Bridging the Gaps:

Mixed Reality Performance of Chinese Opera in Rural and Urban Shanghai

 

Bridging the Gaps is funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through its UK-China research-industry creative partnership grant with matched funding and in-kind contribution from a team of UK and China research institutions and industry partners, including Shanghai Municipal Government, Leeds City Council, Yorkshire based digital SMEs: DUBIT and Human VR, Shanghai Textile Museum, Leeds Industrial Museum and Shanghai Yue Opera House (上海越剧院).

Taking Shanghai Yue Opera as a case study, the project brings together arts institutions, digital media small and medium enterprises (SMEs), government policy makers from both countries, to assist in-depth understanding of transnational production and consumption patterns. It provides a rare and exciting opportunity for UK arts institutions, government bodies and SME companies to enter the Chinese market as a cluster, with complementary areas of expertise, to provide each other with linguistic and cultural support and shared resource, whilst developing partnerships in Shanghai and establishing a long-term UK-China ‘creative chain’.

Bridging the Gaps

Any visitors arriving in Shanghai will be awed by the views along The Bund – whilst standing on the western side (Puxi) of the Huangpu River, against the old British concession buildings, and looking across to the eastern side (Pudong), to view the modern city-scape including some of the 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): Puxi occupies the affluent cultural and financial 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, and yet thorough.

Chinese opera, a form of popular culture of over 300 styles is predominantly related to the rural communities and rural migrant workers in urban cities. It carries low social and cultural capital and struggles to engage with the young Chinese urban audience. There are currently seven main opera forms in Shanghai: Hu opera, All-female Yue opera, Yu opera, Huai opera, Huangmei opera, Beijing opera and Kun opera. These opera forms have travelled with their migrant patrons from rural Pudong and other regions in China to urban Shanghai, where they settled, became absorbed and have since evolved within the cosmopolitan city. Despite distinctive artistic achievement, Chinese opera consistently carries low social and cultural capitals and struggles to attract a young urban audience.

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 the rural-urban spaces, but cultural identity consumption and construction associated with new millennium class restructuring.

Xi Jinpings’ Presidency of China has, from 2014 placed increasing emphasis on balancing rural-urban social economic development and positioned traditional Chinese art forms, including Chinese opera, at the centre of China’s creative and cultural industries (CCI). Traditional Chinese culture, including Chinese opera, has been identified by the party-state as the anchor of the Chinese creative industry, for regional and national economic development. China’s new leadership is trying to bridge the cultural and social class gaps regionally, nationally and internationally under the call of cultural and creative industries. However, the division persists.

The Bridging the Gaps project takes Shanghai Yueju as a case study, bringing together a cluster of UK-China research-industry partners with complementary skills to explore the potential of mixed reality performance in bridging Shanghai’s rural and urban communities and developing respective creative economies across China and the UK. This project is primarily ‘action-research’. As such the development of the project will be highly iterative, with the research team working closely with industry partners in a reflective and participatory manner, whilst exploring answers to the concept and practice of building a sustainable ‘creative chain’ amongst SMEs, art institutions and policy makers in the process of global production and consumption.

The project is the follow-on award of the 2019 AHRC UK-China Creative Partnership seed fund of the same title. For more information on this see the documentary video Bridging the Gaps 2019. It is also running consecutively with a further Shanghai based project funded by the AHRC Newton Fund in Creative Economy Development in China: Ghost in M50 Host (2018-21).