History of the Red Boat Opera

At the beginning of Qing Dynasty, the opera activities in Foshan were very popular. With the elements of Cantonese music, folk song melodies, performing and singing in Cantonese, integration of south school of wushu, and musical instruments like gongs, drums and flutes etc, it has become a local opera with popular style, featured with vividness, popularization in language, specialty in tunes and novelty in actions. The Cantonese Opera Teams always took red boat as traffic vehicle for circular performance, thus the performers of Cantonese Opera were also called “Red Boat Folks”.

According to records, in Foshan there once appeared over 30 opera performance centers. In Qing Dynasty, a poem described: “Prosperous is opera performance, with red boats berthing along beach in the evening. Especially in Tiankuang Festival each year, thousands of audiences come to watch Qionghua.” It shows the popularity of Cantonese Opera performance activities.

In 1854, Fenghuangyi Cantonese Opera performer Li Wenmao and Chen Kaihe, the leader of Guangdong Tiandi Assembly, rose up in Guangzhou, changing the members of several thousand red boats into soldiers, wearing opera costumes and red muffle, called “Red Muffle Army”. The insurrectionary soldiers fought with Cantonese Opera vaulting skills. After capturing Foshan Town, they set Qionghua Guild Hall as headquarter. The insurrection of Cantonese Opera performers led by Li Wenmao is an unprecedented event in the world history of opera.

After defeat of the insurrection, the Cantonese Opera was once prohibited. The performers were scattered to the street or the villages to perform for living, under constant pressure from the officials. Liu Huadong, a Nanhai native, educated the Cantonese Opera performers to perform in the name of “Beijing Opera” in order to dodge persecution by the Qing Dynasty.

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