Pint-sized Warriors Fight to Preserve Ancient Art

By Dan Catinella

Photo by Dan Catinella

An 8-year-old girl plunges a knife at a boy, who eludes the attack and manages to block it. Struggling, he pries the knife from her hands and slams it into the ground. She tries to run, but he grabs her from behind. They continue to tumble across the room as a crowd stares in awe.

This is no back alley rumble but children learning the world famous art of Jing Ju or Beijing Opera. They are enrolled in The Baoding Art School, and they are performing for a visiting delegation of foreign students.

The school is one of a small group in China dedicated to preserving the tradition of Beijing Opera. The opera, which began in the 18th century, has a rich and colorful history. It features actors in distinctive thick, colorful make up and costumes in stories about civil, political and military struggles from four classic Chinese novels.

Sadly, the art of Beijing Opera is dying. Performance attendance is dwindling and recruitment is becoming increasingly difficult. The style and context is considered antiquated by China’s younger generations and the opera is struggling to stay current and meaningful.

The students from Baoding Art School are handpicked from across the country by the school’s teachers, or shi fu (shi-foo). Traditionally, teachers sign contracts with parents giving them full rights over the children in return for training, housing and food. The students live with the teacher and participate in the schools rigorous training program.

Their regimen can consist of up to 18 hours a day of vigorous physical exercise, weapons training, acrobatics, martial arts and acting. The children often wake as early as 5 a.m. to begin stretching and preparing mentally for the coming day. They spend the next several hours in academic classes of history, science and mathematics and then, after a short break, spend the remainder of their day in physical training.

The training is grueling on their developing bodies, but it is specifically designed to increase flexibility, balance and technique. The teachers are constantly pushing the students towards perfection and may often punish them for improper technique by caning or beating them.

Despite the intensity, the culmination of their training is an immaculately choreographed and executed performance of traditional Chinese stories. The movements, costumes, makeup and song are beautiful and graceful.

For many, the outcome of their hard-work is worth it. Despite becoming an ambassador of ancient Chinese culture, commercial performers can expect a substantial salary and comfortable lifestyle while bringing joy to an audience.

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