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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Singing Dong Tribe





The villages of the Dong people are located among the hills on the Hunan-Guichou-Guangxi borders, China.
The Dong people live in villages of 20-30 households located near the rivers. There are also large villages of 700 households.
The Dong people grow rice, wheat, maize and sweet potatoes for consumption and cultivate cotton, tobacco, soybeans and rapeseed as cash crops. They also sell timber and other forest products.
Their houses, built of fir wood, are usually two or three stories high. Generally, people live on the upper floors, and the ground floor is reserved for domestic animals and firewood. In the old days, the houses of landlords and rich peasants were big and had engraved beams and painted columns.
Pathways inside a village are paved with gravel, and there are fishponds in most villages. Dong people are mainly farmers. They are good at growing rice, raising fish in their rice fields. For domestic animals they raise mainly hens and pigs. They live in huge forest, the forests have special spiritual importance for the Dong people but also provides with a source of income. The Dong people grow enormous numbers of timber trees which are logged and sent to markets. Tong-oil and lacquer and oil-tea camellia trees are also grown for their edible oil and varnish.
They are also famous for their unique carpentry skills which are displayed in beautiful wooden covered bridges. These bridges are called "Wind and Rain Bridges" because there are pavilions built on the bridge that provide shelter to people from the wind and rain. On a raining day, the pavilions on the bridge provide locals an excellent place to meet, relax, socialize, exchange ideas, and even amuse.
Wood, stone arches, stone slabs and bamboo are all used in erecting bridges. Roofed with tiles engraved with flowers, it has on its sides five large pagoda-like, multi-tier pavilions beautifully decorated with carvings. It is a covered walkway with railings and benches for people to sit on and enjoy the scenes around.
A specialty of these bridges is that no nails were ever used in their construction. Rather, the Dong carpenters used groove joints in structural members of the bridge to hold them together and transmit the load to the pier.
Other specific feature of Dong villages are the drum towers. Meetings and celebrations are held in front of these towers, and the Dong people gather there to dance and make merry on festivals. The multi-storey drum tower, the symbol of a Dong village, is usually built in the flat or high grounds of the village center. A square is built in front of the drum tower, and provides a venue for the entire village to come together for meetings, festival celebrations, and other public activities.
 Songs and dances are important aspects of Dong community life. All the Dong people can sing their folk songs. The  songs called the "Grand Songs" are most popular among the Dong folk songs, especially in the southern part of the Dong villages. The male voice is forceful and vigorous as against the sweet melody of the female voice. Each troupe is composed of members ranging from three to a dozen.
The Grand Songs has become famous throughout China for polyphonic folk songs. While some of these folk songs are accompanied by a string instrument called pipa ( a four strings China music  instrument) , most are sung without any musical accompaniment. The Dong ethnic minority have no written language, so they use folk songs to narrate their daily life, express their feelings, and keep a record of their history. All of Dong culture is preserved in these magnificent folk songs.
In 2009, the UNESCO World Heritage Commission formally recognized the Grand Song of the Dong Ethnic Minority as a World Intangible Cultural Heritage.






Sunday, December 3, 2017

Longji Rice Terraces



The Longsheng Rice Terraces, is located in Longsheng County, about 100 kilometres from Guilin, China.
Also known as Dragon Backbone Rice Terraces (Longji Rice Terraces) it is the most amazing rice terraces in China. Construction of the terraces began in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), and completed in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The Dragon Backbone Rice Terraces is constructed by the hard labor of the Zhuang people, which is now a minority ethnic group in this region.
It is hard to imagine that 800 years ago how the Zhuang and Yao people faced to the mountains and forests, and how they rely on ancient agriculture method to open the forest and to prepare the ground for the first field. 
The Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces is a beautiful landscape. The rice fields is beautiful all year round, and the view of the rice terraces vary from season to season. In spring, the irrigation water reflects the sunshine on the terraces, and when the paddies are full of water it seems like the scales on the back of a dragon, thus it is named as Longji (Dragon Backed Mountain).
In summer the newly grown paddies cover the terraces like green carpet. In autumn the paddies turn into golden ready for harvesting, while in winter it is covered by snow. The rice fields are beautiful all year round.
Longji consists of Ping´an Zhuang Minority and Jinkeng Da Zhai Yao villages scattered in the middle of rice terraces.   People here kept their traditions, in the streets but also rice terraces, they are easily recognized by their traditional costume. 
The colors for Zhuang’s clothing are blue, black and brown. The Zhuang women are skilled at weaving and embroidering. They wear this unique and colorful costumes especially during festivals, to dance and sing in accordance with the tradition.
The Yao people also have distinctive clothing, and they are expert weavers, dyers and embroiderers. In the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD220), they wove with fabrics made from tree bark and dyed it with grass seeds. In the Song Dynasty, they developed delicate designs dyed on white cloth with blue indigo and beeswax. The product became famous all over the country later.
The Yao women also have distinctive hair styles and they are famous for having the longest hair in the world. They never cut their hair. Instead they wrap the hair in a bun on top of their head in a turban style. Their hair color remains shining black no matter how old she is. What is the secret? The secret is for generations of Yao women have been using fermented rice water, which has resulted in their impressively beautiful hair. Women from the tribe have an average hair length of 2.3 metres.
For the Yao people, their long hair is their most prized possession, believing that long hair symbolises prosperity, longevity, wealth and good fortune.
The way a woman wears her hair depends on her status:
A young unmarried woman will wear her hair covered by a black scarf.
A married woman with children will wrap her hair around her head like a turban and wear it with a bun in the front.

In ancient time, so to say, the wives in the Yao families were the ones who earned living for the family, and they had to work hard in the rice fields, carrying heavy stuffs in big bamboo basket at her back. While the husbands were laid back, staying at home playing cards and drinking beer. So laid back were the husbands that even sometimes a wife had to carry her husband in the basket to walk the hundreds of steps climbing the terraces, while the husband drank beer in the basket. 
However, nowadays we can see Yao men have to work to make a living, they provide the bamboo basket service for tourists, and the tourists in a big bamboo basket at his back to climb the 800 steps to see the scenic rice terraces.
Ping´an village is a Zhuang ethnic village built on the hillside amid stunning Longji rice terraces.
The Ping’an Village has the best preserved, oldest and largest wooden buildings  of Zhuang Ethnic style, more than five wooden buildings of which has over 100 years. The oldest one enjoys a history of more than 250 years, which is ancient and full of charm. 
Along the 800 steps we can the padi fields and the unique traditional style of houses. Built largely from timber, the houses are typically rectangular and three stories high. Each ascending floor is a little larger than the lower. The shingles, windows and beams are typical of other Chinese building styles.
One of the most famous scenic spot is the "Seven stars with moon". It is composed of seven small terraces and a large round terrace. When the terraces are filled with water during spring, we can see seven small terraces are like shining stars around a moon. 
Indeed the residence here are very imaginative and like to resemble shapes in the landscape with other shapes of nature. This habit we can find in other scenic places in China, like in Guilin. But that is another story….








Saturday, November 25, 2017

An Interview with Maria

I met Maria at the backstage of Norma opera after the performance at Milan Opera House. She looked radiant and beautiful in her diva costume, with her broad smile shining on her face. She seemed satisfied with her performance that night, and judging from the applause and the flowers she got, the public loved her.


Interviewer:

Congratulations Maria on your beautiful performance, the public seem to love you very much. Are you satisfied with your performance tonight?




Maria:

I am happy that the public love it, it is such a great relief to hear the public reception, after the hard work to prepare for this performance. It really lifts our spirits to know that the hard work has been liked.

However, after every performance I would think what could have been done better, to make it better in the next performance and how things can be done differently. I am never satisfied with my performance and will try to improve it next time.

                              
Interviewer:

You are known as perfectionist, it seems what you just said just now confirms people’s believe.


Maria:

To me, the art of music is magnificent, and I cannot bear to see it treated in a shabby way. When it is respected and when the artists who serve it are respected, I will work hard and always give my best . . .
I do not want to be associated with inferior staging, taste, conducting or singing.


Interviewer:

But the people working with you think of you as too difficult to work with.  
They said you are temperamental, too demanding, sometimes you refused to perform, and even cancelled performances.


Maria:

I will always be as difficult as necessary to achieve the best. I am a hard worker, willing to rehearse more than expected, even when a role or a production was not new. I am an artist and like to try to bring the best performance to the public so I like to rehearse more and more with the team within the limited time we have.




Interviewer:

But, you walked away from contracts with Metropolitan Opera for Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and Beethoven’s Fidelio.


Maria:

Have you never walk away from a job that don’t suit you? I think you have.
For me, it was impossible to sing as Madame Butterfly, a 15 years old Japanese girl, I was then too fat--210 pounds.
As for "Fidelio" Opera in English is so silly. Nobody takes it seriously.
More than that, I didn’t like the contract, it looked like a beginner’s contract.


Interviewer:

You mentioned you were then too fat. How did you become so slim and beautiful today? What is the secret to lose weight in short pace of time?


Maria:

Purely strong will, there were rumours that I ate certain kind of pasta, but it wasn’t so. It was driven purely by strong will.


Interviewer:

You indeed seem to be a person driven by a very strong will. One of your teacher, Maria Trivella said of you: “A model student. Fanatical, uncompromising, dedicated to her studies heart and soul. Her progress was phenomenal. She studied five or six hours a day. ...Within six months, she was singing the most difficult arias in the international opera repertoire with the utmost musicality.”


Interviewer:

The Norma that you just performed was also a woman with strong will, brave, and even vengeful to betrayal.


Maria, her eyes sparkled and started singing part of the famous aria Casta Diva of Norma:

Casta Diva, che inargenti               Virtuous Goddess, covering with silver
queste sacre antiche piante,         these sacred ancient plants,
a noi volgi il bel sembiante            turn towards us your fair face
senza nube e senza vel                 cloudless and unveiled




Interviewer:

Other than Norma, you also seem to like to perform Carmen, Medea, Tosca and Violeta in La traviata. However you like to portray them as strong, passionate woman whom stand-up to their tragic fate, rather than a crushed delicate woman.
The way you expressed it, the women become the tragedy heroines of the story.


Maria:

It is a matter of interpretation, indeed normally Floria Tosca is portrayed as a delicate, submissive woman that was completely dominated by the powerful male character.  But I see that she can be performed as a strong, fiery woman and assertive.  In the famous “Vissi d’Arte” aria of the opera, she was lamenting, questioning her fate as well as becoming assertive, she sings from “I lived for art, I lived for love”, then  “I never did harm to a living soul!”


Interviewer:

One of the reporter wrote about your performance as Tosca :”her conception of the role was electrical. Everything at her command was put into striking use. She was a woman in love, a tiger cat, a woman possessed by jealousy. . . . This was supreme acting, unforgettable acting."
Bravo Maria!


Maria:

Thank you for the compliment. As Floria Tosca said it: "Vissi d' arte, vissi d' amore" ("I lived on art, I lived on love").


Interviewer:

In Medea, your enormous acting skills and perhaps your Greek blood guided you in the interpretation of agony of this princess from Colchis, a performance which was historic for Greece, in the ancient theatre of Epidaurus.
Is it probably that you can relate this Greek tragedy with your personal experience, that you can perform Medea that intense?


Maria:

I am a person without identity. I was born of Greek parents, yet I have never felt absolutely Greek. I was born in America, yet I am not an American. I lived the most crucial period of my career in Italy, I married an Italian but, of course, I am not an Italian. I now live permanently in Paris, but this doesn't mean I feel French. What the hell am I, after all?" What am I? I am alone, always alone.


Interviewer:

Were you surprised about Onassis marrying Jackie?

Maria:

As the public have known, there is no doubt that Onassis and me are deeply in love. Somehow we did not get married, but we remained good friends.


Interviewer:

Does Onassis still love you?


Maria:

You have to ask him yourself,  but maybe he does not really love opera.........



This is an imaginary interview in memory of Maria Callas.










Monday, November 6, 2017

The Face Changing of Sichuan Opera




The face-changing performance in Sichuan opera is one of its kind in the world, and the technique has been tightly kept secret. The face-changing , actually mask-changing, originates from the ancient times when humans in China decorated their faces with colors and patterns to scare away animals.

The masks are prepared and pasted on the face, each of which is tied  with a yarn to the costume of the actor. During the performance, the masks are torn away one by one by pulling the yard and the previous mask is replaced by a new one. The action has to be performed in quickly so that the audience does not notice how it happens.

Sichuan Opera is one of the most famous traditional Chinese operas. It was originated in Sichuan province about 1,700 years ago. Sichuan Opera plays an important part of the Chengdu culture and has wide spread in south-western China. The most famous parts in the opera show are "Changing Faces", "Fire Spitting", "Rolling Lamp", “Folk Music", "Hand Shadow" and "Puppet Opera".

Wearing brightly beautiful colored costumes and heavy careful makeup, performers sing in a high pitch and move to quick, dramatic music, twirling, hopping, rolling, and jumping carrying the heavy costumes. As they move, they also change masks to reveal characters’ changing emotions.

A skilled performer can change faces many times, and four changes is not uncommon. But knowing how it’s done and being able to performed it are two different things. It’s protected as a kind of state secret. The art of face changing has been passed down through families as a closely guarded secret. In 1987 the skills of face changing were listed as a “second-level state secret” by China’s Ministry of Culture.

The costumes, dances and singing are quite similar to Peking Opera, but the Sichuan Opera has more stunts, such as blowing fire, rolling lamps and the most famous face changing.

In the famous Sichuan Opera of “Madam White Snake”, about the love between a man and a snake sorceress, the actor playing the White Snake spirit changes faces eight times, from blue, red, white, black and other colors.  It’s very demanding to tear the face, the masks cannot stick together and the hand movement must be quick and unnoticed.

The Sichuan Operas had been performed for centuries in China, but then came the devastating 10 years Cultural Revolution from 1966 through 1976.  With that China's performing arts suffered considerably. Mao saw all art should represent interests of the common class and demanded that Opera should serve the workers, peasants and soldiers. Art should be an explicit propaganda for the revolution and should help to convert the masses to socialism.

The arts were then completely controlled by the government and the actors no longer had any control of what was to become of their performances. The only opera that was allowed to be performed during this period was called  'model opera', with contemporary and revolutionary themes and with realistic staging and costumes.

 Mao Zedong's wife, Jiang Qing, rewrote many of the operas using contemporary themes and her interpretation of the communist ideology. It is believed that she pushed for these ‘model opera’ , to reform, rewrite operas to be the only ones that were acceptable to be performed.

Not only was the theme changed, but the musical style changed as well. There were many more Western instruments and instead of a small group of musicians entire orchestras were performing. There are far fewer percussive sections, which were usually attributed to fight scenes. Even the singing was westernized, following bel canto style. Ironically, Western instruments were banned during this time, yet were allowed to be performed because the music was based on 'model operas'.

Then, the end of the decade-long Cultural Revolution in 1976 marked the end of 'model opera'. Traditional opera made its way back to the theatres and is now regularly practiced, but much damage has been done. During that decade many actors died, retired, or simply lost the touch of their art because of the lack of ability to practice it.

But that there are still older actors that made it through the Cultural Revolution and are still performing today and even though traditional opera has been greatly damaged, traditional theatre in contemporary China is still thriving.

Operas are being reformed again, but this time simply to appeal to modern audiences and not in an attempt to control the content that is getting out to the public. For intellectual urban audiences, plays with daring political and philosophical themes are staged with imagistic rather than realistic scenery and original, historically-based costumes, extraordinary classic-based scores, and innovative instrumentation.

Although the Cultural Revolution was devastating for much of China, including its art, Sichuan Opera rebounded easily afterward. The economic reform of the late 1970’s helped, as did the continued evolution of theatrical technology and technique. Today’s opera patron gets to see the best of the old and the new in Chinese opera.

Modern opera still holds long years of tradition and is blossoming in its recovery from the Cultural Revolution. Many older operas are being performed, some in pure traditional style and some with modern twists. Considering every reform that Opera has been through, one might be surprised at how much of the originality is still retained.

Sichuan opera stands out for its variety of stories. Some say there is an endless range, drawn from its diverse background and the broad culture of rural China. The Sichuan operas are a big favourite enhanced by “trick performance” like the face changing show.

The face changing performance is actually a tiny part of Sichuan Opera, but people, tourists, are curious about the face changing, as if it is a kind of circus.  If the Sichuan opera is a big sea, face changing is just like a drop of water, so to say.  
But let’s admit that because of face changing, more people are getting to know Sichuan Opera and that’s a good thing.