Folk artist still gong strong at 70


Striking Chinese gongs for 50 years, Liu Zibin, a 70-year-old folk artist in northern China’s Tianjin Municipality, is eager to introduce the traditional musical instrument used in Chinese opera to more people.

Liu became addicted to Chinese opera in his childhood when his grandfather frequently took him to watch performances.

At the age of 13, he joined Hebei Bangzi Opera training team.

Hebei Bangzi Opera is one of the oldest types of Chinese opera in northern China, which became popular in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Like Peking Opera, it is a traditional Chinese opera combining music, vocals, dance and acrobatics.

“It took me hours to practice the basic skills of gongs,” he said. “This round piece of metal can help performers on the stage to express joy and sorrow when hit by a stick with different rhythms, so I must bear in mind all kinds of rhythms for various situations.”

“For example, striking gongs with a quick tempo can create a tense atmosphere for action scenes.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, the reorganization of opera troupes in Tianjin forced many members to switch their jobs to those in factories. Thanks to Liu’s brilliant skills, he was fortunate enough to go to one of the three biggest Beijing Opera troupes in Tianjin to continue his gong life.

Gradually, Liu gained prestige in Chinese opera circles. In the 1990s, he carried his gongs to perform in Australia, New Zealand and the United States, presenting the essence of the art.

Ten years ago, Liu retired, but he still goes to an opera tea house almost every afternoon to strike the gong for opera performances. “My life would not be complete without Chinese gongs,” he said.

In 2006, Hebei Bangzi Opera was inscribed into China’s list of national intangible cultural heritage.

However, he worries about maintaining the art as fewer and fewer youngsters are learning percussion, especially gongs.

“People who strike the gong stay behind the scenes. It is hard for them to gain fame and fortune,” he said.

Although many amateurs have learned from Liu over the years, some gave up easily.

“It’s a bit monotonous and boring to continuously strike a gong for 40 minutes at the practice stage. It requires patience. Few can bear the hardship,” he said.

Liu said that there are fewer and fewer professional opera troupes today, with just two professional Beijing opera troupes in Tianjin. “It’s even harder for opera lovers to join in.”

Zhao Wei, 41, has learned from Liu for over a year. “Striking gongs needs strength, which would be lacking when one gets old. We hope more young people can join us and bring vitality to the trade.”

Various kinds of Chinese gong are neatly placed at Liu’s home. He is waiting for more people to take over his career and spread the traditional Chinese art. Enditem

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