Late British sinologist John Chinnery’s wife talks about her husband’s dedication to traditional Chinese Ping Opera

By Huang Tingting Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/13 18:08:40


Ping Opera performer Xin Fengxia Photo: Courtesy of New World Press

 Pingju: Real Life Opera of Northern China Photo: Courtesy of New World Press

Eighty-six-year-old Chen Xiaoying smiled as she showed off a photo of a group of Chinese Ping Opera, or Pingju, performers in full costume standing next to her late husband John Chinnery, a British sinologist who once served as head of the Chinese Department at Edinburgh University for over 25 years and who dedicated more than 50 years of his life to researching Pingju.

"This was in Shenyang [capital of Northeast China's Liaoning Province]. He also went to Tangshan [in North China's Hebei Province], Tianjin… For John, it was a great thing going around the country meeting and interviewing Pingju actors and actresses," Chen told the Global Times on June 30, mentioning her husband's unusual passion for Pingju - a regional Chinese Opera style that was all the rage across China for a time, but not very well-known in the West.

Pingju got its start in rural areas in Hebei Province during the 19th century. Originally featuring only two performers with simple stage dressing and musical accompaniment, the art form evolved to includes a larger cast and more sophisticated singing and musical arrangements. Above all, it was the opera's focus on the spirit of realism that helped make it one of the most popular forms of Chinese opera during the early 20th century. Later, a new round of Pingju fever hit China during the 1950s and 1960s with the debut of new operas featuring modern female characters.

Starting in the 1950s, Chinnery spent decades watching and researching Pingju, one of the few foreign scholars to do so. In late 2016, China's New World Press published Pingju: Real Life Opera of Northern China, which compiles all of Chinnery's research on the history of Pingju from its start in the 19th century to today, including detailed chronicles of some of China's most famous Pingju troupes.

Finished just months before Chinnery passed away in 2010, the book is one of the few English-language works dedicated to introducing Pingju, which Frances Wood, former curator of the Chinese Collections in the British Library, describes in the book's preface as "a significant dramatic form which is completely unknown in the West."

According to the publishing house, the publication of a Chinese edition is being considered.

Ordinary life

While Pingju troupes are struggling to get by due to low interest among today's youth, when Chinnery visited China in the 1950s the opera form was hugely popular.

"Almost everybody knew about Xin Fengxia," Chen said. Xin was at that time one of China's most celebrated Pingju actresses.

During Chinnery's visit to China in 1957, the then 33-year-old sinologist fell in love with Pingju after watching a performance.

"A reason why he became interested in Pingju is that he had great sympathy for poor people," Chen recalled, explaining that her husband's first-hand experiences of the plight of poor people in India during his time as a soldier there in World War II had a profound impact on him.

"He became dedicated to the poor. And that's why he became interested in Pingju, because Pingju came out of the poor people," Chen said.

While many Chinese opera forms at the time were very literary in nature, the lyrics and lines in Pingju were written in the vernacular. This easy-to-understand language, as well as Pingju's focus on depicting popular folk legends and everyday life, led Pingju to become a favorite among people from lower-class society in China such as farmers and miners. 

"Many Pingju plays have contemporary themes, and as early as the 1910s the founding father of Pingju, Cheng Zhaocai, even based some of his plays on newspaper stories," Chinnery explains in his book.

"Though Peking Opera was very popular at that time [during the 19th and 20th centuries], it is all about ancient heroes and heroines rather than ordinary people," Chen said, explaining why her husband fell for the lesser-known opera style instead of the more famous Peking Opera.

Empress of Pingju

In his book, Chinnery spends an entire chapter introducing Cheng Zhaocai (1874-1929), a late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) Pingju playwright Chinnery dubs "the Chinese Village Shakespeare."

When talking about why her husband compared Cheng to the world-renowned British playwright William Shakespeare, Chen explained he chose to do so because the two were both productive actor-turned-playwrights who contributed to the development of theater in their respective home countries.

Aside from Cheng, Chinnery mentions another highly respected figure in Pingju history quite a few times - Xin Fengxia (1927-98). Chinnery and Xin were good friends. The scholar first met with Xin in person in 1979 and later translated her autobiography, The Memoirs of Xin Fengxia, into English.

Once considered the "Empress of Pingju," Xin was unable to perform anymore after a severe beating during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) left her disabled. Later a stroke left her paralyzed on the left side of her body. Yet Xin did her best to not let these tragedies hold her back. She later dedicated herself to teaching and writing, and also learned to paint.

The chance to learn more about Xin through the eyes of a foreigner is one aspect of the book that readers may find interesting.

Aside from his achievements in Pingju studies, the British Sinologist also contributed greatly to cultural exchanges between China and the UK by cofounding the Scotland-China Association in 1966.

The pride in Chen's voice was clear as she recalled her husband's dedication to educating the West about Pingju.

"We must do our best to build bridges," Chen said.

Newspaper headline: Lifelong love

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