Rise of a star: Zhou Xinfang

Updated: 2015-05-01 09:57

By Zhang Kun in Shanghai(China Daily USA)

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Peking Opera star Zhou Xinfang (1895-1975) made his first public performance at the age of seven, singing in the role of an elderly man. He immediately gained the nickname "Qi Ling Tong" (The Seven-Year-Old Kid), but later changed this to "Qilin Tong".

Although the pronunciation is similar, qilin refers to a unicorn in traditional Chinese folklore. After his performance style became established and widely recognized, he was known as the founder of the "Qi" school of Peking Opera.

Even though he didn't have a perfect voice for the art form, he borrowed creatively from local folk operas, film, other theater arts and dance forms to enrich the choreography and bodily expression seen on the stage.

"Peking Opera favored clear high voices, whereas Zhou sounded a bit rougher around the edges," said Li Xu, vice-director of the Power Station of Art (PSA), a large exhibition space by the Huangpu River in Shanghai.

"He took full advantage of his unique voice and broke past the traditional aesthetics of the art form," Li added. He described Zhou's Qi school as "expressionistic Peking Opera".

Zhou's fifth son, Michael Chow, is now having a solo exhibition at the PSA.

Xiang Liping, the curator of the show, said Chow's father was instrumental in helping Peking Opera transition from its focus on singing and voices into more of a visual art form. In other words, he was a pioneer in its modernization.

The Qi school is recognized in China's art history for its significant contribution to the reform and creativity of the art form, from new compositions and rhythms to costumes and makeup.

Chow said Zhou was meticulous about every detail of his performance, from a simple movement of the hand to the use of a long beard and other props.

As early as 1925, he introduced the concept of the director to the traditional theater genre and placed a great emphasis on the lead singer.

In the 1950s, Zhou served as the director of Shanghai Peking Opera House and promoted a young director named Ma Ke.

"I was only 24 and had just returned from the battlefield of Korea," Ma said at the opening of Chow's ongoing show, referring to the 1950-53 Korean War. China supported North Korea in the war, which ended in a stalemate.

Zhou would play his part just as the young director instructed. He urged the other veteran singers and actors to do the same.

"It was only with his support and encouragement that I was able to start my career as a Peking Opera director," Ma said, struggling to contain his emotion.

Ma directed more than 70 plays before he retired in his 80s.


 Rise of a star: Zhou Xinfang

The legendary Peking Opera star Zhou Xinfang, Michael Chow's father, played an important role in helping broaden the art form away from its focus on singing into more of a visual-centric medium. Photos Provided to China Daily

(China Daily USA 05/01/2015 page9)