Beijing Opera, one of over 300 operatic styles in China, is perhaps the best-known and most widely practiced theatrical tradition in the world. Blending song, dance, declamation and acrobatics, this popular Chinese art form dates to at least the 1600s. Qi Shu Fang is known both in China and in the United States as a master performer. Ms. Qi started studying Beijing Opera at the age of four and later went to the Shanghai Dramatic School. After winning first prize in a competition for rising actors, she was praised by the legendary female impersonator, Mei Lan-Fang. Historically, Beijing Opera had been a masculine art form with female roles played by males, but after 1949 women began to emerge as performers and Qi Shu Fang was central in that movement. During the Cultural Revolution she was picked by Madame Jiang Qing, Chairman Mao's wife, to play the female lead in one of the eight national "model operas" when she was 18 years old. Overnight she became a sensation throughout China. Her reputation as a performer grew due to her facility in martial arts, her riveting acting, and her striking singing. She was awarded the title of "National Treasure of China." Swarthmore College Professor Allen Kuharski says: "From a Western perspective, it would be as if one found the voice and acting of Maria Callas and the athleticism of Rudolf Nureyev in one performer's body." In 1988, she relocated to New York where she formed an opera company. She continues to teach in a community arts center and to perform, recently in such venues as Symphony Space and Lincoln Center. Films of her early performances can still be purchased in video stores in most Chinese communities around the U.S. and it is said that almost anyone from mainland China over 25 years of age can hum arias from her most famous operas.
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