| Zhou Xinfang (1895-1975), was Beijing
Opera¡¯s renaissance man of the twentieth century.
A personal vision to advocated justice, patriotism and dignity for
performers was a rare and noble quality for a man born in the late
1800¡¯s. As an artist, he was unrivalled both in his performing genius
and genuine passion for perfecting the cream of Beijing Opera by
replacing the dated with the new.
Founder of the Qi style, Zhou made his performing
debut at the age of just 7, hence his stage name of Qiling Tong
- Seven Year Old Child. This alias was later changed to Unicorn
Child (pronounced the same in Mandarin) when he grew up to playing
Lao Shen (mature roles wearing beard).
A native of Ci City, an ancient town steeped in 1,200
years of rich history and heritage, boasting 519 Emperor¡¯s Scholars,
Zhou¡¯s father Zhou Wei Tang was also an actor. Zhou senior was to
rebel from his respectable scholarly home in order to join a Beijing
Opera Troupe, and he never looked back.
Zhou Xinfang grew up in the environment of his father¡¯s
opera troupe and was sent to a major repertory company in Beijing
at the age of 13 for four years during which he performed before
the Empress Dowager.
A man of great stature and social conscience, Zhou¡¯s
productions were rich with characters of historical significance
to reflect the signs of the times. He was the first Beijing Opera
Actor to adopt the ¡°director¡± method from the western stage, thus
systemising Beijing Opera as a fluent artistic form.
In the 1920s, Zhou branched into the then very new
genre of cinematography. He appeared in 2 segments of an unfinished
silent film and later penned two screenplays for motion pictures
in 1929. During the 30s, he was active with Western stage plays,
also a novelty in China. He was a member of the Southern China Theatre
Company, one of the first theatre companies that did Western plays
in Chinese, and he himself performed in two productions.
His willingness to experiment with new performing
medium allowed him to participate and assimilate the essence of
other forms of artistic disciplines: Chinese operas in various dialogues,
films (from actors such as Charlie Chaplin, John Barrymore and Ronald
Colman), stage plays, ballet, tango, waltz etc. Zhou Xinfang developed
his unique Qi style, so powerful and authentic that it appealed
to a diversified spectrum of audiences.
During the Japanese occupation, Zhou chose the pro-active
way to boost the morale of the people ¨C he performed plays calling
on all Chinese to remember patriotic heroes of old. When forbidden
by the Japanese to perform two major historic titles, he left the
posters to remain at the front of the theatre until the company
was forced to disband.
After the war, he led many marches to protest, among
which was the objection to actors being required as a ¡°duty¡± to
¡°sign up¡± along side prostitutes. He used strong words appealing
to both artists and the public to respect their profession as performers.
Apart from being an actor, he was also a producer,
director, playwright and he wrote for the press periodically. He
crossed genre both within the operatic discipline and the technical
form, appeared in four motion pictures over 3 decades. Always a
pioneer, in nearly 7 decades, he performed some 600 different (mostly
full length) titles, a record never having been surpassed by a world
His followers are many. Some were formal apprentices
who came with full ceremony; others were artists heavily influenced
by him who took pride in being a Qi. Among them are Qi Beijing Opera
Actresses, Qi Beijing Opera Hua Lian (painted face) actors, Qi dialect
opera actors of a variety including that of Shanghai Opera and Cantonese
Opera, Qi playwright, Qi Calligraphists, Qi authors, Qi film actors,
Qi painters , Qi stage play actors etc. etc., the list is still
International film star Stephen Chow has recently
been reviewed by critics to be acting in Qi style, this endorses
the common saying: ¡°Zhou Xin Fang is not only of yesterday, he is
of today, and even more, he is of the future.¡±
Zhou had inspired and influenced generations of audiences
and colleagues with his Qi courage on and off stage ¨C courage to
defy tradition, courage to embrace the new and discard the dated,
courage to lead his peers in the face of repression, and above all,
the courage to always take a stand on what is JUST.
Zhou Xinfang died in 1975, eight years after the
tragic death of his beloved wife Lillian. He was survived by 3 sons
and 6 daughters.