Higher Wages, Less Pain: The Changing Role of Children in Traditional Chinese Theater
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One scene in Chen Kaige’s1 remarkable film, Farewell My Concubine, summarizes the powerful grasp that traditional Chinese theater once had on the imaginative lives of young people—both future performers and spectators alike. Two boys have deliberately run away from their Beijing Opera school, determined to escape the constant beatings and almost inhuman training regime. They race through the back streets of the city, eating forbidden snacks and enjoying their newfound freedom. As if by chance, they stumble into a bustling theater. With a sudden and earsplitting cacophony, the performance begins. Blaring reeds, metal gongs, percussive mallets on wooden blocks, and tautly wound string instruments break the silence with a decided clap of sound as an army of actors carrying banners fills the stage. Then, in a spectacular display of almost superhuman ability, another actor clothed in a vibrant-colored silken gown enters, performing repeated backflips with increasing speed. Suddenly the lead actor enters. His painted face—a remarkable pattern of lines, shapes, and hues—seems already otherworldly as he too adds to the visual and aural excitement, belting out a piercing introductory statement to begin the narrative and amplify the cacophony of sound and spectacle already swelling the space. The boys, jostled behind a large crowd in the back of the theater, squirm to get a better look.
KeywordsHigh Wage Corporal Punishment Cultural Revolution Traditional Theater Recent Graduate
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