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A Sichuan Opera Artist: Only by Inheriting Our Culture Can We Advance

By LI XINYIICHONGQING|Aug 01,2022

Chongqing– “It is the splendorous traditional Chinese culture that embodies the rich and profound cultural essence of the nation of China. Traditional Chinese culture must be vigorously promoted in the 21st century to enhance national pride and self-confidence.” Ding Li, a Sichuan Opera artist, recently presented his views on promoting traditional Chinese culture in an interview with iChongqing.  

Ding Li, a Sichuan Opera artist (Photo provided to iChongqing)

The key is the cognitive ability and acceptance of art and culture

Since art should be all-embracing, all categories of art must be respected in the field of art, according to Ding Li. “These include hip-hop, rock, musicals, ballets, etc., but they should differ from our traditional culture.”  

As with plays and musicals in other countries, Sichuan Opera has a lot of phraseology. Ding Li argues that actors sometimes do not speak or sing and convey their artistic vision through body language and facial expressions. Ballet, for example, does not use subtitles or singing to express emotions in the same way as traditional Chinese culture. The key to spreading the traditional culture worldwide is not the language but cognitive ability and acceptance of art and culture. Performance repertoires that can be performed overseas need to be discussed to be accepted and understood by the locals. “Your ability to understand the content of the play depends on your cultivation of art,” said Ding Li.  

Sichuan Opera performance during President Yang Shangkun’s visit to Chongqing (Photo provided to iChongqing)

Through neo-Chinese style, Chinese culture can be spread and developed. However, its true traditional roots should remain intact. Whether it is the fusion of opera singing in popular music or the combination of traditional and modern clothing, the premise is that only with traditional content will this new style develop. Dress collocation is an example of when there is knowledge about the clothing and culture behind it; there will be a difference between matching and designed clothes.  

China’s operas are invaluable. Traditional culture should be developed systematically and persistently, not promoted like some film and television dramas that are flashes in the pan. In many film and television dramas, high-rated themes are selected based on statistics of public preferences to improve economic indicators, which negatively impact Chinese traditional culture. “In addition to developing upcoming film and television dramas and new media, we must also cultivate and adhere to true traditional culture,” said Ding Li.  

In 2000, a fragment of the Chinese Opera Spring Festival Gala by CCTV combined the four genres of Peking Opera, Henan Opera, Qin Qiang (Shaanxi Province), and Sichuan Opera. The first on the right is Ding Li (Photo provided to iChongqing)

Establish a Sichuan Opera Base to promote spectacular traditional culture

In 2018, Ding Li began to give lectures in schools, from first grade to middle school to university, teaching Sichuan Opera and spreading traditional Chinese culture. “At first, I thought that the first-grade children could not understand, and then I found that they can understand.” He believed this could be a guiding role from the joining hands of the media, schools, parents, the government, and practitioners to spread traditional culture, starting with children. For example, the cultural publicity in schools can be combined with music classes and extracurricular activities, so traditional culture can be well integrated into the classroom. “It does not occupy the time of main courses since we use leisure time to promote brilliant traditional culture.”

Ding Li, a Sichuan Opera artist (Photo provided to iChongqing)

Chongqing University owns a Sichuan Opera Base. As part of the base’s Sichuan Opera rehearsals, Ding Li and his wife were invited to help. The show was performed immediately in Italy and France through the Confucius Institute, which bridges traditional Chinese culture with the world.  

In the same way, he suggested that another Sichuan Opera Base could be established for schools to effectively deliver traditional Chinese culture that practitioners have learned and mastered. Since the school age is a period when children are interested in learning new things, outside influences are crucial for children to provide correct guidance at the beginning. Ding Li said, “It is also a good thing for me to be able to influence people, whether one or ten.” The spread is rapid because of the power of the present network and new media. “In order to avoid cultural gaps, which are differences between expected and actual cultural norms and values, we need to guide and spread the traditional culture properly to ensure people can learn and understand the ancient Chinese cultural classics.”  

Face-changing performance of Sichuan Opera (Photo provided to iChongqing)

Further development can only occur once the inheritance is achieved

China has a 5,000-year history and many classic cultural heritages. In addition to innovation, Ding Li believes that we can stand out on the world cultural stage if we protect and inherit this 5,000-year-old cultural history.  

According to Ding Li, Chinese people should not blindly follow pop culture, such as K-pop and Japanese anime, because they are constantly updated and changing. He said, “We should inherit what has already existed in our country.” “There should be many century-old brands, which usually die out in about 50 years.” He believes that this is very dangerous for cultural development. However, Japan and South Korea have done a good job of protecting their own traditional cultures. For example, in Kabuki in Japanese (a classical form of Japanese dance-drama), actors and actresses wear colorful kimonos and white oshiroi makeup. The artist communicates with the viewer through a hanamachi (flower path). Furthermore, there are many examples of other countries developing and protecting their traditional cultures.  

The NHK’s (Japan) filming for the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River, a group photo of Ding Li and the director, the left one is Ding Li (Photo provided to iChongqing)

Media, the general public, colleges, and governments must specifically and constantly publicize Chinese traditional culture. Ding Li said, “We cannot introduce whatever is popular. The history of opera is thousands of years old, including Sichuan opera. In the absence of carrying forward and protecting our cultural heritage that is 5,000 years old, how will we be in a position to develop?”  

Despite being in the arts industry for over 40 years, Ding Li remains open to the new media, short videos, immersive art, etc., that young people enjoy. “But I think those art categories are a bit uncurbed and superficial, lacking a deeper cultural meaning.” He believes that many young people cannot wholly comprehend classic operas. “Most of the time, what we learn about another country’s culture is just the tip of the iceberg. Our most important lesson from other countries should be how to preserve and heirloom our own culture. By inheriting our own culture, we can better appreciate and learn from the cultures of others.”

The Sichuan Opera performance on the cruise from Chongqing to Shanghai, the photo with an American friend, the first on the right is Ding Li (Photo provided to iChongqing)

(Deng Yumeng, as an intern, also contributed to this report)

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