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Learning About Tibet from Opera

2013-12-12 15:47:54

(China Today)


Where there is a Tibetan community, there is also Tibetan Opera. One of the oldest forms of drama among peoples of Central Asia, Tibetan Opera can be traced back to the 13th century. Thang-stong-rgyal-po (1385-1464), a lama of the White Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, is believed to be the founder of Tibetan Opera. He wrote many dramas that musically portray religious stories and biographies of great men.

From the 17th century Tibetan Opera developed into the performances seen today. The librettos, dances, melodies, masks and costumes of Tibetan Opera have gradually evolved through combining religious rites, folk dances, songs, ballad-singing and story-telling. Countless artists, playwrights and drama lovers of the nobility refined and enriched its form. Tibetan Opera is popularly performed in neighboring Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces as well as throughout Tibet Autonomous Region.

A true appreciation of the historical legacy of Tibetan Opera requires delving into opera classics. The eight Tibetan Opera dramas presented in this book are local favorites. The first, Princess Wencheng, is one of the most famous as well as a representative piece with a historical theme.

In 640, Princess Wencheng (625-680) of the powerful Tang Dynasty was sent to marry Song-tsen Gampo (?-650), king of Tubo, a strong regime in Tibet. The princess took medicines, grain and vegetable seeds, books on science and technology, exquisite handicrafts and a retinue of craftsmen to the desolate plateau.

The marriage promoted cultural and economic communications between the inland and Tibet, as well as the latter’s productivity. Generations of poets write verses in praise of Princess Wencheng, and historical records mention local people’s esteem and admiration of the princess. The Tibetan Opera Princess Wencheng is drawn from such historical data and folk legends, and enriched with artistic imagination.

The play comprises many scenarios well known among all Chinese opera lovers. To win Princess Wencheng’s hand, the king’s envoy Blon-ston-btsan had to perform feats such as threading a zigzag hole in a bead with silk filament, enabling 100 foals to find their mothers and identifying the princess among 300 beautiful ladies. His success in all proved his folk skills, intelligence and down-to-earth wisdom.

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