Qionghua Assembly Hall, the History of Guangdong Opera

From the south of Fenjiang river and the north of Gaoji street, to the east of Songfeng Road and the west of Yongan road, the land with thousands of year history has the longest and the most active memory of Foshan People. Fortunately, these memories will be reappeared as the active old city planning scheme was finally settled. These familiar and unfamiliar names, such as Qionghua Assembly Hall, Zhongyixiang memorial  ateway, Zhengbu wharf, Rongsheng Tang etc. are not only the sites of history books but also shew the past trace of the city. From now on, our newspaper will open the column of “City Marks ” to find out the old city stories behind the streets and lanes of the city, which can make people of Foshan know the cith history and its regional characteristics.

In Guangdong Opera field, there was an old saying :”Jiqing is before Bahe, and Qionghua is the one before Jiqing .”. which also comfirmed that Foshan Qionghua assembliy hall was the earliest Guangdong opera assembly hall and established its irreplaceable status in the development history of the opera.

It is said that the buildings of Qionghua Assembly hall which once stood on the Dajiwei of the south of Fenjiang river could be comparable with Foshan Ancentral Temple. It was a beautiful view to see red boat actors and actresses gather and go to the towns to perform from there.

Although Qionghua Assembly Hall was razed by the army of Qing dynasty many years ago, even today you can hear Guangdong opera everywhere from the depth of the alley, the old houses and the park pavilion. This folk activity with strong base was melt into Foshan people blood and is still alive today.

When was Qionghua Assembly Hall built?

Huang Junwu, an old artist of Guangdong opera and the last president Bahe Hall , once said: "Qionghua hall is the first opera hall of Guangdong Opera.” But there is no proof to show the exact time when the hall was built. 

According to the " Brief History of Guangdong Drama ", When Emperor Yongzheng succeeded to the throne, a famous actor, Zhang Wu , who was also called Tan Shouwu, came to Guangdong and lived in Dajiwei, Foshan town. At that time, he taught Beijing Opera and Kunqu to the red boat actors and actresses, changed it to his organization and set up Qionghua Assembly Hall. In the poem “Qilv” which was written by Guo Moruo to Guangdong Opera Troup, it said that “Once a famous actor Tan Shouwu set up a theatrical trope in Foshan town.” In fact, the saying has greatly shorten the history of Guangdong opera. Qionghua Hall was not built in Yongzheng period.

In the early Ming Dynasty, Foshan folk act was very popular. Kunqu opera troups, Hui opera troups and many troups from Jiangxi and Hunan provinces often came to Guangdong to perform. In Foshan Shiwan “Taiyuan Huo Family Genealogy ” of Chenghua 17 year in Ming Dynasty (in 1481), it recorded the grand occasions of the theatre:” There were a lot of common customs in a year which are difficult to ban, such as the lantern lights and wine on Yuanxiao Festival on the 15th day of the first Chinese lunar month, Celebration on the third day of the third month of the lunar calendar, Dragon boat race of the fifth day of the fifth Chinese lunar month, and the theatre of the seventh day of the seventh month of Chinese lunar calendar.” Around the period of emperor Wanli in the Ming dynasty, many assembly halls of all walks of life emerged in prosperous Foshan, so Qionghua Hall was also set up as the carrier of Guangdong opera culture.

“At that time, many play boats anchored round Qionghua assembly hall , which was also the place for actors to register. ” On every important occasion , the troups would get together to fulfill the wishes. Sometime several troups performed together on the same stage, which was very boisterous.”  Although the old scene is difficult to reproduce, from the recorded words, we can still see the  important position of Qionghua assembly hall in the history of Guangdong opera.

The size of the buildings of Qionghua hall was equal to the Ancestral Temple

"There were thirty-seven assembly halls in the town, and Qionghua hall was the most magnificent ."

At that time, after the establishment of Qionghua hall, many assembly halls of all walks of life emerged in Foshan, in which the handicraft industry and commerce were very lourishing, but the scales of other halls were inferior to the Qionghua hall. It was recorded in “the Annal of Foshan Zhongyi Township” that "There were thirty-seven assembly halls in the town, and Qionghua hall was the most magnificent."

Now nobody knows Qionghua hall exactly. But the former staff of the early Foshan museum, Kong Zhaiguang who once saw Qionghua hall in Dajiwei in 1914.said: “There were four big pillars in front of the entrance and there was also a pavilion there. Two words were on the plaque – Assembly Hall. The entire area was large than that of the Ancestral Temple at the time. ”

In addition to large scale, Qionghua hall had great power in those days because it was also an management organization of Guangdong opera in Guangdong and Guangxi provinces, which exercised the functions like media bureau today. For example, the copyright problem, at that time,if one troupe had a new drama, it must perform in Qionghua hall once, and the troupe could act in publich only after being approved. Other troups could not perform the same drama without payment. The hall also coordinated the site disputes,such as two troupes perform at the same stage at the same time.

As the opera guild hall , in Qionghua, there were strict management systems. It was divided into 8 branches, such as Shenhe, Zhaohe, Qinghe, Fuhe, Xinhe, Yonghe, Dehe, Puhe, which managed the members in the hall. It was known as Bahe halls.Then the eight different troups gradually formed different styles and schools.

The origin of the Guangdong Opera and the Red Army Uprising

“The song and dance in the operatic circle was very prosperous, and red boats anchored very late. OnTianKuang Day every year, millions of people were watching the opera around Qionghua hall.”

The Opera Troupes always toured by red boat as traffic tools, so the actors and actresses of Guangdong opera are also called “red boat followers. It was recorded that there were more than 30 different sizes of stages in Foshan town at that time.” One Zhuzhi Statement of Qing dynasty proved prosperous scene: “The song and dance in the operatic cirde was very prosperous, and red boats anchored very late. OnTianKuang Day every year, millions of people were watching the opera around Qionghua hall.”

One of the red boat followers, called Li Wenmao who was proficient in martial arts. He .often acted as, outstanding figures, martyr role in the opera, which stimulated his patriotic revolutionary ideas to fight against foreign rule. So in the fourth year of Xianfeng of Qing dynasty (in 1854), Li Wenmao and Chen Kaihe, the leader of Guangdong Tiandihui (Heaven and Earth Society) revolted together In Guangzhou. Thousands of red boat followers were divided into three armed forces. They worn costumes and red scarf on head and were called as "red scarf army". They used some techniques in the opera to attack cities and capture territories. When they occupied Foshan Town, Qionghua hall was used as the rebel stronghold. Although the revolt ended in failure and Guangdong opera development were thus interrupted for several years, it was recognized as a unprecedented feat in the history of drama .

For hundreds of years, Guangdong opera was sung by Foshan people from generation to generation, and the seeds of the opera have been propagated. Although the buildings of Qionghua hall, the earliest assembly hall of drama have gone, the cultivated opera and its evolutive foundation are still full of vitality.

Why do the artists of Guangdong opera worship Huaguang

In China, it is believed that God Huaguang is in charge of fire. Because the artists fear fire, therefore they worship him as the founder to pray fortune and end disaster.

When the Guangdong opera is mentioned ,the main topic is God Huaguang. It was him that Qionghua Hall got its name.

It is believed that God Huaguang was Buddha’s disciple--- Miao Jixiang who was appointed as the marshal of fire department millitary force by the Jade emperor. At that time, in front of Houtu virgin goddess temple in Yangzhou, a Qiong tree that never bloom came into a flower which incense can be smelt everywhere from heaven to the land. The virgin goddess sent the flower(Qionghua) to the Jade Emperor, who bestowed Qionghua feast, in which the best person can wear Qionghua and drink royal wine. The crown prince saw others dare not take flower and drink the wine, so he put flower on his head. Lingyao refused to accept that, so he grabbed the Qionghua, drink rayal wine and called himself Huaguang After the highest enlightenment of reincarnation, he was appointed as Shanwang Xiantou officer, namely South Emperor. Guandong opera is a local drama of the South China, controlled by South . Emperor.  At that time the stage was made of wood and bamboo and the traffic tool – boat was also made by wood, which was very vulnerable to fire. Huanguan was the God who was in charge of fire, therefore, Guangdong opera artists who feared fire worship him as the founder to pray fortune and end disaster.

Now, on the 28th  day of the ninth mouth of Chinese lunar calendar which is God Huaguan’s birthday, Guangdong opera troups would hold the grand ritual activities every year, so the celebration of Huaguang ‘s birthday held by Chancheng every year has become an event for a large number of artists of the opera to find their origin.