Pei Yan Ling – renowned Chinese Opera Master

Pei Yan Ling in her most famous role Zhong Kui, the Ghost Catcher
Pei Yan Ling in her most famous role Zhong Kui, the Ghost Catcher | Source


Introduction



Pei Yan Ling (裴 艳 玲), Company Director of Peking Opera Theatre of Hebei, is hailed as China’s living national treasure in the Chinese operatic arts.


Currently the Chairman of the Federation of Literary & Art Circles of Hebei Province and the Hebei Dramatists’ Association, she is also the Vice-Chairman of the Chinese Federation of Literary & Art Circles and the China Theatre Association.



Accolades

Some of the major awards received by Pei Yan Ling are listed below:-

(1) 3rd Plum Blossom Award (1986) *

(2) “World Outstanding Artiste Award” by Lincoln Arts Centre (1993)

(3) 13th Plum Blossom Award (1995) *

(4) 1st “Cross-Star of the Century” Award by China Federation of Literature (1995) * * *

(5) 19th White Magnolia Award for Special Achievement to the Performing Arts (2009)

(6) 24th Plum Blossom Grand Prize (2009) * *

* The Plum Blossom Award by China Theatre Association is the highest theatrical award in China.

* * The Plum Blossom Grand Prize is awarded to holders of two Plum Blossom Awards and who are still active and innovative in the opera field. To-date, altogether there is only four winners of this prestigious award.

* * * To-date, altogether only 2 winners for this Award.

(Note: Pei Yan Ling’s other official titles and awards are not listed as the correct translation for them have not been found.)

Pei Yanling in one of her famous roles "Nazha Wreaking Havoc in the Sea".
Pei Yanling in one of her famous roles "Nazha Wreaking Havoc in the Sea". | Source

 

Opera family background

Born in 1947, Pei Yan Ling was the only child in the family. Her real name is Pei Xin. Two years after she was born, her parents parted. She initially followed her mother but returned to her father’s home when she was 4. Her well-known opera actor father Pei Yuan had remarried and the step-mother was a Hebei opera actress.

Her parents had to travel with an opera troupe from place to place to perform, bringing Pei Yan Ling with them. The child, after watching every opera show, would imitate the operatic singing, acting, and stylized movement. She was especially fond of the ‘wu sheng’ (warrior) male role type.

 

Hidden opera talent

 

As opera actors were being looked down upon by Chinese society during those days, Pei Yan Ling’s father objected to her following his footsteps.  As his only child, he wanted her to have a good education and a good life.  So Pei Yan Ling has to secretly learn the opera art on her own, entirely from watching stage operas.

 

Her hidden opera talent was discovered when she offered to stand in for an actor who was suddenly taken ill.  She was only 5 years old then.  Her father, realizing her talent and seeing her love for opera acting, relented and allowed her to join his profession.

 

An autographed colour photocopy of the calligraphy  written on stage by Pei Yan Ling (portraying Zhong Kui).
An autographed colour photocopy of the calligraphy written on stage by Pei Yan Ling (portraying Zhong Kui). | Source

Harsh and rigorous opera training

Her father at first made her played the role of ‘dan’ (female role) which she has no interest at all. Finally, she was allowed to learn the male role that she loved most – ‘wu sheng’.

So at the age of 8, Pei Yan Ling received training under the renowned opera maestro Li Chong Shuai. The daily training involved singing, gestures and acrobatics and lasted from early morning till late evening (except on those days when she has performance).

Her father, a veteran ‘wu sheng’ himself, knew the benefits of training under adverse weather conditions. Pei Yan Ling’s training was conducted even during stormy, windy, snowing, or extremely hot weather.

After a year of tough training, she was able to lead in quite a number of classic plays.  She became a popular opera prodigy at the age of 9, performing with the Shandong Yue Ling Peking Opera Troupe in early 1957.

Life filled with rich (but often sad) experience

Unfortunately, at the age of 10, she was caught in the most tumultuous social movement in Chinese history. At that time, she was performing with Shulu Peking Opera Troupe and was about to finish the 3-month contract. The Troupe officials were reluctant to let her go because of her popularity. They have her father constantly subjected to “pe pan or pe dou” (critique) so that Pei Yan Ling could not leave and have to stay on to perform for them.

In 1958, the Chinese Government wanted to develop Hebei Opera and looked for top talent. In 1959, Pei Yan Ling was transferred to the Hebei Opera Troupe in Tianjin to learn Hebei Bangzi (also known as Hebei Clapper Opera). This ended her 2 years’ agonizing ordeal.

While in Tianjin, she was trained by many well-known opera masters and her opera skills see tremendous improvement. At the age of 13, she became famous for her role as the son in “The Magic Lotus Lantern”.

When she was aged 12 and 14 (in 1960 and 1962), China’s Chairman Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong) received her personally after watching her performed. (In 1976, even when he was seriously ill, Chairman Mao wanted to watch certain opera performances, including Pei Yan Ling’s. As a result, the “Magic Lotus Lantern” was quickly filmed for his viewing.)

Poem recited in the "Story of Zhong Kui".  This was written in calligraphy (see above) by Pei Yanling who portrayed Zhong Kui.
Poem recited in the "Story of Zhong Kui". This was written in calligraphy (see above) by Pei Yanling who portrayed Zhong Kui. | Source

 

When Pei Yan Ling was 17 (1964), her stage career was abruptly interrupted because male and female impersonators in opera performances were prohibited during the days of Cultural Revolution. 

 

From 1965 – 1976, Pei Yan Ling can only take part in ‘yangbanxi’ (revolutionary opera).

 

In 1971, she got married to Ding Bao Jin, an opera troupe pipa musician, and subsequently had two daughters.  [The marriage ended in divorce in 1990.  Years later, she married Guo Jing Chun who was her third opera teacher.  Guo is more than 20 years her senior.]

 

During those long years of involuntary absence from traditional opera stage, Pei Yan Ling secretly continued her training.  Only in 1978 was she able to resume her stage performances of classic plays.

 

Turning Point in career

Having suffered unspeakable hardships and setbacks, her life experience enables her to give new depth and dimensions to the different characters she portrays on stage, usually famous tragic heroes of Chinese history, literature and myth.

Her performance in Beijing in 1985 was the turning point in her stage career. She rose to fame and gained wide recognition for her outstanding operatic skills, even from famous Beijing opera maestros.

In 1986, her world-class performance took Shanghai and Hong Kong by storm. Since then, she has toured many countries such as the United States, Canada, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, Japan, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, etc giving performances and talks.

 

Woman Demon Human
Woman Demon Human

This film won 2 Chinese Academy Awards and is based on the life story of Pei Yan Ling. She acted as Zhong Kui in the movie. DVD format is only for US and Canada only.

 

Famous repertoire

Pei Yan Ling has a talent for playing a variety of Chinese opera male role-types: lao sheng (old man), jing sheng (a combination of young man and painted face roles), and wu sheng (warrior).

Her repertoire consists of classics such as:-

(1) The Story of Zhong Kui, the Ghost Catcher

(2) The Magic Lotus Lantern

(3) Nazha Wreaking Havoc in the Sea

(4) The Flight of Lin Chong

(5) Shi Xiu Kills His Sister-in-Law

(6) Blood Splattered Walls at Yuan Yang Lodge

(7) Wu Song Beating the Tiger Barehanded

(8) Prince of Lanling

(9) Yang Balang

(10) The Showdown at CuipingMountain

Three of her famous works - The Magic Lotus Lantern, Nazha Wreaking Havoc in the Sea, and the Story of Zhong Kui the Ghost Catcher - have been made into films in 1976, 1983 and 1993 respectively.These are available usually in VCD format.

Excerpts from "The flight of Lin Chong"

Innovative style of performance

Having been taught by so many opera masters of different styles, Pei Yan Ling blends their artistic opera skills into her acting, forming a distinctive style of her own.

She was the pioneer in incorporating elements of Beijing opera, the music of Kun and the Hebei Bangzi into the performance which came to be known as “Trio in the Pot” style of performance.

 

High standard of professionalism

There is a scene in “The Story of Zhong Kui” wherein Zhong Kui’s literary talent was put to test. In preparation for this scene, Pei Yan Ling sought the help of 2 calligraphers to teach her the basics of Chinese calligraphy. Samples of a poem were then written for her to practise.

After 2 years of diligent practice, Pei Yan Ling was able to act out Zhong Kui reciting and writing the poem at the same time.

This is no mean feat considering that she had very little formal education. Most of the Chinese opera artistes those days do not have the chance to attend school due to either financial reason or other circumstances.

Looking at the beautiful and artistic handwriting she demonstrated on stage (see video below) and the fluency with which she delivers talks on opera, it is hard to imagine this is from someone who had hardly been to school.

Writing scene in the "Story of Zhong Kui"

Currently at aged 64, Pei Yan Ling is still active on stage. Her professionalism, dignified style on stage, steadfast respect for art and impeccable standard make her an unparalleled figure in the field of Chinese opera.


References

Chinese website “The Pei Yan Ling that I know” by Wang Zhongde.

Book titled “Stage Hero: Pei Yan Ling’s World of Performing Arts” (in Chinese language).


 

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