A Brief Introduction to Nanguan Opera
Nanguan opera originated in Guanzhou, the famous historical city in southern China. It spread widely throughout Minnan-dialect-speaking regions and is recognized as one of the oldest existing genres of the Han Chinese people, also known as the “Living Fossil of Southern Opera from the Song and Yuan Dynasties”.
Nanguan opera uses tunes from nanguan music. Its instrumental accompaniment consists of the string-and-bamboo section and the percussion section. The instrumental troupe is led by the drummer who plays the southern drum (also known as the foot drum). Featuring the unique use of the drummer’s foot to control of the drum’s elaborate pitches and timbre, the southern drum stands out distinctively among the drums used in Chinese operas.
The stage movements of nanguan opera are highly formulated. There are the so-called “eighteen basic movements,” the inspiration for which can be traced back to various Chinese philosophical and cultural sources: some of the hand gestures are allegedly related to the Buddhist hand gestures (mudras); many basic body movements resemble the string puppet theater movements, the most obvious examples being the so-called jialing tiao and guilei luoxian—such string-puppet-like movements are often performed by the sheng (young male roles) and the dan (young female roles). In addition, there are strict regulations on the hand movements: when both hands are raised, they should not be higher than the eyebrows; when the hands are parted, they should not be lower than the navel; when the two hands are cupped, they should not be higher than the chin. With all its intricate allusions and formulations, nanguan opera exhibits a unique system of performance aesthetics, interspersing soft, delicate movements with instantaneous stiff, rhythmic string-puppet-like movements.
Traditionally, nanguan opera was performed on a stage called xipeng. It was made up of wooden planks placed on two one-meter-long benches, thus forming a small stage that is only about three square meters wide. Only one bench is placed upstage and covered with a piece of embroidered cloth. The small stage size has the effect of a magnifying glass through which the exquisite beauty of the performers’ body movements can be closely watched and appreciated. The simple and succinct stage allows much room for imagination and symbolic enactment, and has laid the nurturing soil on which the aesthetics of the opera genre mellowed into its refined and delicate texture.