Palace musical tunes into myth

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Palace musical tunes into myth
Wang Xudong (far right), director of the Palace Museum, and invited guests at the launch ceremony of the children’s musical Luduan on Thursday. [Jiang Dong /China Daily]

For visitors, the Palace Museum in Beijing, China’s former imperial palace also known as the Forbidden City, is a perfect place to glimpse the country’s rich history and cultural splendor.

Nevertheless, this compound, which witnessed the rise and fall of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties and many historic events, may also be stereotyped for its solemn atmosphere. How to attract and better inform younger visitors has been a question museum operators have been trying to solve.

Many ideas have been suggested and implemented: Tailored websites for teenagers, various entertaining apps for mobile devices, animation books. Now, yet another plan has been drafted in the museum.

The Palace Museum announced last week it was going to produce its first original musical specifically for children, and the performance will tour nationwide after a Beijing premiere.

The upcoming musical, Luduan, will feature an auspicious animal in traditional Chinese mythology with that name.

Luduan, also a unicorn, is said in myths to be able to travel 9,000 kilometers within a day and speak many languages. Consequently, it is often honored as a guarding deity for wise rulers during the time of imperial China.

A pair of Luduan statues in front of the throne in the Taihe Dian (the Hall of Supreme Harmony), the highest-level architecture in the Forbidden City, are chosen as protagonists in the show, but their images are also seen elsewhere across this former imperial palace.

“It stands for not only knowledge, and wisdom, but also hope for favorable weather and prosperity,” Yan Hongbin, deputy director of the Palace Museum and chief producer of the musical, says. “Like the Chinese dragon and phoenix, Luduan is a remarkable symbol co-created by mythology and history. It demonstrates Chinese people’s ethos to respect nature, pursue beauty and their eagerness to keep moving.”

Although the detailed story of the musical has not been released, Yan reveals some other representative cultural elements in the Forbidden City will also be part of the musical.

They include Hangshi, a deity to keep off thunderstorms appearing as a roof decoration on Taihe Dian, the “gold chalice of eternal stability”, a key artifact in Qing Dynasty emperor Qianlong’s study, and even the cats wandering around today’s Palace Museum, widely favored by tourists.

According to Yan, knowledge of cultural relic conservation and historic events concerning the Palace Museum are also mixed into the story to improve children’s consciousness of heritage protection. For example, the musical will also tell of the 1930s’ painstaking effort to move some collections southward when the front line of the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45) approached Beijing.

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