Keeping the tradition alive: MFS sophomore training as a Beijing Opera performer

Moorestown resident Rachel Liu has been training as a Chinese Opera performer since the age of 10.

Photo courtesy of Moorestown Friends School.

Fifteen-year-old Rachel Liu is trying to keep a tradition dating back to the 18th century alive. The Moorestown resident and Moorestown Friends School sophomore has been training as a Beijing Opera performer for the last five years.

“Chinese Opera is a wonderful tradition in the Chinese culture,” Liu said. “It is not as common now as it was back then, so I want to keep this traditional art alive for as long as I can.”

Liu said she was mostly unfamiliar with the tradition until recently. She said she wasn’t exposed to Chinese Opera when she was younger, and she became involved five years ago through a family friend.

“My mom knew somebody that did this and asked her about it,” Liu said. “She thought it was a good opportunity for me to learn the Chinese culture while getting active in different kinds of performances.”

Chinese Opera encompasses hundreds of ancient stories, according to Liu. She said there are three main roles: sheng, dan and jing. Sheng refers to male characters, dan refers to female characters, and jing refers to male characters with a painted face, and each of these roles also breaks down to even more specific roles.

To date, Liu has learned five roles — four of them are based on martial arts and one is based on acting. She said all of these roles have been female characters with distinct personalities and backstories.

Liu practices at the home of her teacher, Li ShuYuan, in Philadelphia once a week after school for approximately two hours. She said Chinese Opera encompasses singing, acting and martial arts. The artform uses body language and facial expressions to convey the character, which at times, can be difficult for new audiences to understand.

“The kind of stance I have or the kind of walk I do all reveals my character’s status, gender and age,” Liu said. “I am able to show the audience what I am doing without the use of props. I can carry a chair, open a door, walk up and down stairs or ride a horse with just the movements of my body.”

The basic training of footwork, stance, body positions and facial expressions are key to bringing a character to life, Liu said. Most performers begin training as young as 4, so her start at the age of 10 was a bit late.

“The skill to mime, sing, dance and perform acrobatics at the same time is very difficult to accomplish,” Liu said.

Liu said her performances take place through the Philadelphia Chinese Opera Society and are typically during the Chinese New Year, or at times colleges and programs will invite them to perform.

Liu said she will never forget the reactions of the audiences and the feeling of satisfaction from her performances. She said it can take up to three hours to get her makeup done and put her dress and headset on. She said wearing the head piece can be stressful at times — whether it’s the pain it inflicts or the fear of it falling over during the performance.

“After all the stress and anxiety is over, a good performance given to the audience is enough for me,” Liu said. “The pain and anxiety is all worth it.”