Compared with the 600-year-old Kunqu Opera, the 100-year-old Yueju Opera is considered a young member in the family of Chinese operas. Unlike the grand and noble Peking Opera, the virtually all-women Yueju Opera is characterized with romanticism and subtlety.
Famous drama critic Liu Housheng compares Yueju Opera to a 20-year-old young woman, who was born in the countryside but went to a big city to make her living, eventually forming her own character after learning from her new environment.
Liu's remarks briefly depicted the history of Yueju Opera, which came into being in the countryside of East China's Zhejiang Province in the early 20th century and later flourished in Shanghai.
On the third day of the third Chinese lunar month in 1906, which fell on March 27, a group of folk story-tellers at the Dongwang Village of Shengzhou, Zhejiang, put on the first performance of what would later become Yueju Opera. On a makeshift stage, they performed the earliest Yuejue works "Ten Articles" (Shi Jian Tou) and "Ni Feng Fans the Tea"(Ni Feng Shan Cha).
At that time, they didn't know what to call this style of opera. It was based on a local form of musical storytelling called "luodi changshu," but the performers transferred the storyteller's narration into acting of different roles and therefore created a new form of Chinese opera. It was named "xiaoge ban" or "small-song troupe."
The name would experience several changes until "Yueju" was adopted (Yue is the ancient name of Shaoxing, and ju means opera). However, March 27, 1906 has been regarded the birthday of Yueju Opera, and Dongwang Village of Shengzhou became its place of origin.
Though this form of Chinese opera has risen to become the second biggest school after Peking Opera, it is now facing the challenge of adapting to modern times.
Despite that, the hometown of this all-women opera is staunchly proud of its unique history and cultural achievements.
On March 27, Dongwang Village had a big celebration of the 100th birthday of Yueju Opera. At the square in front of the Xianghuotang House, the first Yueju performance took place 100 years ago. A troupe named after Li Shiquan, one of the performers in the first show, presented "Nifeng Fans the Tea" for the villagers at the square.
Though already 100 years old, the play's comic plot still triggered laughter in the audience from time to time. "Yueju Opera uses the dialect of Shengzhou, so everybody here understands it," said Xing Taibao, a 64-year-old man in the audience. "People like Yueju Opera here. My wife and daughter both like to sing Yueju, and I often play drums to accompany them."
In Shengzhou, there are plenty of opportunities to hear Yueju Opera in the Yueju Opera School, Yueju Opera Museum, and in the streets where aficionados of Yueju Opera gather to rehearse or perform.
In celebration of its 100th birthday, five stages were set up on the Guanhe Street of Shengzhou from March 26 to 28, presenting Yueju performances to local residents. The audience could choose the programmes they like and bring their own chairs to watch performances for free during the three days.
The Aiyi Yueju Opera Troupe, formed mostly by retired employees, attracted quite many people with their performances of "The Fragrant Fan" (Chenxiang Shan), "Wang Laohu Takes His Wife by Force" (Wang Laohu Qiangqin) and "Havoc in the Caihua Palace" (Danao Caihuagong) on the three nights.
"We started six years ago, primarily to get some physical exercises and add some fun to our lives," said the troupe's director, 55-year-old Lou Aiyu. "Now we are often invited to perform for organizations and communities."
The group started with excerpts, and began to perform complete plays since two years ago. Lou said apart from inviting instructors to give lectures, they mostly learn from video CDs.
Till the end of 2005, there are 112 registered private Yueju Opera troupes in Shengzhou, who gave about 36,000 performances a year.
For the past century, Shengzhou people have been carrying on the tradition of Yueju Opera. However, if early Yueju performers had not left Shengzhou to look for opportunities in Shanghai, Yueju Opera probably would not have become a big school of Chinese opera and instead would have remained a local opera in the countryside of Zhejiang.
It was in Shanghai that Yueju finally got its name, and it was there that Yueju transferred from an all-men opera to an all-women opera.
Yueju actors began to perform in Shanghai in 1917, but it was not until 1938, when all-women Yueju groups became popular in Shanghai, that the name "Yueju" was adopted.
In ancient China, feudal customs forbade women to act on stage, so early Yueju Operas were all played by men. However, since the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), women began to act in Peking Opera, which was welcomed and became fashionable.
The trend soon influenced Yueju Opera. The first all-women Yueju Opera group began to perform in Shanghai in 1923. Though it failed to attract audiences because of lack of experience, more and more actresses began to appear in Yueju Opera.
Women's natural beauty suited the soft character of Yueju. After a period of mixed acting, by the 1940s Yueju had become an all-women opera.
"Women's unique aestheticism and point of view endow Yueju Opera with a charm that no other Chinese opera possesses," said Mao Weitao, a well-known Yueju actress and director of the Zhejiang Xiaobaihua Yueju Troupe.
However, partly because of the dominance of actresses, most traditional Yueju works were limited to love stories, such as "Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai" ("Butterfly Lovers"), "Romance of the West Chamber" (Xi Xiang Ji), "A Dream of the Red Mansions" (Hong Lou Meng) and "Legend of the White Snake" (Bai She Zhuan).
An exception was famous Yueju artist Yuan Xuefen's acting in "Xianglin's Wife" (Xianglin Sao) in Shanghai in 1946. Adapted from great contemporary writer Lu Xun's (1881-1936) novel "The New-Year Sacrifice" (Zhu Fu), the play surpassed the boundaries of traditional Yueju Opera and led it to tackle realistic social themes.
Today, Yueju Opera artists face the challenge of adapting the content to modern times. The problem is especially relevant for Mao, as she sees that the social situations and people's aesthetic tastes have changed greatly since the birth of Yueju Opera.
"What we need to know is, apart from the eternal theme of love, can Yueju Opera have more humanistic pursuits and offer its audience something more thought-provoking?" said Mao.
Mao has been seeking the answer in her recent works. After her successful acting in "Lu You and Tang Wan" and "Romance of the West Chamber," she has been devoted to creating new works such as "Kong Yiji" and "Book Collector" (Cangshu Zhijia) in an effort to expand the scope of traditional Yueju Opera.
Mao said she had also been experimenting in presenting today's aestheticism in the traditional style of Yueju Opera.
"What will not change in Yueju Opera is the free spirit of Chinese opera, characteristic of all-women acting, and the dialect of Shengzhou," she said.
These will be tested in a new version of "Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai" by Mao's troupe, which will be staged at the China Yueju Opera Art Festival in October in the city of Shaoxing.