Any visitors arriving in Shanghai will be awed by the views along The Bund - standing on the western side of the Huangpu River (Puxi) against the old British colonial buildings and looking across to the eastern side (Pudong) to view the modern city-scape with ever-rising tallest buildings in the world. Shanghai is the oriental pearl of the east.
Shanghai is separated into Pudong (East Bank) and Puxi (West Bank) by the Huangpu River: Puxi occupies the affluent cultural quarters built by the former British, French and other foreign powers. It may be difficult to imagine from todays skyline but until the turn of the 21st century, Pudong comprised of underdeveloped rural countryside, significant elements of which are still present. Only the native Shanghainese remember the old saying - 'rather a bed in Puxi than a house in Pudong'. The gap between rural and urban Shanghai is subtle, yet thorough.
Chinese opera or Xiqu is a form of popular performance of over 300 styles performed for ritual and festival entertainment in historically agricultural China. In the early 20th century, many Xiqu forms developed from folk singing to modern theatrical forms under China's modernisation and industrialisation movement. These Xiqu changed their appendix from Qu (music) to Ju (drama) thus move the emphasis from sing-song dance performance to script based director-led modern theatre production. Under Mao Zedong's era (1949-1976) substantial government funding went into Xiqu institutionalisation and modernization, transforming Xiqu performers from historical low social status to a new cultural elite class and Xiqu a socialist high art.
Shanghai currently has five main Xiqu forms and institutions established in the 1950s: Huju (沪剧), Yueju (越剧), Huai opera (淮剧), Jingju (京剧) and Kun opera (昆曲). These Xiqu travelled with their migrant patrons from Pudong and other China regions to Shanghai Puxi, where they settled and evolved within the cosmopolitan city. Despite high artistic standards, urban Xiqu continues to carry low social and cultural capital and struggles to attract a young urban audience today. Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre, which locates amongst the cluster of five Shanghai opera houses in Puxi and is China's largest modern drama theatre outside Beijing, boasts an ever increasing young urban audience but has never collaborated with any of the opera houses. The gap is not only the physical distance between rural and urban, but cultural consumption habit and class identity. Meanwhile, unprecedented urbanization and marketization from the turn of the 21st century increasingly pricing out Xiqu from city space and forcing urban troupes to tour in rural countryside where collective payment to hire performance troupes for local ritual and festival events with no individual entry fee required is still the norm and keeps the urban troupes alive.
The turning point for Xiqu arrived in 2014 when President Xi Jinping placed the ideological direction of China cultural creative industries (CCI) as to be 'anchored in traditional culture' and to 'revive traditional culture for tourist attraction and rural economic transformation.' Full funding to urban Xiqu institutions, which was cut off under Deng Xiaoping's marketisation and art institution reform since 2005 was reinstated in 2015; meanwhile all Xiqu forms across rural and urban China have been revived as the Intangible Cultural Heritage for regional socio-economic transformation and global soft power insertion.
Bridging the Gaps is a practice-led research taking performance as a method to understand the creative industries distinction and compatibility across the UK and China. The project sees the development of a series of digital performances, telling the story of establishment and evolution of Shanghai textile industry and Shanghai yueju which the female textile workers supported and developed; and the transformation of the industrial landscape and female working class art form in post-industrial China today. The digital stories aim to evoke shared memories of UK-China industrial and post-industrial transformation to forge shared creative desire and the UK-China audience taste in the digitalised global era.
The project builds on previous two awards: AHRC Newton fund Creative Economy Development in China Ghost in M50 Host (2018-21) and the AHRC UK-China Creative Partnership seed fund Bridging the Gaps (2019).