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  Literature and Artistic Development

The Elegance of Chinese Opera in Formosa during the Century (Ho-Yi Lin)

The operas of Taiwan are mostly from China. They have arrived in Taiwan with immigrants from different provinces of China since the time of the Dutch and Spanish occupation. While these operas once comforted homesick hearts with their familiar old hometown strains; nevertheless, art, as the carrier of human thoughts and emotions, usually reflects local characteristics and styles. Thus, these operas were adjusted and transformed along with the times so as to accommodate the nature of the surroundings and the reality of the social circumstances in which they were performed, giving a unique and whimsical taste to the arts and humanities of the island.

While Chinese operas after 1949, after undergoing the revolution in opera in the 1950’s and surviving the Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s and 1970’s, find ways and styles to remain in trend, the development of the operas of Taiwan have long since parted from the development in China. In correspondence with the historical events and with a presentation of the artistic substance of the operas, this article reviews the history of operas in Taiwan in the following three periods: (1) Overview of the period before the end of the Second World War (1945), focusing on the six major traditional varieties of opera in Taiwan and their development in China before the Republic of China moved to Taiwan; (2) the development in the period from 1946 to 1979; (3) the development in the period from 1980 to 2010, including a discussion of the decline and the later modernization of traditional operas.

It has been about 400 years since the first group of Chinese immigrants settled in Taiwan. The operas arriving with the immigrants, from Nanguan, Beiguan, hand puppet shows, Taiwanese opera to modern opera, compose a colorful history of development, in which every period of time is marked by the presence of different operas as the main trend. In general, the traditional operas that are popular in Taiwan fall in the following six categories:

1.    Nanguan Opera: Qizi Opera, Gaojia Opera

2.     Luantan Opera: Beiguan Opera, Siping Opera and Beijing Opera

3.    Taiwanese Opera

4.    Hakka Opera: Chaozhou Opera, Grand Hakka Opera

5.    Playlets: Zhuma Opera, Che-gunong and Tea-picking Opera

6.    Puppetry: Shadow puppetry, string puppetry, and hand puppet shows

In comparison with the operas developed in China, operas in Taiwan are more dynamic and free-spirited, and have a greater number of positive interactions with people’s daily lives. However, not all operas have shared the same fortunes in surviving the changes and transformation of society. Those which are more competitive, such as Taiwanese opera and hand puppet shows, developed versatile aspects and eventually came to dominate the stage; while, in contrast, the less competitive, such as Siping Opera and Gaojia Opera, lingered with thinning breath, gradually lost their audience and finally faded away from the scene. This phenomenon shows that traditional operas, that is, the older forms, can not survive without the intervention of the government.

Cultural policy usually reflects the ideology and trends of the times. In the 1980’s, government institutes initiated survey, collection, publishing and promotion projects in regard to the history, development, documentation, and artistic substance of the traditional operas in Taiwan. These projects were conducted by professors, graduate students and field researchers, and traditional operas thus became subjects of research in academic institutions.

Due to the changes in the social environment and the importance attached to artistic heritage, art education was urgently required. In 1994, the first Department of Taiwanese opera was founded in the National Fu Hsing Dramatic Arts Academy, which in 1999 was merged with the National Kuo Kuang Academy of Arts to establish the National Taiwan Junior College of Performing Arts, later renamed in 2006 as the National Taiwan College of Performing Arts, the only academic institution involved in the training of professionals for traditional operas. It has departments of traditional music, Hakka opera, Beijing opera, and Taiwanese opera, etc. The launch of traditional opera studies in colleges and universities consolidated the academic ground for the study of local operatic arts.

Today, in order to survive the decline in interest in traditional forms of opera, the preservation and promotion of traditional opera demands more self-awareness and active support from artists and advocates of the arts. In addition to art education, the sustainable prosperity of traditional opera requires a solid base of clear and well-defined views and exchanges with co-operation amongst artists. Moreover, an effective and efficient division of work and engagement of talent will elevate the quality of performances. The challenges for the development of Taiwan’s operas today are to identify and promote the unique and distinctive attributes of Taiwan’s operas while carrying out the infusion of traditional arts into modern opera so as to facilitate their transformation into modernity. Ultimately, it is anticipated that the logic of the aesthetics in the modern aspects of traditional opera will be found and built in the process.


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