Wu Guangyu: Story of an Artist

Post Time: 2020-05-16

“If you go to the countryside to see a drama play, you’d find that the place is crowded with people. When the audience laughs from time to time, other times is infatuated, and then claps in appreciation, that play must be ‘Monk and Nun Dating.’” As a classic piece of the Wuju Opera, this drama is one that people in Jinhua will never get tired of enjoying.

Playing the ‘Little Monk’ on stage is Wu Guangyu, an 87-year-old local performer whose acting skills never age.

“Wu Guangyu’s ‘Monk and Nun Dating’ is about a monk and a [Buddhist] nun from the mountains eloping together. The piece tells their innocent and funny story along the way. At his age, the movements might not be as nimble as before, but he has the acting deeply rooted in his soul: a smile, a gesture with his hand or foot can make the audience laugh!” Bao Huasheng, former director of Jinhua Art Research Institute, praised him having learned that Wu is still active on the stage. Bao is not surprised that Wu is “living, acting, and teaching to an advanced age.”

Wu lives with his spouse in a simply furnished, two-room flat in the urban area of Jinhua. The small living room is filled with pictures and documents hanging there with over 50 years of memories of Wu’s art. Among them, there is a large-scale cartoon given to him by a farmer from Yiwu who was particularly moved after seeing Wu performing “Monk and Nun Dating” and entitled the portrait “A Generational Comedian.” There is also a calligraphy work, reading “Generational Master of Wuju Opera Wu Guangyu,” which was given by Jinhua-native painter Fang Zengxian. One year, Fang saw Wu performing in “Monk and Nun Dating” in Hangzhou and was so struck by the power of the Little Monk that he looked for people in Jinhua to contact Wu. He then invited Wu to Shanghai as a guest and penned the calligraphy work.

In 1955, Wu made his first on-stage performance of “Monk and Nun Dating” at Fotang, Yiwu at the age of 21. After 66 years of performing, his latest appearance on stage as Little Monk was in January of this year at Fucun, Jindong District. “I’ve played Little Monk all my life, and I’ve carried on my back over 50 Little Nuns. Some of them were already in their 60s and 70s, others just 16 years old. I walked into the Great Hall of the People, performed for major leaders and international ambassadors, and went up and down mountains to perform for the people. Whether it’s the cold winter months or hot summer, I am happy to do so, as long as everyone loves the performance.”

After 66 years of acting, Wu has earned a lot of honors, such as actor of national level, a lifetime Special Allowance from the State Council. Wu was also awarded the title of Top Actor by the Ministry of Culture, is a member of the Chinese Dramatists Association, and is known as “the Chaplin of the Orient.”

“He’s a real grassroots artist!” Speaking of Wu’s acting skills, Bao Huasheng stressed that “he inherited the traditional means of performance and absorbed the positive features of other kinds of performing arts, creating a set of unique performing techniques. In order to express the excitement of the Little Monk the first time he sees the Little Nun, Wu Guangyu invented the move of a crooked mouth, which vividly represents the complex inner world of the Little Monk.”

The zigzagging shape of the crooked mouth always makes the audience laugh. Seemingly a tiny mouth movement, it took Wu Guangyu a lot of effort to practice and perfect the move. Working tirelessly to become a word-class mouth twister, he would face a mirror and press his lips with chopsticks. This move eventually has become one of the play’s iconic actions.

In fact, Wu not only played the Little Monk, but also played other major roles in the Wuju Opera. Because of his superb performance skills, in 2002, Wu Guangyu was included in the Chinese volume of Large International Interchange Series: Who’s Who in the World.

In 1995, Wu officially retired, but his dedication to the opera did not stop. In 2012, at the invitation of the Jinhua Research Institute of Art, Wu went to Dubai to perform “Monk and Nun Dating” at the age of 80.

Today, Wu teaches students and also often plays a bit of a role in accompanying young actors at their debut. “If someone is willing to learn, I’m willing to teach.” Over the years, Wu has collected a long list of art apprentices, now with over one hundred on the list. His apprentices are from all over the country, including the farthest one from the northeastern province of Jilin, whom he met in 1963 while touring.

“I was 30, and he was 20. In order to learn to play the Little Monk, he came all the way to Jinhua. I naturally accepted without any reservation.” This relationship still lasts after over 50 years. changing from being teacher-student into old friends.

In the Zhejiang Wuju Opera Troupe, Wu’s disciples are numerous, including actors of national second-level Lu Chunhu and Chen Xiaojian, among others. “I feel honored to see someone who’s taking over my position. Now that the Wuju Opera Troupe is giving us, retired actors, a prominent position, the young artists are more motivated to work harder. As long as the troupe needs me, I will continue to play and teach,” Wu said. (By Qian Wei, translated by Marco Lovisetto, edited by Mariam Ayad)