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Jingju vs. Peking Opera - Zhao Qizheng weighs in

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An old jingju actor

Zhao Qizheng's got a blog.

Zhao, formerly a minister with the State Council Information Office, currently serves as vice-director of the CPPCC Foreign Affairs Committee. He's also the author of a number of books that deal with foreign attitudes on China. His latest book, In One World (在同一世界) is a collection of 101 short pieces on cultural interaction.

Earlier this month, Zhao opened a blog on Sina, making him the highest-level government official who openly blogs. What motivated him to start blogging? He answered that question in a letter to his readers (excerpted):

Let me answer this question — What's your reason for setting up a blog? For those 101 short articles I wrote 120 pieces. As I was about to finish up I didn't feel any less of a burden; on the contrary, I felt unsettled. I said to the folks at Liaoning Publishing House, it it OK? Will people like it? So I had the idea of checking it out online. If no one pays any attention, then pack it in — what's the use of wasting paper and ink?

As for the several books that were published in recent years, because they've been printed many times over, and because of their length, it's likely that only excerpts will appear, as a sort of online "make-up exam."

Zhao has his assistants handle blog posting, but he says that he'll read the feedback even if he has no time to respond. So it looks like it's more of a promotional website than a blog.

Still, he has racked up nearly half a million visits in less than a month, so perhaps we can expect the losers of the upcoming party congress session to seek appreciation from netizens instead.

Zhao's most recent post (currently at roughly 26,000 views) concerns Peking Opera — specifically, the English translation of the name, which he feels is misleading:

Jingju is not "Beijing Opera"

by Zhao Qizheng

I once talked with some French literati about how to strengthen the spread of Jingju throughout the world. We all felt that there were three representative forms of world drama: opera, ballet, and China's jingju. Someone then added kabuki.

A French person who had studied Chinese culture said that translating jingju as "Peking Opera" gives foreigners the misconception that it refers to opera like La Traviata or Carmen, performed in Beijing. Hence their curiosity may not be strong enough for them to check it out. The vastly different characteristics of jingju and western opera mean that conceptually they should never be confused. The rest of the people said they hadn't ever seen jingju, so they just understood it as "opera." The outcome of our discussion was that, seeing as jingju is one of China's artistic treasures, it ought to be transliterated as "Jingju," just as Japan's 歌舞伎 is transliterated according to Japanese pronunciation as "Kabuki." Similarly, the Japanese spoken performing art "manzai" (漫才) is transliterated phonetically into English; China's 相声 (xiangsheng) is translated as "cross-talk," but native English speakers have no idea what it means. As Feng Gong once told me, xiangsheng is xiangsheng, so the English translation should naturally be "Xiangsheng."

Regarding the translation of "jingju," a few years ago I asked Mei Baojiu [son of opera star Mei Lanfang], as well as a senior lexicographer in Shanghai, and they both felt that the transliteration "jingju" was most appropriate. Translating for meaning wouldn't be precise.

But other people say that "Peking Opera" has been used for so long (I think it's safe to say that this translation began to be used in the US after Mei Lanfang first brought jingju to America in 1930), that there's no chance of misunderstanding. But this really isn't the case — Chinese people may not misunderstand, but I've asked many foreigners and they don't really realize that jingju and opera are two different things. Korea changed its Chinese name from 汉城 to the transliteration 首尔 (Seoul), and wasn't that recognized after a year or two of effort?

I still believe that, in order to rectify its name internationally, jingju should be "jingju" in English, rather than losing its Chinese characteristics in a translation. This will definitely be advantageous to the international spread of jingju.

I did a search for the keyword "Kabuki" on Google, and it returned more than 3 million results. With "Peking Opera," there were only 600. I browsed each of the websites of China's four major theaters, and I found that apart from one out-of-date English program guide, there was no English-language content. As we yearn to spread jingju to the world, this is something that must be done at once, and it is something that is not difficult at all!


Zhao's effort to return Chinese characteristics to the English name of Peking Opera follows other efforts on behalf of improved names, mostly aimed at the quality of English translations. Beijing is currently attempting to translate menu items into standarized English before the Olympics, and there have been complaints that the Ministry of Communications and other similar agencies have misleading names. But the idea behind "jingju" is more akin to the drive to change the name of the Chinese dragon.

Zhao does have a point — Peking Opera isn't part of the European operatic tradition, so the name could indeed be misleading. However, he seems to have overstated his case a bit. Googling the string "Peking Opera" currently returns 333,000 results; "Beijing Opera" returns 230,000. Zhao may have searched for a bastardized translation like "Peiking Opera", which returns a paltry 555 hits.

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There are currently 8 Comments for Jingju vs. Peking Opera - Zhao Qizheng weighs in.

Comments on Jingju vs. Peking Opera - Zhao Qizheng weighs in

Korea changed its Chinese name from 汉城 to the transliteration 首尔 (Seoul), and wasn't that recognized after a year or two of effort?

No.

Not surprising coming from someone who used to work in the State Council Information Office. Must... control... all... information!

While recognizing some of the poorer analogies and arguments in his screed, I must say I totally agree with the main idea.

Jingju isn't "opera" in any sense whatsoever. And the "ye olde style" use of "Peking" for the "jing" part of the translation doesn't convey in any way that this is a live art, not a dead historical reconstruction.

As long as I'm not forced to like it (I keep hearing Terry Jones' voice in Eric The Viking: "We're just not a very musical people...") I would support the name change.

God save us from mad foreign "experts" who get the ear of mad Chinese "experts." Did it not occur to Mr Zhao that translating Kabuki as "the skill of singing and dancing" might just be a little too vague and this just might be one reason why it wasn't translated? Or did he ever ask any foreigners if they actually know what Kabuki is?

If we can't use "opera" for Peking Opera because it's not like western opera, then we shouldn't use "music" for Chinese music or "food" for Chinese food. We shouldn't "the Chinese language" either, because some foreigners might think that means English or French spoken in China.

I think Zhao Qizheng has a good point, though. Just look at 'kunqu', nobody says Kun Opera. I have also always hated the translation of xiangsheng into 'cross-talk'. It sounds like the name of some bad news channel pundit show. Also, in Tokyo the kabuki theater has these headphone guide things that are timed with the performance and give explanations as to what is going on. They may even have them in several languages, I forget. That would keep more foreigners in the Beijing theaters if they would put the effort into setting it up. Nowadays tourists just come, take a few snapshots from the back row, and then leave. I also think they have to stop putting mics on the singers. It makes it so the only place to sit without getting a headache (if any) is in the back row of the balcony.

cat: The wikipedia articles seem to imply one of the reasons "kabuki" and "manzai" are transliterated is because the kanji in their names has changed over time - Chinese meaning applied to native words - so translating the meaning of the characters wouldn't necessarily be correct for all forms of the art.

Two problems with "xiangsheng" - (1) if, as Zhao argues, westerners don't have the slightest idea what "cross-talk" means, what's the point in replacing it with something else they can't understand? (2) With that 'x' there, no one will be able to pronounce it, either. And judging from the most common pronunciation of Beijing, how many people will read the first syllable of "jingju" as /ʒiŋ/?

Also, is there any appreciable difference between xiangsheng and two-man vaudeville-style standup in the US? Is there a name for that, even?

True, it is hard for English speakers to pronounce 'xiangsheng' and 'jingju', but then again I haven't heard an American television host who pronounced Zhang Ziyi's name right, and she hasn't given in and gotten herself an English name yet.
Personally, I don't really have any problem of referring to jingju as 'Peking Opera', and 'Peking' has kind of a nice, older feel to it than 'Beijing' does.

I didn't know the characters had changed for kabuki. But then I know even less about kabuki than most things that I know almost nothing about.

I heard the same mispronunciation of jinju in my head that you describe, except with a ʒ at the start of the second syllable as well as the first. But the thought of hearing people trying to pronounce xiangsheng - no, no, no! I'm not too keen on "cross-talk" though. In Britain they'd be called a comedy double-act, or something like that. I don't know if that works for other English-speaking countries, or if it translates well into other languages.

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