There’s a frequent saying in Beijing opera circles : “North has Mei Lanfang, South has Zhou Xinfang”. There’s also a saying that goes like “Southern unicorn, Northern horse”, the unicorn referring to Zhou Xinfang‘s later stage name (unicorn child), the horse to Ma Lianliang (ma means horse).
Zhou Xinfang (周信芳) (January 28, 1895 – March 5, 1975) was born in Qingjiangpu (now Jiangyin), Jiangsu, Zhejiang into a Beijing Opera family. He started to learn jingju from his father when he was 6 years old, and made his stage debut as wawasheng (children’s role) in Hangzhou at the age of 7, thus earning himself the stage name qi ling tong (七龄童), seven-years-old child.
At the age of 11 he started to learn Tan (Xinpei) school laosheng role, and entered Beijing opera school Xi Lian Cheng (Mei Lanfang also studied in this institution). From 1907 he became the disciple of Li Chunlai and switched to the stage name qilin tong (麒麟童), unicorn child.
After Emperor Guangxu and Empress Dowager Cixi both died in 1908, due to national mourning all performances were cancelled in Beijing and Zhou Xinfang moved to Tianjin.
In 1912 he returned to Shanghai and performed with Tan Xinpei, grandfather of Tan Fuying. Driven by his social conscience, with other actors he staged plays like 《宋教仁》Song Jiaoren, opposing Yuan Shikai’s autocratic rule.
From 1913 to 1926 he was performing on numerous stages, like Dangui First Stage, Beijing First Stage and Gengxin Stage.
In 1927 Zhou Xinfang was invited to Tian Chan Stage, where he was pioneering with the system of male and female performers acting on the same stage.
He joined Tian Han‘s newly founded Beijing Opera troupe Southern China Society, founded and published the Li Yuan Newspaper and organised his own company, Yi Feng Theater Company, touring for many years in Beijing, Nanjing, Wuxi, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Hankou etc.
When Southern China Society was forced to close down, Zhou safeguarded Tian Han’s escape.
In 1936 Zhou Xinfang returned to Shanghai and rejoined Golden Grand Theatre.
During the Japanese invasion, together with Tian Han and others he founded the Shanghai Theatre Save the Nation Association and Yi Feng Theater’s most plays were patriotic. Zhou Xinfang even refused the invitation for a performance from the Shanghai Japanese Secret Service.
Yi Feng Theater often received threatening letters then but Zhou Xinfang continued to write new patriotic pieces such as 《文天祥》Wen Tianxiang (Song dynasty politician and poet, folk hero in resisting Mongol invasion in Jiangxi in 1275) and 《史可法》Shi Kefa (best remembered for his defense of Yangzhou from invading armies of the Manchu-ruled Qing Dynasty).
In 1939 《文素臣》Wen Su Chen was performed repeatedly, was adapted to movie songs and Southern ballad tunes, thus people called 1939 the “Wen Su Chen Year”.
Finally Yi Feng Theater Company was forcefully disbanded in August 1941.
On 1 October 1949, together with Mei Lanfang, Cheng Yanqiu and several other opera representatives, he attended the founding ceremony of People’s Republic of China at Tiananmen Square.
He took on a variety of official roles under the new government, attended the First National People’s Congress of PRC in Beijing, was appointed as the first director of newly founded Shanghai Jingju Troupe and joined the Party in 1959.
In 1956 Mao Zedong congratulated Zhou Xinfang after a Shanghai performance of The Fishermen’s Revenge. In the same year on 21 February, Shanghai Office of Culture and China Federation of Literary and Art Circles officially celebrated Zhou Xinfang’s 50 years on stage with performances.
In the next years he was busy with premiering new plays, filming the Zhou Xinfang’s Stage Art sequel and touring, including a tour in the USSR, also performing for workers at construction sites and for farmers on the fields through China.
Troubles began in 1965, when First Lady Jiang Qing, Mao’s last wife visited the Shanghai Jingju Troupe and banned all plays, except revolutionary operas Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy and On the Docks.
Zhou Xinfang raised his voice against this complete waste of talent, and the Gang of Four started to criticize him in the newspapers, starting with Yao Wenyuan’s article “On the New Historical Beijing Opera Hai Rui Dismissed from Office“, which launched the Cultural Revolution.
The writings was getting worse and worse, and Zhou was arrested on November 14, 1968. He was released in 1969 but was kept under house arrest till his death.
In 1974 he was expelled from party membership and labeled anti-revolutionary, despite of his defiant objections.
He died of illness on 8 March, 1975 in Shanghai Huashan Hospital.
Zhou Xinfang was never afraid of replacing the outdated with the new, liked to experiment with new performing media like cinematography, Western style stage plays, ballet etc.
Besides performing, he was also a producer, director, playwright of Beijing operas and motion pictures, he also wrote articles for newspapers occasionally.
His most noted film is entitled Zhou Xinfang’s Stage Art, consisting of Beijing operas《徐策跑城》Xu Ce Running to The Emperor’s Court and《下书杀惜》Killing Yan Xijiao for a Letter, also he was starring in Beijing opera movies 《琵琶记》The Chinese Lute, 《斩经堂》Murder in the Oratory and《宋士杰》Song Shijie.
Through his 70 years long career he performed in about 600 full length Beijing Opera pieces, so it would be a vain effort to mention them all, but some of his signature operas are《扫松下书》Sweeping Pine Needles,《乌龙院》Wulong Yuan, 《萧何月下追韩信》Xiao He Chasing Han Xin Under the Moonlight , 《清风亭》Cool Breeze Pavilion,《宋士杰》Song Shijie,《徐策跑城》Xu Ce Running to The Emperor’s Court,《义责王魁》Upbraiding Wang Kui and《坐楼杀惜》Killing Yan Xijiao.
→ 京剧《徐策跑城》Xu Ce Pao Cheng (Xu Ce Runs to the City Walls) [DOWNLOAD] 31MB
→ 京剧《宋士杰》Song Shijie [DOWNLOAD] 36MB
Zhou Xinfang had superb vocal abilities in his childhood, but heavy performances soon undermined it, and his original voice turned rougher, deeper and lower. He cleverly made use of this condition and his new voice became a special characteristic of his own, unique art style, now known as Qi school.
His singing gets close to colloquial language, his spoken lines are full of life, very vigorous and powerful.
In his performances he emphasizes acting, conveying the characters innermost feelings through singing, movements and appearance. He was especially good at using costume apparel and stage props to portray the character, and came up with creative innovations regarding instruments, costume pieces and make-up.
Some of his disciples are Gao Baisui (高百岁), Wang Shaolou (王少楼), Li Shaochun (李少春), Li Hezeng (李和曾), Xu Minchu (徐敏初) and around twenty more.
Qi style doesn’t limited to Beijing opera laosheng role, there’s also Qi school Beijing opera huadan and hualian (painted face) role, Qi school huju (Shanghai opera) and yuèjù (Cantonese opera) laosheng, also he has followers from various fields of art, like prominent playwrights, dramatists, calligraphers, novelists, modern drama actors and famous movie stars, endorsing the common saying:
“Zhou Xinfang is not only of the past, but he is of today also, and even more, he is of the future.”
Sources: Zhou Xinfang’s Official Website, baidu.com, Wikipedia, Hudong Wiki.
Photos: sina.com.cn News Center, from the book “The Republic in Pictures”, First Page PRC
Some articles of Zhou Xinfang’s Official Website are translated to English, sometimes a bit awkwardly, but it’s terrific compared to other Chinese websites. It’s worth to check the Photographs page too. Beware, it has background music.