The cover of Pei Yanling's Biography [Guangzhou Daily]
Born Pei Xin in 1947 in Su'ning County, north China's Hebei Province, Pei's parents divorced when she was just 2. She initially lived with her mother, but returned to her father's home at the age of 4. By this stage her father Pei Yuan, a well-known Hebei Opera actor in his own right, had remarried to a woman who was also a Hebei Opera performer.
Also known as Hebei bangzi, Hebei Opera is a popular genre of Chinese opera that dates back about 140 years. It derived from Qinqiang in northwest China's Shaanxi Province and Shanxi bangzi in north China's Shanxi Province, which were introduced to Hebei in the mid-Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Hebei Opera is sung in the Beijing dialect.
Pei traveled with her father and stepmother's touring Hebei Opera troupe while still an infant. After watching each show, she would imitate the operatic singing, acting and dramatic movements. She was especially fond of the wusheng, the male role in traditional opera often depicted as majestic and agile.
Pei's own opera talents were discovered when she was 5 after being asked to replace an actor who suddenly fell ill. She became a popular opera prodigy at the age of 9, performing just a few years later for Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976).
However, her stage career was put on hold during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when traditional opera was suppressed along with many other art forms. Rather than abandon her passion, Pei continued to practice in secret to hone her showmanship.
In 1978, she made her long overdue return to the stage and helped spearhead a revival of Chinese opera. By 1985, she had shot to fame and was performing across the country.
During the heyday of her career, she made the momentous decision to switch from Hebei Opera to Peking Opera.
In 2009, Pei was honored with the Plum Blossom Prize, the highest theatrical award in China awarded by the China Theater Association, for her outstanding performance in Xiangjiuxiao, an opera based on the lives of early Peking Opera artists.
Author of Pei Yanling's Biography Xue Xiaochan spent three years following the opera star to watch her performances and chat with her about Chinese opera. Xue even traveled to places where Pei had previously lived and performed to interview her fellow artists and fans.
Apart from documenting Pei's illustrious career on stage, Xue also provides insight into her personal life by including stories of love and family life that ultimately deliver a well-rounded account of one of Chinese opera's most enduring stars.
(Source: Beijing Morning Post/Translated and edited by womenofchina.cn)
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