More than 100 ancient styles of opera have died out in the past five decades, a top cultural official said. There were 368 styles of opera in the 1950s, and 317 in the early 1980s. By the end of 2005, there were only 267, vice-minister of culture Zhou Heping told the press.
"If we take into account the fact that many styles of opera are losing their characteristics and merging into the mainstream culture, then the number of extinct forms of opera could be much larger," said Wang Kui, director of the Opera Research Institute under the China Academy of Arts, a research institution affiliated to the Ministry of Culture (MOC).
Preserving local styles of opera will be one of the key parts of official efforts to protect the country's intangible cultural heritage, Zhou said at the press conference prior to the second Cultural Heritage Day, which falls on June 9. The day was set by the State Council last year to demonstrate the government's determination to protect the country's cultural heritage while building a harmonious society.
Altogether, 110 operas have been added to the list of intangible cultural heritage. The MOC published the list of 518 items last year.
"Most of these operas are rooted in a small area, and they are rapidly losing their market to the overwhelming spread of pop culture," said Wang.
Few people perform even the most influential styles, such as the Gong-and-Drum Opera of North China's Shanxi Province or the Siping Opera of East China's Fujian Province, he added.
Some local operas have managed to survive by merging with mainstream culture, he said. For instance, the millennium-old Puxian Opera of Fujian was best known for the puppet-like moves of its actors and actresses, but since the early 20th century it has been learning from the Peking Opera. By the end of the century, the traditions of that style of opera had been totally lost.
To preserve intangible cultural heritage, Zhou said, it is important to fund folk artists who are still practicing dying arts so they can find young students. He added that the ministry would provide funding to 138 master folk artists before the end of this year.