Learning Resources
Experimenting China - realising traditions
Danny Yung


Placing traditional performing arts in a museum is not the best way to preserve them, unless the definitions and roles of museums and similar cultural organisations are given a complete makeover. Traditional performing arts are living arts, which can only be preserved and fully developed through the creativity of their practitioners. This is the true form of transmission. Currently, the roles and definitions of most museums are too old fashioned, and cannot keep up with the times. What we need are dialectical cultural organisations, which must have an all-encompassing cultural view and a strong sense of mission.

As an arts practitioner on the front line, I started, in the 1990s, noticing and thinking about the relationship between an organisation's culture and cultural development, the relationship between a cultural organisation and its cultural mission, and of course, the relationship between cultural dissemination and hereditary culture. In the more than ten years since, I have started dialogues with individual xiqu (Chinese traditional opera) performing artists, exploring how to disseminate and develop traditional performing arts, to return life to a living art, and to renew our understanding of the source and direction of indigenous culture; we also explored how the indigenous cultural establishment moulds and recognises cultural development without self-consciousness, while recognising at the same time, the inherent limitation of monoculture in cultural dissemination. Given the premise that without exchange there can be no development, we are all seeking to establish a foundation and a method for cultural exchange and creation. Real dissemination takes place upon a foundation of wisdom and knowledge, but more importantly, it must allow one generation to connect, communicate, and interact with the next, so as to provide it with cultural nourishment. Furthermore, real dissemination must start with a critique of the system for disseminating culture.

'Experimenting traditions'

In the mid 1990‘s, my theatre group Zuni Icosahedron and I began to work with various xiqu performers, and hold creative workshops. The first participant was the Chuanju (Sichuan opera) performer Tian Mansha. Beginning in 2002, Zuni Icosahedron formally started the Experimenting Traditions Research and Development Programme: each year, a series of stage performances, workshops, seminars and meetings were planned, centred on the theme of xiqu. We have held activities in Hong Kong, Taipei, Tokyo, Singapore, and Oslo of Norway. Participants have included scholars, theatre critics, researchers, organisers from related agencies, and famous performers from all of the eight major schools of xiqu, such as Shi Xiaomei and Ke Jun of Kunqu (Kun opera); Zhou Long and Wu Hsing-kuo of Jingju (Peking opera); Tian Mansha of Chuanju; Zhao Zhigang of Shanghai Yueju (Yue opera); Ma Lan of Huangmeixi (Huangmei opera); Li Xiaofeng and Zhang Ning of Qinqiang (Qin opera); Leung Hon-wai and Hung Hung of Cantonese Yueju (Cantonese opera); and Peng Huiheng of Hebei bangzi (Hebei bangzi opera).

The primary purpose of Experimenting Traditions has been to provide the conditions for interactive creativity, allowing our xiqu performing artists to venture from their deep understanding of the established conventions of each of their schools to bold, dialectic creations that transcend boundaries, while keeping up with the times, keeping pace with society, and becoming pioneers of cultural development and creativity. But one of the ultimate goals of the programme is to educate the mass of the people and the next generation to let them recognise the importance of their Intangible Cultural Heritage to contemporary cultural development, and to engender conditions favourable for the dissemination of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, conditions that will further allow Intangible Cultural Heritage to become part of the community cultural development.

The Programme encourages traditional performing arts practitioners to interact with other frontline cultural workers; it also promotes cooperation through interdisciplinary exchange, continuously creating anew a 'living' cultural heritage. Zuni has worked for more than a decade experimenting with and developing xiqu, and we plan in the next five years to develop and extend this plan in a more systematic way, organising a centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage, and expanding the work of the Programme to the traditional arts of other Asia Pacific regions.

The opportunity of 'One Country, Two Systems'

In 1999, at the Asia Pacific Performing Arts Network (APPAN) meeting in India, members. of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and I began discussing the concepts of Experimenting Traditions and matters of cooperation. I truly believed that, after the return of Hong Kong to China, the total implementation of the 'One Country, Two Systems' would be an important opportunity to develop the concept of cultural pluralism. If Hong Kong could really take advantage of this opportunity, it absolutely could develop into a truly global cultural laboratory. The fruits of this laboratory, the benefits it produces, would not only be regional, applicable only to the greater China region, but global. 'One Country, Two Systems' has provided unprecedented breathing space and opportunity for a cultural dialectic, yet - I could not know this at the time - in the grinding process of contact between China and Hong Kong, Hong Kong's compromising attitude and fawning political culture with regard to China, have actually led to continuing neglect of this important opportunity.

The 'One Country, Two Systems' concept is itself already an experiment, and, I believe, an elaboration of and a challenge to the cultural concept of 'country'. If the leaders of the 'two systems' really have visions and vigour, this experiment will redefine the position of, and open up a new path for, the culture of 'country' as it is treated in the history of human civilisation, while at the same time, soften up the borders between countries, and the resistance and strain arising from cultural differences. A forward-looking culture has no boundaries, and experimental arts should also have none. Forward-looking cultural development itself promotes cooperation that transcends cultures, regions, and borders, and furthers generation-to-generation transmission, and the development of the xiqu should do the same.

Hong Kong as the base of intangible cultural heritage

After six years of work, in 2005, I again had discussions with UNESCO, and confirmed the idea of gradually expanding the process of systematisation of the work of Experimenting Traditions, to the traditional performing arts of other Asia Pacific regions, with the suggestion of Hong Kong as a base, and Chinese traditional performing arts as a starting point. Currently, we are planning for the establishment of the Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage. The plan for the first five years includes:

  1. Creative development and promotion
  2. Hold an annual Experimenting Traditions arts festival, inviting traditional artists from the Asia Pacific region to jointly create an Experimenting Traditions series of theatrical works.
  3. Research and publishing
  4. Collect and record information from different areas of traditional arts, establishing an information centre for reference and research, and publish a series of books.
  5. Education and training
  6. Through Zuni's network of local and overseas educational institutes, promote traditional arts, and carry out educational and experimental cooperative work, in schools and communities, starting first in Hong Kong, then extending to neighbouring areas.
  7. Artist/scholar/researcher group plan
  8. Hold regular exchange platforms and artist-in-residence programmes, inviting traditional arts workers, scholars, and frontline cultural workers from other Asia Pacific areas to Hong Kong to create, study, and carry out academic exchange.
  9. International cultural network activities
  10. Organise an international cultural network for traditional arts exchange, and hold annual exchange meetings and forums, exploring the direction of traditional art's future development.

Experimenting Traditions - from solo acts to the fellowship

Experimenting Traditions has held three important activities: Experimenting Traditions - Solo Act held in Hong Kong in 2002, Experimenting Traditions - Solo held in Taipei in 2004, Meeting of the Gods held in Hong Kong in 2005. Besides cooperative public performances with xiqu artists from various schools, there have been many in-depth discussions behind the scenes, and international seminars. The fundamental topics discussed in these activities include:

  1. From where the definition of experiment and experimental work should start;
  2. How tradition builds a relationship with experiment - alternatively speaking, how experimentation builds a relationship with tradition;
  3. In the realm of art, how reform and innovation can proceed together, with self-awareness, with awareness of others, and with mutual interaction and respect;
  4. Where, and by what method, the traditional theatre / opera performer should absorb new nourishment, to press for reform and innovation;
  5. How experimental theatre and xiqu should respond to the rapid development of social values, technology, and the media;
  6. How the relationship between experimental theatre and traditional xiqu on the one hand, and audience and the market on the other hand, should be defined and clarified;
  7. The effect of transcending traditional regional forms and art categories, and cross­cultural exchange on developing creativity; and
  8. How to protect and develop living performing arts (including traditional and contemporary forms).

In November 2005, Hong Kong held the third Experimenting Traditions activity, Meeting of the Gods, which concentrated on aspects of experimental creative performance, including the following three attempts:

  1. Through comparison of the training processes for singing, speech declamation, mime.' and acrobatic fighting of the four traditional theatre types - Jingju, Kunqu, Bangz, and Qinqiang - develop experimental creative performances, with style-crossing content.
  2. Starting from Qinqiang music and singing, and carrying out an interactive experiment with today's popular music, develop a creative musical work that crosses genres.
  3. Inspire a modern original dance creation through the process of borrowing from traditional Jingju and Kunqu plays (such as, Flee by Night (Ye Ben), The Outcast General (Tiao Hua Che), and Amorous Longing (Si Fan)), employing modern theatre concepts and points of view, working and experimenting with modern technology, and, at the same time, by arranging two generations of traditional theatre artists (master and student) to carry out an inter-generational cooperation that has multiple points of view.

The role of the director

In the past years, the traditional artists participating in Experimenting Traditions have all been mature, veteran cultural workers, with recognised accomplishments in their fields. Perhaps because of this, they are beginning to hope to have new breakthroughs for them-selves in their creative work, and my cooperation with them comes as a natural result. Tian Mansha is a good example. At first, I invited her to host seminars and workshops for Hong Kong's university students, and then I invited her to develop, on a cooperative basis, a series of 'non-traditional' seminar works, including multimedia installations and video creations, followed by participation in Zuni Icosahedron's open stage work. And then I helped her, in her own field, to boldly experiment with the traditional stage, transforming herself from a Chuanju performer into a theatre performer, and then developing into an artist creating original works. Another example is Kunqu artist Ke Jun: the script I created for him, Flee by Night, is itself a dialectical record of our cooperative process. I also cooperated with Zhou Long on The Outcast General.

I believe our traditional theatre artists have reached a mature phase, and have be­ come aware that, to be creative, they need both an experimental platform for exchanging ideas, and space that has a greater capacity for experiment. Unfortunately, there are currently only organisations that buy programmes; organisations that support experimental work are lacking. I believe that supplying traditional theatre artists with the conditions, the platform, and the space, for experimental work, is vitally important, because by helping them examine the past and look forward, they will necessarily broaden their horizons. Experimenting Traditions just happens to give them the support to boldly try new things: they do not have to repeat the same performance over and over, in the confines of their own environment, and do not have to b e a slave to the market. In other words, this Programme helps traditional theatre artists to boldly and passionately discover the creativity that is deep within them, and also strives, on a rational basis, to build a better mechanism for future cultural development.

The xiqu theatre basically does not have a 'director' as such: what it does have is a troupe owner, artists, musicians, and amateur performers who are fervent audience of the art. As hard as it is to believe, in the head of every veteran xiqu performer is stored with more than one hundred plays, which can be staged anytime without rehearsal. In fact, the performers are more or less the directors; they are already very experienced in handling the space and time elements of the stage. Once they step onto the stage, they can bring their talents to full play at any time, a result of their accumulated training and performances. I am a layman in the field of xiqu. I often feel, even though I am collaborating with them as part of Experimenting Traditions, I am not actually playing the role of the traditional 'director'. I am not asking them to merely play their roles in the traditional xiqu plays, but hoping they will, at the same time, explore the boundaries of xiqu, and then, as a further step, break through the framework of the performing arts, the framework of the stage limits, and the framework of limits on the self. Thus, my role as a director is almost invisible, being more like a manager or consultant: I do not give directions, more often giving inspiration. I push and support them, according to their inclinations and limitations, to challenge their boundaries, offering comments on their attempts from the sidelines.

I believe all of the performing arts have their own complete established framework. I have always believed that our modern theatre should, besides creating new works within the existing framework, challenge and experiment with the boundaries of the framework of this theatre, and develop the framework for a new theatre, followed by challenging and experimenting with the boundaries on oneself. Only in this way can we develop a future meaning and role for the performing arts. Some xiqu professionals (or professionals in specific types of performing arts), perhaps because of the arduous training they undergo, all too easily get stuck within their framework, and become rigid in their views. They do not know how to consciously take a few steps back, observe the surrounding 'forces', and actively understand what effect these forces have, how they are con trolling the stage and controlling creative work. They should be able to take a few steps back, and then make a few steps forward, focusing on the interaction between the work and
these forces.

The roles of technology, society, culture, and the economy

Today's stage and theatre cannot possibly be the same, structurally, as the stage and theatre of five hundred years ago. Stage structure must evolve with technological development, development of societal systems, development of cultural structure, and the development of economic management concepts. The modern traditional theatre stage had long ago responded to the development, permutations, and rhythms, of modern society, the economy and technology, and transformed into a 'modern stage'. If xiqu artists can become self-aware, then they will intensify their interaction with these outside elements, and I believe their creative strength will also increase. Generally speaking, xiqu performers will tend to become too settled into the performance framework and the rhythms of the 'roles' within their respective schools, becoming absorbed in their own performances. If we ask them to venture out of this framework, to act another role, in cross-disciplinary fashion, or act in another regional xiqu form, they will certainly feel under pressure from the customs and regulations of their schools. For example, for a Chuanju performer to collaborate easily with a Jingju performer or a Kunqu performer would take a certain amount of confidence and courage. We expect Experimenting Traditions to provide dialectical room in this area.

The role of experiment

Some think that certain traditional arts cannot be changed, cannot haphazardly be subject to experiment, such as Kunqu with its five hundred years of history. Yet, does 'cannot change' mean Kunqu as an 'art' itself cannot change? Or does it mean Kunqu as a 'living cultural history' cannot change? Actually, it depends on the position, viewpoint, and perspective of the person making the 'cannot change' claim. Kunqu artist Shi Xiaomei has admitted that today's Kunqu cannot possibly be the same as it was five hundred years ago, as the style and content are continuously developing with transmission from generation to generation. Insisting on 'cannot change', is like insisting that our modern language must revert to its ancient form.

I personally believe, once current frontline performers accumulate enough experience and knowledge, they will be qualified enough to decide how Kunqu should develop, and in which direction experimentation should proceed. Therefore, whether a particular theatre form changes depends on whether the performers are bold enough to try. As to whether the performers are bold enough to try, it depends on how the performers project the expectations of the audience, and how they project the expectations that the 'leader'. The greater the expectation the audience and leader have, the more they will be afraid to experiment, to change. This comes back to whether they have enough confidence and ability, to perceive and analyse the deeper meaning of the expectation of the audience and leader, and then balance this with their own personal artistic development. Afterwards, they can lead the audience and the leader to raise their level and I interact as equals. To get to the heart of the matter, it depends on whether our holders of 'living cultural history' can strengthen themselves, and, upon a foundation of wisdom and knowledge, determine, with independence and confidence, the road they will take.

In Experimenting Traditions, I often believe the best 'audience' and 'critics' are the frontline artistic performers onstage, because they have been involved in the participation and development. The next best are the backstage supporters, and the audience that comes every night to show support, as they have witnessed the entire progression and development, and are truly attentive participants. The rest, to be blunt, merely come for cultural consumption. Therefore, the ideal of the Programme is an Artists' Forum, a forum and seminar that belongs to artists, except that what is used in the discussions is not limited to plain language, as the language of performance is also an important mode of communication. All too often recently, seminars have become an empty shell of a 'performance', lacking the vibrancy of interaction, the inspiration of true creativity.

China has a plethora of different theatric al forms. According to a survey in the 1950s, there are more than 350 theatrical genres , including dance and puppetry. Many of the styles belong to drama; some are as old as Kunqu, while some are more modern, such as the Pingju of Hebei Province, which did not evolve fully until the end of the nineteenth century. Mei Lanfang and Qi Rushan of the 1920s and 1930s intentionally began reforms. Qi Rushan, a scholar, was very familiar with theories of drama, history, etc., and worked at length modifying Jingju into today's form, making the plots more refined and precise, allowing the whole performance to be staged at a brisker pace. This experiment came about naturally, but it was also a bold attempt to break through barriers and established designations, to offer a new concept, and to smash established ideas. Valuable lessons for us can be drawn here.

The interactive roles of creativity and establishment

I believe the biggest problem facing xiqu is the problem of the establishment and system. If the establishment and system cannot change, then it will become a great obstacle, limiting the cultural vision and morale of frontline practitioners in xiqu. Creativity and the establishment should be mutually balancing forces. Creativity requires enterprise and evaluation; the establishment demands efficiency and stability. For example, why do we theatre people have to sell tickets? This is an example of an establishment practice - is there a way to discuss and challenge it? (Provide free performances at schools could be one of the solutions.) Why are the lights dimmed at the beginning of a play? This is another theatre custom. A lot of the theatre language, phenomena of the stage itself, already reflects many values of the establishment and power. What is important is that we realise this on our own, that we know why there is a certain performance, why an established form and an established policy. With self-awareness, we can then recognise anew the relationship between theatre and ourselves. I think these experiences and suggestions are inspirational to those xiqu performers.

The role of the organization

Another establishment issue concerns the establishment culture at the level of 'theatre organisation'. A. troupe that grows and matures must have dealings with the market. When a troupe schedules performances, it must consider the number of shows to stage at a certain large theatre, in order to pay for its performers, so that they can have space for living and discussion of their creations. This becomes the problem of the chicken and the egg. These problems affect the cultural management of the ‘theatre organisation', and this cultural management in turn affects creation and development. These issues require more time, and deeper discussion. Actually, traditional performing arts practitioners are well aware of these problems, especially their interactive relationship with the establishment, the relationship between creating new works and the environment, and the economic relationship between the market and the industry as a whole. All these problems need further sifting through. Many successful traditional performing arts practitioners are forced to participate in the establishment's management, adding to their already heavy workload, and distracting them from their creative and learning activities. This further exposes issues such as the power structure inside the management culture of the 'theatre organisation', the quality of leadership, the division of labour among specialists, and training.

The role of Experimenting Traditions

Therefore, I hope that the Experimenting Traditions Programme not only provides per­ formers with a platform where they can compare and interact with each other, create new work, and stage small scale experimental performances - without too much mental pressure - and boldly do what they want without a pre-established framework; but also, most importantly, provide them with the opportunity to reflect deeply on the relationship be­ tween their individual self and the establishment, and the relationship between creation of new work and the overall establishment. The new China, after 1949, began reforms that gave social protection to the xiqu and the troupes, which were looked down upon in the old China, and provided xiqu composers the support to develop their own works. In the years following 1949, this indeed had a tremendous effect. But since the State supported them, they also made demands on them, whether in the form of political propaganda or thought education. A balance between the creation of new work and duty, and a way to preserve creativity that is enterprising and critical, must be sought.

The role of Hong Kong

In Mainland China, there is a clear line of demarcation between experiment and tradition. In Hong Kong, perhaps due to objective historical factors of the past twenty years, we often blur the line between experiment and tradition. Our act ions at every moment are experimental processes, providing space for interaction between tradition and modernity. This is the strength and characteristic of Hong Kong's cultural development. Hong Kong indeed has public space potential and public resources for critique and experimentation. Because Hong Kong's cultural role is marginal, it can avoid the pressures that come with being at the centre. Zuni Icosahedron's Experimental Traditions Programme has provided resources to all kinds of xiqu and modern theatres, to encourage dialogue and interaction, leading the way to a truly experimental laboratory. The Programme has also received the support from the Special Administrative Region Government as well as non-governmental cultural organisations. To confirm the place of Hong Kong in world cultural development, Experimental Traditions and UNESCO are together developing a Hong Kong-based Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage, an undertaking that deserves the full support from government, business, and the community.

The role of the West Kowloon Cultural District

With an estimated area of more than forty hectares, the West Kowloon Cultural District being planned by Hong Kong can actually take on many vital global cultural missions. It can, by providing space and resources, establish many multicultural experimental laboratories. The best arts practitioners from China and the rest of the world could then escape the control of single markets, the official duties demanded by politics, and the restrictions stemming from political whims or propaganda, thus truly exploring the relationship be­ tween traditional elements and themselves. If this can be achieved, then Hong Kong can truly become a focal point for cultural development with a global cultural vision.

From a larger perspective, in the developmental progress of the culture of greater China, Hong Kong can play a most effective role in the evaluation and critique of multiculturalism, and cultural innovation. This is precisely the spirit of ‘One Country, Two Systems'. In this age of globalisation, we must be continuously vigilant against those conservative values - those so called authoritative values - which we cannot avoid facing in multicultural development. Thus, during the process of innovation, the strategy that should be developed is to constantly elevate the interaction we have with the multi-cultural surrounding. Only in this way can we discover and preserve a space for independence. In fact, this space is the same as the public space that is needed for the development of civil society.
(Originally written in Chinese)

1. The article was originally written as 'Director's Notes' of the programme 'Meeting of the Gods - Experimenting Traditions Festival 2005'

2. According to Liu Wenfeng's 'The survival 'crisis' and coping measures - nationwide survey on theatre genres and theatre troupes', Journal of Nanyang Teachers' College (Social Sciences), vol. 4, (Nanyang, 85-90), 2004, in a survey conducted for the compilation of the 'Chapter of Xiqu' in The Great Encyclopaedia of China in late 1950s to early 1960s, there were found to be over 360 types of performing arts nationwide.

Zhang Ning

Zhang Ning joined the Qinqiang (Qin-operatic style) Troupe of the Shanxi Xiqu Research Institute in 1987, focusing mainly on the role of the Dan. Zhang has received numerous awards throughout the years, including the top singing award at the First China Qinqiang Arts Festival. Zhang's lyric voice is adept at conveying complex emotions, which is emblematic of the Su (Rule) style, while at the same time she also possesses the Qin-operatic style master Xiao Yuling' s singing techniques. Zhang is well received by critics and audience alike.

Li Xiaofeng

Li Xiaofeng is a national First Class Performer and currently the Assistant Director of the Youth Troupe of the Shanxi Xiqu Research Institute and Executive Director of the Shanxi Qinqiang Arts Research Institute
Li was also the lead actor in many Qin-operatic style performances. In 1997, Li visited the Netherlands, Germany, France and Belgium to perform the Qin-operatic style and was well received by the audience. Li has received numerous awards including the National Theatre Festival Best Performance Award.