1988: Peking Opera Crew Defected and Sought Asylum in the United States

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Peking Opera: Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy was one of only eight “model plays” allowed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) used to brainwash the people. Such was the popularity of this opera that it was in the repertoire of almost all Peking Opera troupes in China, particularly during the Cultural Revolution.

However, 33 years ago, the Chinese Peking Opera circle was rocked to the core when more than 30 crew members of the Peking Opera crew defected. They stayed back and did not return to mainland China, seeking asylum in the United States when they went there to perform.

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Qi Shufang, who took the main role in the opera Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, led the defection of the crew to the United States. Qi Shufang was a household name in the 1970s in mainland China. The play portrays Yang Zirong (1917-1947), a real-life character and the protagonist of the opera story. It recounts Yang Zirong infiltrating the bandits’ stronghold that led his unit to defeat the more well-equipped bandits.

Qi Shufang was born in 1942 into a Peking Opera family. Her elder brother Qi Yingcai was the deputy dean of the Shanghai Peking Opera House. Her sister-in-law Zhang Meijuan was the No. 1 Wudang martial artist in Peking Opera in China, and her third brother Qi Yingqi was a Peking Opera martial artist.

Peking opera performance of Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy caused a sensation in Beijing

In 1967, Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy caused a sensation in Beijing.  Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai personally received the troupe members, believing that Qi Shufang had a promising future and asked her to work harder.

Peking Opera superstar herself Ms. Qi Shufang.
Peking Opera superstar herself Ms. Qi Shufang. (Image: via ntd.tv)

In 1987, Qi Shufang took her masterpiece opera Fire Phoenix to Hamburg to participate in the art festival in Germany, again causing a sensation and all the tickets were sold out. The play had difficult kicks and ballet lifts, which stunned the audience and they all stood up and applauded. 

In the same year, Qi led a delegation to participate in the Vienna International Arts Festival and also visited Japan and other places. Wherever she went, her wonderful performances amazed the audience. Even the Japanese media called her the “Japanese favorite opera artist.” 

In 1988, Qi Shufang took the opera troupe to perform in the United States. Unexpectedly, more than 30 members of the crew led by Qi Shufang herself all defected. They decided to stay and did not return to mainland China. They all sought asylum in the United States. This news shocked the Shanghai Peking Opera Theatre and even the entire Shanghai cultural establishment, as well as the nation.

At that time, Qi Shufang’s husband Gong Guotai, whose duties in the Shanghai Peking Opera were composition, orchestration, and vocal design, did not follow the crew to the United States due to travel restrictions imposed on citizens traveling abroad. Gong Guotai was in grief and anger. This event unexpectedly ended their 14-year marriage. 

Gong Guotai later recalled that the gap in the quality of life between China and the United States was too great. Qi Shufang and the others believed that they would earn more than their domestic salary in a month by washing dishes in a restaurant, so they decided not to return to mainland China.

However, Qi Shufang said in an interview with the media in the United States that she led a group to tour Europe and the United States that year, giving her the idea of ​​spreading the essence of Peking Opera art to countries overseas and this is why she made up her mind to stay in the United States.

Way back in 1949, after the CCP usurped power in that year, it wreaked havoc on traditional Chinese culture and transformed the orthodox Peking Opera into a retrograde form that emphasized struggles and strife, which deeply saddened some of the artists.

Life in the U.S. was much better compared to the life of the highly skilled, overworked, and underpaid performers of the Peking Opera back in communist China.
Life in the U.S. was much better compared to the life of the highly-skilled, overworked, and underpaid performers of the Peking Opera back in communist China. They decided to stay in the U.S. (Image: Sean Pavone via Dreamstime)

Not long after Qi Shufang defected to the United States, she married Ding Meikui, the director of the crew who also defected with her. Ding Meikui was also skilled in martial arts and looked outstanding. Qi Shufang led more than 30 crew members to register in New York’s only overseas Peking Opera troupe — the Qi Shufang Peking Opera Troupe.

Qi Shufang said that the art of the Peking Opera was different from Western opera. In addition to singing, it also emphasizes “doing, reading, and playing.” Coupled with the meticulous stage design, exquisite lighting, and colorful costumes, it soon captured the admiration of American audiences.

Someone once asked Qi Shufang: “Have you ever considered returning to China and returning to your roots?” Both Qi Shufang and her husband Ding Meikui replied that they had no plans to do so. They believed that it is more meaningful to carry forward the orthodox Peking Opera’s performing arts overseas.

Source: ntdtv.com — Translated by Chua BC

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