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Foreigners found charm of Chinese opera from Canton

BY :丝路云帆

UPDATED :August 26, 2022


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Xiqu, or traditional Chinese opera, had been one of the most popular forms of entertainment in ancient China. It even caused a sensation in Europe during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1912 A.D.).

Jean Joseph Marie Amiot (Chinese name: Qian Deming), a French Jesuit missionary and sinologist who came to China in the 18th century, wrote a book titled Mémoire sur la musique des Chinois, tant anciens que modernes. It was the first work in the West that introduced Chinese music in a systematic way, involving the history and theories of Chinese music and descriptions of Chinese musical instruments.
A portrait of Jean Joseph Marie Amiot

With the trend of Chinoiserie gaining steam across Europe in the 18th century, many costume parties, operas and dance performances in the West were filled with Chinese elements. Playwrights and artists also took interest in creating works related to China, even though they had never been to the oriental country.

The Orphan of China written by Francois-Marie Voltaire, one of the greatest French writers and philosophers, was a prominent example. The play was adapted from The Orphan of Zhao, a classical tragedy of ancient China by dramatist Ji Junxiang from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 A.D.).

As a scholar, Voltaire had conducted profound research on the traditional Chinese culture, especially Confucianism. He rewrote the Chinese play based on his understanding of the Chinese traditional cultural values of loyalty and righteousness, and his idea of the strength of ethics.

The Orphan of China was later put on stage and achieved great success. It inspired many French intellectuals and helped promote the Enlightenment.

But it was not from Voltaire that the Europeans learned about The Orphan of Zhao.

Joseph Henri Marie de Prémare, a missionary to China, translated the Chinese drama into French during his stay in Canton. He had lived in the city for almost ten years.

His translation was published in Paris in 1735, making The Orphan of Zhao the first Chinese play translated in the West.
A comic book of The Orphan of Zhao

Prémare cut out all the librettos of the original version because they were too difficult for him to translate. Yet his work was surprisingly well-received throughout Europe and was translated into other languages including German, Italian, Russian and English. It also stimulated artists' enthusiasm for performance and rewriting.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Canton was a vital hub for trade and cultural exchanges between the East and the West, which attracted theatrical troupes from different parts of the country to come. Westerners visiting China at that time therefore had plenty of chances to get to know Chinese opera.

Accompanying the Macartney Mission — the first British diplomatic mission to China — was John Barrow, the Comptroller of the Household, who wrote about his experience of watching Chinese opera in Canton.

The English man watched fight-themed theatrical performances in Canton, which include singing, dancing and acrobatics. This kind of show would often be staged during festival celebrations.

He was invited by Chinese officials to watch the plays in their residences or in theaters. Barrow and other members of the mission watched similar theatrical performances for many times in China. He noticed a number of excellent performers would tour between Canton and Nanjing.

In the meantime, painters in Canton gained inspiration from Chinese opera and produced beautiful paintings of dramatic scenes for export, which presented the charm of Chinese opera to westerners.

An exported painting depicts the backstage of a theater in Canton.

Chinese opera entered Europe in various ways, contributing to the spread of Chinese music and culture in the West.

Source: 广州日报《通过广州这个窗口,欧洲人爱上了中国戏》
Photos: Guangzhou Daily
Editors: Pauline, Annie