Saturday was World Cultural Development Day. In Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in southwest China’s Sichuan Province, performers are carrying on the 600-year-old art of Tibetan opera.
Tibetan opera can be traced back to the 14th century. It was registered as a national intangible cultural heritage by China’s State Council in 2006, followed three years later with an international listing by UNESCO. It is celebrated as an auspicious art tradition on different Tibetan festive occasions, including Tibetan New Year, Shoton Festival and Saga Dawa Festival.
Tibetan opera is considered a “living relic of traditional Chinese culture.” It follows a fixed three-part format. The eight traditional plays about the life of Buddha and Buddhist scripture remain the core of performances, though nowadays some Tibetan groups write their own plays. The props of Tibetan opera are simple, but the backdrops are majestic.
Nature becomes a stage, with snowy mountains, a blue sky and grasslands as the scenery. With only a drum and cymbals for the accompaniment, the audience can sit on the ground to enjoy the performance.
In Xinduqiao County, Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, a troupe composed of farmers and shepherds is rehearsing for a performance to mark the birth of Buddha. Tibetan opera can run for two or three days, but this time they only have 10 minutes.
Zhaxi Jiangcuo is the leader of the group. He told CGTN that Tibetan opera used to be performed in squares, but now it is more often performed on the stage. “We can adapt Tibetan opera for different durations and venues, but we keep the most basic characteristics,” he said.
Because not everyone in the audience can understand Tibetan, they skipped the second part which contained a monologue and singing in Tibetan. They’ve focused on the dancing that’s performed in the opening and closing of the play, which are interpretations of Buddhist ceremonies.
Their shows have been well-received. But Zhaxi worries about the future of Tibetan opera. He said, “we do not have enough funding, all the 25 members in the group are unpaid. A lot of talented people prefer to make money rather than practicing and learning Tibetan opera.”
Zhaxi is 53 years old. They have younger members such as Gama Duoji, who is 23. He is playing an old man called “Zhaxi Xuba” in the show, who usually appears in the third act praying for good fortune. Duoji said he enjoys performing very much, Tibetan opera is a part of his life and he will continue this unique musical tradition in the future.