China’s latest effort to promote traditional culture among its younger generation has raised controversy in a nation where diverse opinions and options are gaining a grudging respect.

The country’s Ministry of Education on Thursday announced a pilot program to teach students in primary and secondary schools its traditional Peking Opera. Deemed one of the nation’s unique cultural treasures, the opera will be added into music courses for 200 schools in 10 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions throughout China.

The move immediately drew heated reaction from the public.

“I support this project wholeheartedly,” said Zhu Shihui, a renowned Peking Opera performer. “Interest should be fostered since childhood. I myself began to get fascinated with Peking Opera whilst in primary school. It eventually became my lifetime career,” he told Xinhua.

The general public, however, are not as enthusiastic. In a survey by Netease, a news portal in China, nearly 70 percent of voters were against the project.

In another opinion poll by China’s leading web portal Sina.com, of over 21,000 respondents, only 27 percent believe setting up the course will help promote traditional Chinese culture.

Nearly 38 percent think the course should not be compulsory as students’ choices should be respected, and the remaining 35 percent propose different local operas be taught in different areas since China boasts a huge reservoir of local operas.

“Is Beijing roast duck considered a delicacy in every corner of China?” retorted one Internet user in an online forum.

“Tastes differ from place to place. Peking Opera should be taught only in Beijing. Our Yueju Opera is much more beautiful and it is the one that should be put into the course here,” said the netizen from east China’s Zhejiang Province, where Yueju is the most popular local opera.

“Such courses should be optional, if the students are forced to learn, it might backfire and make them totally lose interest,” said another netizen nicknamed “Little Monkey”.

Another respondent Li Hui worried whether there are enough qualified teachers for the task. “Peking Opera is a century-old, sophisticated art form which requires years of professional training for one to excel. Music teachers in primary and secondary schools might not be able to cope with such challenges.”

Mei Demei, a music teacher in Wuhan of central China’s Hubei Province, said that from the perspective of passing down traditional culture, it is necessary to promote Peking Opera. But on the part of students, whether they can work up interest is more important.

“From my years of teaching experience, it might be more workable and beneficial to the children if we select some well-known Peking Opera pieces to show to them in class and teach them how to appreciate. They might be a better audience than performers,” Mei was quoted Friday by Hubei’s Changjiang Times newspaper as saying.

Peking Opera, with a history of more than 200 years, is a synthesis of music, dance, art and acrobatics and is widely regarded as a symbolic expression of Chinese culture. Many historical events are adapted into the plays, which in the past were an important primer on history and ethical principles.

In Beijing, one of the pilot cities, the education department has chosen 15 pieces of Peking Opera, including both classical and modern ones, for the project, said Wang Jun, an official of the artistic education division under the city education department.

Teachers are asked to not only teach students how to sing and perform but also tell them the storylines and background information so as to help children develop understanding and taste about traditional culture, he said.

The schools will also invite Peking Opera performers to train music teachers, he said.

“I think that the plan is not aimed to foster Peking Opera artists or fans,” said Wu Jiang, president of the China National Peking Opera Company. “It just opens a door to children, giving them a chance to develop interests in traditional culture. If they are not interested, at least they are getting to know something about it.”

(Xinhua News Agency February 22, 2008)

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