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Born in 1982, Yu Hui, an opera performer with Shanghai Jingju Theater Company, is one of the few remaining inheritors of the dwindling Qi school of Peking opera. "The number of current performers can be counted on 10 fingers," young Yu says in his orotund voice. Qi is a representative school of Peking opera in southern China. Created by Peking opera master Zhou Xinfang, who enjoyed equal popularity with Mei Lanfang from northern China, the Qi school used to have a deep influence on Shanghai's opera culture.

Yu Hui (right) performs in Peking Opera Breeze Pavilion.

Yu Hui (right) performs in Peking Opera Breeze Pavilion.

The first work Yu learned in Qi school is Qingfeng Ting (Breeze Pavilion). When he performed at Shanghai Grand Theater, his friend brought a foreigner to watch and he was moved to tears by the plot and Yu's performance. "I asked him whether he could understand without Chinese subtitles. He said yes while wiping away his tears," Yu told Jiefang Daily.

Sadly, the art of Qi is declining. "The old masters are all now in their 80s while we are in our thirties, so there is a gap between the generations. There are currently only six actors who can perform on the stage," said Yu.

In 2015, Zhou Xinfang Art Research Association together with Shanghai Jingju Theater Company and Shanghai Theater Academy co-organized a seminar of the Qi school of Peking opera, a continuation of previous seminars held in 1984, 2001 and 2008.

Yu Hui, like most traditional Chinese opera artists, does his own make up.

Photo

Yu Hui, like most traditional Chinese opera artists, does his own make up.

During the 10-month training program, seven masters of the Qi school were invited to pass on eight classic plays to 25 trainees. Nine had previously studied Qi while the remainder were recruited from other schools or other traditional plays.

Though the masters are now in their winter years, with the oldest being 84, they still spare no effort to try to develop the Qi art. Yu, who attended the seminar, recalled that the masters were inexhaustible in their teaching to make sure the trainees understood the charm of Qi.

Yu Hui sings in a rehearsal.

Yu Hui sings in a rehearsal.

Yu Hui (middle) puts on his costume with the help of co-workers.

Yu Hui (middle) puts on his costume with the help of co-workers.

Waiting in vain

The decline of the Qi school reflects the overall current status of Peking Opera in China, which has fallen victim to television, films, pop music, karaoke, computers and other forms of popular entertainment that have consumed Chinese society and culture in recent decades.

With little to no change in its singing style or subject matter in over 200 years, Peking Opera is rapidly losing modern audiences, especially millennials who prefer their entertainment fast and forgettable. The low income of Peking Opera performers, not to mention the 10 hard years of training it requires, are also giving modern parents cause to reconsider sending their children to professional opera schools.

Youngsters study Peking Opera arias from Yu Hui.

Youngsters study Peking Opera arias from Yu Hui.

Yu Hui enjoys a relaxing moment in his car after class.

Yu Hui enjoys a relaxing moment in his car after class. Photos: Yang Hui/GT

 Xiao Zhang (pseudonym), a professional Peking opera actor who graduated from the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts, told chinanews.com that after joining a troupe in Beijing his monthly salary was less than 3,000 yuan, leaving him and his classmates struggling with the burden to survive in expensive Beijing.

Working for seven years as a performer, Zhang is now at a crossroads of his professional life. He said that he hopes to pursue work related to show business, even as an event executive, but is reluctant to give up all the time he has spent learning Peking opera.

"My classmates have been waiting in vain for a good role for years. Now, many of them are considering switching careers even though they don't know what else they can do," Zhang said.