xindu Furonghua Opera Troupe in 1994, and she starred in many famous Sichuan Opera plays. Zhang, adept at conveying the characters' inner worlds with her eyes, developed her unique performance style, and, due in large part to that style, she has won numerous awards in both national and provincial opera competitions.
"Under the guidance of my teachers, I have made much progress and achievements in my career. I think, as performers, we must immerse ourselves in performing Sichuan Opera, and we must spend more time experiencing the feelings of the characters," Zhang says. In 2008, Zhang joined Sichuan Opera Troupe, in Chengdu.
China Theatre Plum Blossom Award
The China Theatre Plum Blossom Award is the highest theatrical award in China, granted by the China Theatre Association and China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, to honor outstanding young and middle-aged theatrical performers.
Zhang was in the running for the award in both 2014 and 2018, but she failed to win both times. She admitted she felt depressed because she had lost the competition twice. But she chose to stay true to her original heart. "My teachers and colleagues all sent messages and encouraged me to give another try. I was deeply moved, and I regained my confidence. I made up my mind that I would never give up trying," she recalls.
In 2021, Zhang decided to compete for the award for a third time. She chose to play Ripples Across Stagnant Water, which told the story of the ups and downs in a woman's life.
The story took place on the West Sichuan Plain, during the late Qing Dynasty (1616-1911). The heroine, Deng Yaogu, refused to accept her fate, and she bravely chose to pursue her own happiness. The play was first produced in 1996, with famous Sichuan Opera artist Tian Mansha performing the role of Deng. It was a great success at that time.
In 2020, Sichuan Opera Troupe decided to reproduce the play, and invited Tian to be the director. Zhang performed the role of Deng. "I was very young when I first watched the play. The play was amazing, and I loved it so much. Tian's performance left a deep impression on me. I felt a lot of pressure playing the role more than 20 years later," Zhang says. "To carry forward the spirit of the older generation of Sichuan Opera artists, we should practice our own skills, and also innovate to keep pace with the times."
During rehearsals, Zhang gained a clear, and thorough, understanding of the character. She knew only by a perfect combination of singing, chanting and playing with her emotions would she be able convey her own understanding of the role to the audience. Zhang immersed herself in the character of Deng, and her performance proved to be a huge success.
In May 2021, the national contest for the 30th China Theatre Plum Blossom Award was held in Nanjing, in East China's Jiangsu Province. Seventeen performers were up for the award. Finally, Zhang won the prize, for her outstanding performance in Ripples Across Stagnant Water.
"The award was not only recognition of my personal achievement, but also showcased the recognition of and encouragement to Sichuan Opera. The award marked a new starting point in my career. I will keep performing good plays, and inheriting and developing Sichuan Opera, and I will also join hands with my colleagues to open a new chapter of the traditional opera in the new era," Zhang says.
Zhang has been invited to perform Sichuan Opera in several countries, including the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Singapore, France and the United States. "Wherever we went, Sichuan Opera was widely welcomed by foreign audiences, who gave thumbs up for the charm of Chinese opera," Zhang says.
"Sichuan Opera has a century-old history, and has been passed down from generation to generation. It is a shining pearl in the treasure trove of Chinese opera. How can traditional opera regain its glamor in the new era? New opportunities are at hand. We should let more people know about Sichuan Opera, love it and then help revitalize it," Zhang says. In recent years, many works in the performing arts in Sichuan have won various national awards, and that has helped raise the confidence of Sichuan Opera performers, and their fans.
In October 2022, Zhang, who has been a Party member for more than 20 years, attended the 20th CPC National Congress in Beijing. On that occasion, she recorded a short video to express her expectations for the future.
During a group interview on October 22, 2022, Zhang introduced Sichuan Opera to the media. "When it comes to Sichuan Opera, people will think of changing faces. In fact, Sichuan Opera is a rich performance system that includes five kinds of vocal art, and it is among the first group of intangible cultural heritage in our country.
"For a period of time, traditional opera has been facing the problem of how to develop, revitalize, and regain its popularity. The Party and the government have attached great importance to this issue. Since the 18th CPC National Congress, the traditional culture has been well inherited and developed," Zhang said.
In recent years, many artists' studios have been established in Sichuan to create high-quality Sichuan Opera plays, and learning Sichuan Opera has become a new trend on campuses, with many workshops established in primary and middle schools, Zhang noted. Sichuan Opera Troupe has organized numerous activities in schools and communities so more young people can enjoy the art of Sichuan Opera.
Zhang has returned to Sichuan, and she says she can't wait to create more good plays for audiences. "I have the responsibility to convey the spirit of the 20th CPC National Congress to my colleagues, and to other young performers, so we can put the guiding principle into our daily work," Zhang says.
A series of Sichuan Opera plays have been recently staged in theaters in Sichuan Province to celebrate the Spring Festival holiday. Ripples Across Stagnant Water, which starred Zhang, was staged by Sichuan Opera Troupe, and was also broadcast live via a livestreaming app.
During the 2023 Sichuan-Chongqing Spring Festival Gala, Zhang and other performers performed Spring of the Jade Rabbit, which featured the story of Chinese astronauts flying to outer space and exploring the moon. With all the excellent performances during the Chinese New Year holiday, Zhang and the other Sichuan Opera performers delivered happiness and prosperity to hundreds of thousands of families.
Photos Supplied by Interviewee and Sichuan Opera Troupe
(Women of China English Monthly February 2023 issue)
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