Regal romance between Tibetans and Han brings Lhasa to life

Regal romance between Tibetans and Han brings Lhasa to life
A scene from the large-scale open-air show Princess Wencheng staged in Lhasa, the Tibet autonomous region.

A MUSICAL drama, based on the relationship between a Han princess and a Tibetan king, has made a village by the Lhasa River come alive. Chen Nan reports.

During her recent trip to Lhasa, capital of the Tibet autonomous region, the Cijiaolin village was the first stop for Wang Li, a 31-year-old military soprano. Not far from downtown Lhasa and situated on the southern bank of the Lhasa River, the village is home to some 300 Tibetan nomadic families. Wang, from the Performing Arts Company of China's Air Force, went to Lhasa to perform the lead role in Princess Wencheng, a musical drama, during the traditional Shoton Festival, one of the region's most popular annual celebrations that usually falls in the seventh month of the Tibetan calendar. This year, it was from Aug 25 to 29.

"The village is easily ignored because tourists mostly choose the famous Potala Palace, which is located on the other side of the Lhasa River," says Wang. "But soon it will become a popular destination too."

The drama is based on the story of a 16-year-old Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) princess, who spent three years in traveling from Chang'an (present-day Xi'an in Shaanxi province) to Lhasa to marry the then king of Tibet, Songtsan Gampo. Following her marriage, she lived in Tibet for about 40 years until her death. Wang plays Wencheng in it.

The princess is remembered by the local people for bringing Buddhist scriptures to Tibet, and some crafts and literary works from her original hometown. The village was the last place that the princess crossed before she met the Tibetan king, and has of late been transformed into one of the outdoor venues for the drama to be staged.

The drama is likely to become a regular fixture in Lhasa, which aims to promote local tourism, according to the Tibet Daily newspaper.

Princess Wencheng begins with the scene of a Tibetan envoy taking Songtsan Gampo's marriage proposal to the princess's father, emperor Li Shimin, and ends by showing how she earns the love and respect of the Tibetan people following her marriage.

Besides Tibetan folk singing, dancing and traditional operas, the show also features monks chanting, taking audiences back to around 1,300 years prior.

The drama is directed by Mei Shuaiyuan, who introduced the concept of the highly-acclaimed Impression series - shows with large-scale open-air performances and real landscape settings.

Princess Wencheng was staged at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing two years ago. Wang also performed at that show.

But she says the outdoor stage, a part of the 25,000-square meter village area and capable of holding nearly 1,000 performers, was overwhelming, especially owing to the stunning scenery.

"It was breathtaking when I performed with the Potala Palace in front of me, surrounded by mountains and underneath a starry sky," Wang says.

The Potala Palace is perhaps the most-recognised Tibetan landmark, which the king built for his queen. The story of their romance has been adapted into movies, novels and operas.

Wang says that she wants to focus on the human side of her role in it.

"The princess's journey must have been an emotional one. She was sad to be separated from her family at a young age but she was aware of her duty (respect the alliance). She also travelled all the way to marry a man who she had never met. I guess she pictured him a thousand times in her head."

In the eyes of the Tibetan people, Songtsan Gampo and Wencheng are godlike, says Sonam Gonpo, 24, a Tibetan singer who plays the role of the king in the drama. Unlike Wang, who performed in Mandarin, Gonpo used his local language to portray the role.

Born in Shiqu county, Ganzi Tibet autonomous prefecture in Sichuan province, where the average altitude is about 4,300 meters above sea level, Gonpo grew up listening to the story. As an adult, when he came to Beijing to pursue a career in music, he landed the role of the Tibetan king from among some 100 aspirants.

"My parents are Buddhists and they pray everyday. When they saw me performing the role, they felt so proud of me," he says.

"Besides linguistic and cultural backgrounds, there are many things common to Tibetans and the Han people."

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