Soon after losing her vision, Chen Yanping cut all connections to the outside world. It was the constant visits by Yu Jing and her friends that helped her re-find the value and meaning of her existence. But what truly brought them so tightly close, besides their time-tested friendship, is the passion of life they all shared – Yue Opera.
Chen Yanping was born in Zhou Shan, Zhejiang Province in June, 1979. In 2008 she founded and headed the Zhoushan Youth Yue Ju Opera Ensemble, and she served as the vice Chairwoman of Zhoushan Association of the Blind, and a visiting professor at Zhejiang Ocean University. In 2017 she signed in the 9th National Art Show of the Disabled and won the first prize in the opera genre. In 2020 she was presented the honor of being named the Second Zhejiang’s Most Beautiful Disabled Individual.
Ever since the beginning of 2020, Chen Yanping has seen a sudden decrease in the opportunity to have her stage performance. As a Yue opera actress, she and her Zhoushan Youth Yue Opera Ensemble bore the brunt of the undesirable effects caused by the coronavirus pandemic: no place for rehearsals, shows were canceled, which imposed tremendous pressure on the traditional folk-art ensemble to survive.
Fortunately, the pandemic was slowly under control in southern China, and everything started to get back on the right track again. Zhoushan in early fall saw persistent raining days and the roads were often muddy, but as long as she could put on shows Yanping remained hopeful at heart.
Bringing to life an unofficial Yue opera ensemble
It was September 19, in a lodging house in Zhoushan. The rain outside the window was picking up steam. The balcony door was half open, allowing raindrops to blow inside, only to disappear soon after they landed on the grey carpet.
Inside, Chen Yanping, frowning, held a phone playing an opera tune on its speaker in her left hand; her right hand rested on the shoulder of a young man wearing black clothes. He was not tall, looking stout and chubby, and in contrast Yanping had a slender, nicely stacked figure. She happened to have donned a white shirt, and the young man was in black and looked short and plump, which created a striking contrast in the standing mirror on the floor.
The phone was playing a cucurbit flute tune. The young man was playing the cucurbit flute, trying to catch up with the tune from the phone’s speaker. Yanping kept tapping on his shoulder to help him keep up with the rhythm. She learned playing the cucurbit flute from her father, and she’d been trying hard to improve the young man’s flute-playing skills. Both Yanping and the young man, Xiao Xu, are blind, and Xu works at the massage parlor owned by Yanping. This afternoon would mark Xu’s debut performance as an actor from the Yue opera ensemble. The house where they had their practice is actually Yanping’s home, which she had barely lived much after she purchased it. Looking to train disabled opera lovers who were willing to learn and practise, she renovated the house and repurposed it as a training center for the art lovers. There was a room dedicated to storing the troupe’s costumes and props. Having no place of her own to live in, Yanping had to turn to Yu Jing for lodging and food.
Yu Jing is able-bodied, and she has been Yanping’s best friend ever since they came to know each other through learning the opera. They have been a pillar of support for each other. “We have different personalities, but we share the same values; and we really speak the same language,” Yanping said. “After I lost my vision, I had little problem with singing, but I had to learn the actions of the opera by touching and following Yu Jing’s body movements.” When Yanping gave her debut performance several years ago and positively impressed the audience with her fluent skills at the municipal level art show of the disabled, few believed that she was actually blind. Jing was only too aware of the blood, sweat and tears behind her every movement. Throughout the performance, Jing was weeping in tears while Chen Yanping was performing on the stage.
In 2008, Yanping and Jing co-founded Zhoushan Youth Yue Opera Ensemble, headed by Yanping. They soon attracted the attention of legions of Yue opera fans, and as of today the ensemble has grown into a 20-performer troupe. Members of the ensemble came from all walks of life. Yanping owns her massage parlor, and Jing is a department manager at a bank. The ensemble now gives as many Yue opera shows as 100 a year, and has so far held over 800 shows as part of the government agenda for public cultural benefits. Their performing arenas run the gamut from government agencies of all levels in Zhoushan, the army, schools, to nursing homes. Few unofficial troupes in Zhoushan have ever accomplished that.
Rising above the crucible of life
Yue opera, also known as Women’s Opera, is performed by all-female performers. Its tunes are softer and gentler than those of Peking Opera, and oftentimes the characters are talented scholars and elegant ladies. Featuring plots full of twists and turns, Yue opera has long been cherished by the audience around the Zhejiang Province. Yanping was brought up by her grandparents, who happened to be fans of the opera, and since her childhood Yanping has been no stranger to opera theaters and stages. While her parents watched from the audience seats, she would often play at the theater gate with half an ear on what was singing on the stage, naturally learning to hum and sing a few tunes. At 16 she went to study Chinese medicine at Hangzhou Medical School, and her performance at the Cultural Festival on Campus was effusively approved of and praised by the local opera critics. Greatly encouraged, Yanping decided to take the plunge and apply herself further to the learning of Yue opera.
Her vision had become a persistent problem since she was in her 20s. At first her vision became blurry, and before long she couldn’t travel without help, despite her efforts. It was diagnosed as Retinitis Pigmentosa. “Doctors claim it’s something that comes with birth. It may start to flare up when I’m in my youth, or it may be as late as I’m middle-aged,” says Yanping, who was nearly blind when she reached 26.
By that time Yanping had returned to Zhoushan to work, but not for long. Soon she lost her job because of her deteriorating vision. One day when she was idling around a local park, she came across a group of senior citizens singing Yue opera for personal enjoyment. Yanping kept turning up, and soon made acquaintance with the opera fans. Realizing that the young lady shared their passion in the opera, the group members one day encouraged her to join them and belt out a tune or two. She didn’t chicken out. “You have great potential. What do you say if we recommend to you a professional mentor?” They suggested. And as it happened, Yanping was then recruited into the Zhoushan Folk Art Troupe, where she came to befriend Jing and other like-minded people.
Since the ensemble was set up in 2008, things hadn’t been easy. Everything being an uncharted territory, they had to grope along, starting with recruitment of new members. They had little income, no place for rehearsals, and the duo had to come up with everything out of their own pocket. To date they have invested about 800,000 yuan on costumes, props, transportation, and audio equipment. “For the first 6 years we were almost like entertaining ourselves,” to quote Yanping and Jing. In order to survive, the ensemble had to work hard and play smart. They would take over shows in seasons that were considered either too hot or too cold for their “professional” counterpart troupes; they would agree to put on shows on many far-flung islands where transpiration was barely manageable. In some extreme cases they even agreed to perform for free.
It was an afternoon, and the show was held in a remote nursing home surrounded by scenic beauty. While the stage was being set up, Jing was doing makeup on Yanping by the window near the rear end of the meeting hall where the opera was to be conducted. Wearing a red vest printed with the name of their ensemble, Yanping trusted the handling of her face’s makeup to her partner Jing, while in the meantime previewing with headphones the opera tunes she was to sing. Jing had just recently been out of the surgery of thyroidectomy and was not in the condition for stage performance, so she would act as the emcee of the show.
There were four performances in the show. Xiao Xu took the lead with his cucurbit flute performance, followed by 3 acts of Yue opera. Yanping was the third to come on the stage, after the Romance of the West Chamber. Right after Xu’s performance she was arranged to change into costumes in a room next to the meeting hall. It was a common-or-garden nursing home room, so small it could barely accommodate Yanping and her colleagues with any spare space to stand.
Upon changing into her costumes Yanping was escorted to the edge of the stage. She turned to the stage where actions were on but, not being able to see, she lowered her head towards the ground. It was her turn now. Jing announced to the audience, “here I’m presenting our next piece, Blaming Sons, an act from the classic Yue opera the Story of Li Wa.” The Story of Li Wa was adapted from the Extensive Gleanings of the Taiping Era, which tells the romantic story of Li Wa, a girl from a very poor family, who was later sold to the bawdy house to practice prostitution, and who happened upon a young man from Xing Yang, a customer of hers. Affections grew as they spent much time together, and after numbers of trials and tribulations they finally managed to live together as a couple. Yanping played Xing Yang the gentleman. Gone was the offstage Yanping who needed help even walking around, but on stage we witnessed a handsome young man, with impeccable singing and easy, accurate bodily performance.
There was an act worth noting here. Being chastised by his father, the young man plopped down on the ground, heavily and backwards. It was an act that once really sent Yanping suffering in agony. One time they had a show in a village where conditions were really less than ideal: right below the thin felt laid the uneven concrete floor. Unknowingly, Yanping performed the act and had the vertebrae on her lower part the spine land smack-dab on a bump on the floor, immediately causing fracture to her vertebrae. She burst into tears in great pain.
Yet when the show came to this act, Yanping didn’t hesitate a second. She raised her head, fell backwards, plopped down on the ground, all in one breath. The meeting hall had a few moments of dead silence before everybody suddenly exploded into a standing ovation.
After the show, Jing’s mother emerged at the corridors to the meeting hall, ready to pack things up. She murmured with a heavy accent while looking at the piles of costumes and props. Only one comment was comprehended, though, that “I’m their best support staffer.” Since the establishment of the ensemble in 2008, seeing that Jing might lose money on this, her mother had been against their ambitious project. But it didn’t take long for her to realize that it was true love for the art on her daughter’s side and she finally came to terms with it. Having noticed that the troupe had inadequate supporting crew, she volunteered to help out and soon became a staunch supporting member of the crew, further deepening the bond with her daughter.
Giving everyone a stage to perform what they love
One and a half months after she had her vertebrae fractured, Yanping was back to take the ensemble to Dongyang to perform. She had to fix herself to stretchers in a van, and after that on a wheelchair. It was a harrowing and bumpy journey, but her heart was full of joy. A turning point for the troupe came in 2011 when, in three years they had won great numbers of hardcore fans, they were offered an opportunity to perform in the Zhoushan Grand Theater. “The tickets were complimentary, but they were so sought-after and so hard to come by, the theater’s security guards came to conflict with the fans who couldn’t get a ticket but were eager to get in,” said Jing. The 700-seat theater had never seen a full turnout of the audience for any Yue opera shows, but their ensemble made it.
Two years ago, the Zhoushan Youth Yue Opera Ensemble, along with a group of 9 other private organizations, applied with the local Civil Affairs Administration for free offices and communal meeting rooms and was granted on application. Now they officially had their own space for everyday teaching and rehearsals. In a few days there would be a folk-art competition among Zhoushan’s unofficial folk-art troupes, and Yanping’s troupe decided on releasing a show entitled Five Daughters Offering Felicitations. Like the plot featured in the movie New Year’s Visits, this show tells a story of five daughters of a man and their husbands, when offering their congratulations on the father’s birthday party, knowingly and conspiratorially angled for fame and fortune. Yanping played one of the sons-in-law. In rehearsals, She and her partners spotted many imperfections and they kept at it until it was all sorted out. Jing offered her opinions and instructions quite a lot.
Every day after rehearsal, Yanping returns to her massage parlor, which is under the charge of her brother. Her brother is also blind, but unlike his sister, he’s more of a traditional type, content enough with his ordinary job as a massage therapist. He’s very much influenced by their parents; even to this day, they still don’t fully approve of their daughter’s ambition in Yue opera and her operation of an ensemble. “They think it’s too much hard work performing on stage. Whenever I’m on stage they worry a lot. For example, the show Meeting in Pavilion includes an act of dropping a fan on the floor, which is totally necessary, but my mother will be worried sick, thinking if it’s her daughter’s fault, or if my blindness causes many bloopers,” says Yanping. Her purchasing a department but repurposing it for other uses certainly hasn’t helped much to put things right between them.
Whenever Yanping spots musical talent in her disabled employees, she’s willing, able and ready to give them a helping hand and improve their performing skills. Xiao Xu is one of the lucky ones who have then had opportunities to display their talents in folk-art shows. The employer-employee relationship has then grown into a unique friendship, teeming with rapport and affections. There are times when Yanping receives phone calls from them, requesting her immediate presence at the store. Concerned, Yanping rushes to the store, only to find that they have just missed her.
From self-entertaining to leaving behind a legacy
Yue Opera on Campus is a project that = Yanping and her crew members have long been promoting. The ensemble has once taught students at a little-known school for children of migrant workers to play the opera and had them attend folk art competitions from county to municipal to provincial levels, and won prizes at each level. “The Yue opera program really enhanced the school’s image. The school teachers informed us on the phone that because of the well-performed program, the county leaders are going to visit them,” said Yanping. The school will continue to keep the opera program as a prime course, and has invited Yanping and her crew members as instructors. She continued, “We have now had some impact on various kinds of schools in Zhoushan. Our opera program has been incorporated into the curriculum of Zhoushan Ocean University, and we have connected and coordinated with ten more schools now, from primary to senior high schools, where we’ll give lectures and training classes.” During the classes, the exquisite Yue opera costumes, the bewildering classics of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai and the Dream of the Red Chamber really had a chance to impress the students. More often than not, after the class parents would come to request to have more systematic studies of the opera for their children. From the parents’ point of view, learning the folk art such as Yue opera is a great opportunity to expose their children to music, folk dancing, painting and various musical instruments. Besides, these skills are now mastered by only a select few of their peers, it will certainly give the children an advantage. In the summer of 2020, Yanping’s ensemble organized their first Yue opera summer camp, yet another small but steady step to further popularising the art.
Over the years, Yanping has not only gone extra miles operating the ensemble, she has also been highly self-disciplined and aiming high for herself. In 2017, she signed up for the National Art Show of the Disabled as the very only Yue opera actress, and she was trained by seven professional instructors. “I got up at 7, started practicing at 7:30, all the way until 9 pm. I lost lots of weight, right from 55 kg to about 40 kg,” she said. She had to change four or five costumes every day. Among the instructors some taught singing, some were experts in bodily techniques, and others specialized in musical instruments. “My hard work didn’t go unrewarded – in the finals I won the national first prize,” said Yanping, with pride in her voice.
Two years ago Yanping visited the Great Wall in Beijing. Although she nearly had to scramble up the Great Wall on all fours, she felt excited: “now I’m a True Man as once defined by our Chairman Mao!” Not until she returned from her trip to Beijing did Yanping decide to refurbish her house into an art training center. Never being the type to be satisfied with the status quo, she hopes to inspire as many disabled people to blend into society and commune with art as possible: “For those disabled people who have never stepped out of their homes, society isn’t as they had imagined. For those who are brave enough to open the window and venture out, the sky is the limit!”
This story is part of a series of articles published as an exclusive editorial exchange between China Press for People with Disabilities & Spring Breeze and ABILITY Magazine
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