Tan: Rested and Ready!

Another interview, this time with the young-ish singer Tan Zhengyan.   There will be a special video for those who read to the end.

Tan Zhengyan is a Beijing opera performer of “old-man” roles, a principal performer of the Beijing Opera Theater, and a first-rank national artist.   Born in 1979 to a theatrical family, he is the inheritor of the Tan tradition handed down over seven generations.  His paternal grandfather is Tan Yuanshou (谭元寿), his father is Tan Xiaoceng  (谭孝曾).   He studied at the Beijing Opera School, the National Opera Conservatory and the Fourth China Beijing Opera Graduate Course for Outstanding Young Talents.   In 2005, he was awarded a gold prize at the Chinese Central Television Grand Competition for Young Performers of Beijing Opera.

Tan Zhengyan belongs to the seventh generation of performers in the Tan-school.  “Little Seven Tan” sports a cheerful exterior and a dazzling smile, but few can guess the burdens placed on him by the weight of the illustrious family tradition and the inheritance of Beijing opera’s future.  He participated last week in a forum for representatives of the Beijing and Tianjin opera artists.  On the 28th he will perform “The General and Minister Reach Accord” with the young actor Fang Xu (方旭) at the National Grand Theater.

Offstage, Tan Zhengyan spend his time with charitable activities.  His positive outlook is infectious to those around him.   He says, “If it lies within my abilities, I’m ready to help anybody.”

New Capital News:  Coming from the house of Tan, you’re practically doomed to bear a lot of responsibility and pressure.  Do you feel that sense of mission?

Tan Zhengyan:  I’ve felt it since I was 8 years old.  I knew I was made for Beijing opera, that I would do it for my entire life.  Ever since I was little, I was surrounded by people who drilled into me: “Zhengyan, you have to pick up the big flag of the Tan school, accept Beijing opera as your inheritance.”  I have sacrificed a lot as a child of “Tan”.   The “Tan” name never gave me a sense of superiority.  Instead, it’s given me pressure and abuse.

New Capital News: Do you have doubts about your own abilities?

Tan Zhengyan:  I’m a pretty happy guy, and I’m usually pretty optimistic.  The more other people find fault with me, the more energy I have to overcome difficulties.   I’m also aware of my own shortcomings.   I’ll even listen to nasty remarks made about me on the internet, if those remarks have some sense to them.   When I first started reading things on the internet, it was very different.  There were a few times I couldn’t stand it.  I’d write a letter of resignation, go home and tell people that I was leaving the family business.

I am not very good at expressing myself, and many people can’t really understand my plight.  There are three generations of Tans at the Beijing opera houses.  From a young age, I also wanted to join the opera houses, but at that time I couldn’t get in because of the quotas.  It took some good luck and coincidences before I could get in.

New Capital News:  How do you handle the pressure?

Tan Zhengyan: I swallow lots of little hardships, endure lots of little troubles.  I think it’s all worth it when I hear the crowd in the audience yell “bravo”.  My fan club is called “Got Rock, Got Faces” [yan = 岩 = rock]:  if Tan Zhengyan appears someplace,  people show up to watch.  I used to keep at this business because of my Tan family name, but nowadays I have the feeling that I keep at it because of these fans.   Whenever I’m the most dispirited, they’re always there to encourage me.

Another way I have for blowing off steam is through charity.  I’m usually involved in a few charitable projects.  I hope to inspire other young Beijing opera performers and opera fans to do it with me all together.  You don’t do good things to get some sort of favor in return –  through acts of kindness to move other people’s hearts to good.

New Capital News: In your day-to-day business, are you able to rely on your friends to help publicize Beijing opera?

Tan Zhengyan:  I can.  The folks in my circle have come to enjoy Beijing opera.  There are people who don’t really dislike Beijing opera, but they think it’s something only old people listen to. They don’t even want to go into the auditorium!  The people I’ve brought to see Beijing opera have immediately fallen in love with it.   They need to be talked into it, I need to pay for their tickets out of my own pocket – if that doesn’t work, then I just forget about it.

New Capital News: Younger generations seem to listen to Beijing opera less and less.  What’s your view of the situation?

Tan Zhengyan:  Everyone has so much pressure at work, they want to find ways to lessen that pressure.  They don’t want to ponder things.  They want music that lets them shake off their cares.  Beijing opera, with its archaic grammar, has a lot of language in it that makes you scratch your head.

I get really annoyed by those folks who don’t watch Beijing opera, who say they don’t understand the staging, who say they don’t understand the music.  Beijing opera is an art – it is something you come to appreciate.  It’s not a matter of “understanding” or “not understanding”.  Moreover, everyone nowadays uses captions.  You can understand every word of a Jay Chou song?  The Cantonese songs of Andy Lau and Jackie Cheung – you really can understand those? 

New Capital News: So what would tell people is the significance of Beijing opera?

Tan Zhengyan:  In Beijing opera there is the thought of Confucius and Mencius, there are thoughts of loyalty and filial piety.  They really can educate a person.   The ancients really had a sense of righteousness which people now lack.  If it’s allowed to fall away, not only will Beijing opera come to an end, but all of Chinese traditional culture will come to an end as well.  For example: “Orphan Zhao” – I saw the movie where Cheng Ying gives the child to Tu Angu only by mistake.  But in the Beijing opera it’s not like that at all.  The play is called “Picture of Eight Justices”.  Very few people understand why you would want to help a child who is entirely unrelated to you, but I am able to understand it very well.

This is one reason I love Beijing opera: it has its source in life, but it exceeds life.  It’s artistry is in every respect extremely beautiful, extremely precise.  I think that everybody’s life would improve after a few years if they took the time to appreciate the beauty of Beijing opera – I’ve felt that way for some time.    That’s why I can’t stop trying to popularize Beijing opera.

*

My grandfather is not very articulate.  When I make a mistake, sometimes he doesn’t tell me directly about it, but instead leaves it up to my father. 

I grew up with my grandmother.  As a child, I didn’t have a lot of contact with my grandfather.  Only when I graduated from the drama school did I have more contact with him.  By that time he already seemed like an old child.  He likes to collect foreign wine.   Once I came back from France and brought a bottle of wine with me, like a kid he perched on the sofa to see what it was I was putting on the counter.  Now he is quite old.   His mind has slowed, his body has slowed.  But even though he is very old, he is still very dignified.

There was never any pressure when performing with my grandfather, I always felt excited an at ease.  There was one time when we had finished performing that my father came to me to say that my grandfather was quite pleased!  Then my grandfather came in and offered some congratulations to the other performers, thanked them all and left.  He didn’t say a single word to me.  I asked my dad: were you telling me the truth just now about my grandfather’s feelings?  My father said: your grandfather’s like that – he can be very happy without praising you to your face.   I gradually came to learn that when I gave a poor performance, my grandfather would praise me, to offer me encouragement.

New Capital News: You are 1.85 meters tall.  That can be a help in spoken drama and on television series, but is it a limitation in Beijing opera?

Tan Zhengyan:   Not necessarily.    If you’re taller than other people, you have to work harder, you’re not as flexible.  The vocal cords are longer, too, and that can affect the voice.  But all of this can be perfected with constant effort.  Our stages nowadays are so big, it’s a certain help to be so tall.   I often say that the Chang-An Theater is built for me! [Laughs]

New Capital News: You have also performed in a few television serials.  What affect has that had on your performance of Beijing opera?

Tan Zhengyan:  I always like to find some way to “stay ahead of the curve” in Beijing opera.  For one thing, by performing on television you can gain a certain amount of celebrity.  Pu Cunxin, Song Dandan, and Yang Lixin first gained fame in television and movies.  When they returned to the spoken stage, they brought their audiences with them.  I too think that I could bring some of my television fans over to my side, to get them to come to a theater to watch Beijing opera.  For another thing, you can learn a lot of new techniques by acting on television.  In school I arranged a few small works, performed in some new things, I thought it would be just like that.  But on the set, the director just gives you a general idea of how to do things – it’s not like Beijing opera where you imitate your teacher’s every movement.  When I got in front of the camera, I had no idea what to do – I had no idea how to use my hands, they didn’t give me any rule or style to follow.  I was completely alone.  Beijing opera actors lack the ability to rely on themselves to create a character.

Afterwards, I met up with some friends from the television business and learned from them how to create and perform.  After this, both audience members and professional reviews have said that my onstage characters are different from others’.  I’ve been able to blend in a little of my own understanding.

Chen Ran reported for the New Daily News.

And now for the special video I promised you.   The Tan family, grandfather Tan Yuanshou, father Tan Xiaoceng and son Tan Zhengyan, together perform Zhuge Liang’s well-known aria “I am a carefree fellow from Wolong Mountain”, from the opera “Empty City Strategy” (空城计).   We’ll be discussing this aria, this opera and this character in greater depth in the next couple of weeks.  But for now, just enjoy the family reunion as the Tan-clan take the stage.

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5 thoughts on “Tan: Rested and Ready!

  1. Thank you for translating this fairly long interview!
    I can only repeat myself: I really don’t envy this boy. He literally spills blood to carry on that banner of art.
    Exactly because of his optimistic character (and stupid New Year’s parody skits), I like him as a person, but I have to admit that as a jingju performer, he’s not my favorite.
    Side note: the video is from 2006. When I see these three individuals on one stage, I always wonder: who’s next? Will Zhengyan push his son like this? In case he’ll have one, of course. :P

    • Heya Fern:

      Thanks for your comments. He seems pretty level-headed to me. What I found most interesting about his remarks was his emphasis on the ethical dimension of the Beijing opera repertoire. Very characteristic outlook for someone who performs the old-man roles that he does, and it really hearkens back to the tradition established by Cheng Changgeng (Chéng Chánggēng, 程长庚) in the middle of the 19th century.

      • I have to read after Cheng Changgeng to know what you mean. I see he’s the 6th person in your header. :D

        The Zhao Orphan.
        With the Western way of thinking, it’s really hard to understand (or better accept and appreciate) how can someone sacrifice the life of his own infant for a family he’s serving, no matter how worthy, high-class and prestigious that family is. I hardly could act so.

        I suspect even the younger Chinese generation starts to deem this kind of morale outdated feudal loyalty, blind filial piety isn’t too fashionable either. Not to mention Confucius’ judgement on women.

        I admit that although I understand the hows and whys, I can’t necessarily adopt this set of values. At least not all aspects of it. When I watch Beijing Opera, my mind switches to “ethical” mode, but I don’t think it affects my everyday life.
        Or my morale improved, I just can’t recognize? ;)

        • Cheng Changgeng (1811-1879) had his bicentenary last year, so his name popped up a few times. There was even a miniseries based on his life that ran on CCTV last fall (“Big Boss Cheng Changgeng” 大老板程长庚). He was one of the “Three Old Worthies” (老三杰) who helped popularize old-man roles in Beijing opera (or whatever it was being called at that time) in the mid-19th century. Their repertoire tended to be more serious – opera could educate as well as entertain. Their precedents helped raise the respectability of non-Kunqu opera in the 19th century.

          Of course, everybody’s idea of morality is different. For a century or more, writers and performers have argued for the elimination of “superstitious” and “feudalistic” elements in the inherited repertoire. That’s why I found Tan’s comments interesting. I wonder whether they’re at all related to the current interest exhibited by the government and by public intellectuals in reintroducing older religious and philosophical values into public life.

          Here’s a (perhaps still functioning) link to the first episode in the Big Boss Cheng Changgeng series:

          http://ent.cntv.cn/enttv/special/C25850/classpage/video/20111025/100148.shtml

          • Hello,
            Thanks for the info and the link – too bad it doesn’t have subtitles, I hardly can understand spoken language.

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