Stages of traditional opera stand as cultural symbol


In a traditional Chinese pavilion-like building, the stage was set, but no performance was held. However, visitors took photos of the architecture under a thick tree in the square in front of the building.

The century-old structure in Mujiao village in northern China's Shanxi province was used as a stage for traditional Chinese operas. At its peak, villagers packed the square for shows that lasted hours.

Today, the audience was scarce, and the stage has become a symbol representing local culture and customs. In Shanxi, around 3,000 ancient stages dating from 1271 to 1911 still stand.

"Though its basic functions have been lost, the stage is of great value for studying ancient architecture and opera culture as well as local history and culture," said Niu Bailin, a local researcher.

The stages were often built in front of temples in Chinese villages as they had the symbolic meaning of the celebration of both men and gods.

Today, many of the temples have been torn down, but the stages remain. However, as the size of traditional opera troupes has grown larger, the stages seem to grow smaller.

"It has been three years since we had a large traditional opera performance," said Yan Runhe, a 67-year-old local villager.

The shows are also losing popularity among the younger generation. However, for elders like Yan, the shows are an important part of their cultural memory.

"We watched operas from childhood to adulthood," Yan said. "People were poor in the past, and watching the operas made us feel civilized."

The shows were regularly held on the birthday of "Guangong," an ancient general worshipped as a symbol of loyalty, righteousness and bravery, in April of the Chinese Lunar calendar.

"Actors sang on the stage, and we watched attentively; it was a golden time," said Yan.

The performances often attract residents from nearby villages. A show can last around three to four hours, and residents often carry stools with them to sit at the square after dinner to enjoy the performances.

"When electric lights were not available, villagers would carry kerosene lamps to light the area," Run recalled.

Today, the stages provide a new perspective for researchers like Niu to understand ancient society.

Opera performers often left inscriptions on these buildings, Niu said, adding that some are simple scribblings of their complaints, and some are introductions about the shows and actors.

"These are things you rarely see on official documents," Niu said.

In recent years, the local government has strengthened the protection of these sites by calling for villages to preserve and renovate these places and including many into the official list of cultural preservation.

Artists and writers also came to visit the ancient stages for inspiration, creating paintings and books about the stages, according to Niu.

"The attention the ancient stages have received, to some degree, reflects that the traditional culture is reviving," Niu said.