Ten things about Zhang Yunlei, the artist making Chinese opera cool again

Zhang Yunlei
Thousands of fangirls singing along to Chinese opera is something I never thought I would see in my lifetime, but here we are with Zhang Yunlei.

From a homeless fourth-grade dropout to surviving a four-story fall to becoming one of the hottest new stars making century-old tunes hip again, singer-xiangsheng comedian Zhang Yunlei is a Republican-era prima donna teleported into the modern era. Here are ten things to know and love about rising star Zhang Yunlei.

  1. Thanks to him, millennial fans are singing along to traditional music like Taiping Lyrics version of Madame Lady Snake , Peking Opera Suolin Pouch, modified Suzhou PingtanDongbei errenzhuan , and the extremely catchy Ping Opera Qiankun Belt.
  2. Zhang Yunlei is most widely known for his modern rendition of Beijing folk song Visiting the Qingshui River. He released his first single, Yuzhen, last year, and has already recorded more songs.
  3. Nails from his left leg.

    In August 2016, over twenty terminally ill notices were released for Zhang Yunlei after he fell from the equivalent of a four-story drop-off at a railroad terminal. He miraculously returned to the stage, but with 108 nails inside his body and one less lung.  For his earlier performances, they would wheel him up to stageside, and then he would walk up with the help of his partner, Yang Jiulang.  There have been times where after he goes backstage, they would find out the nails had poked through his ankles and bled all over.

  4. Zhang Yunlei began studying Chinese opera and music at the age of five, and quit school in 4th grade to train under xiangsheng and opera performer Guo Degang.  Zhang Yunlei’s performances of xiangsheng’s special ballad form, Taiping lyrics 太平歌词, are so good that their company still uses recordings of him for lessons. Zhang Yunlei singing Taiping lyrics here.
  5. At the age of 13, he lost his boy soprano voice and thought he would never return to the stage. While getting by on odd jobs in Beijing, he once slept for a month at McDonald’s since it was open all night. Last year, he became a brand ambassador for McDonald’s.

Zhang Yunlei and fans singing Visiting the Qingshui River.

  1. Zhang Yunlei plays the Manchu Octagonal Tambourine 八角鼓 , which he learned from Beijing story-telling drum specialist Zhao Tongguang. See him perform here.
  2. Zhang Yunlei learned double-handed yuzi 御子 from yuzi master Wang Shaoli.  He hasn’t really performed whole songs lately due to injuries, but here’s him as a child.
  3. Zhang Yunlei performed a medley with Fei Yuqing here for Chinese New Year this year. The two will team up in an upcoming singing competition that pairs young and old musicians.
  4. Although just an opera amateur, Zhang Yunlei’s favorite opera type is Ping Opera, including this song that all of his fans learned to sing.  More of him Ping Opera compilation here.  Peking Opera compilation here. He also learned Qinhuai River, a Suzhou pingtan piece modified for film The Flowers of War. A compilation of him covering pop songs here.
  5. In 2011, he returned to Guo Degang’s xiangsheng company, Deyun She. He and Yang Jiulang immediately clicked and became permanent partners in 2013.  They are the only pair in the company to not split after one person got seriously injured. Watch some of their performances with captions here. They were also on a variety show with a couple of shorter, original performances, but this is the only one I like.

If you’re interested in seeing him live, he and his partner Yang Jiulang will be headlining their first overseas event in New Zealand and Australia this September.  More here.

Watching him made me finally understand why people went wild over the Chinese opera stars of the past.

5 thoughts on “Ten things about Zhang Yunlei, the artist making Chinese opera cool again

  1. I can definitely see why people would be all over him! He’s super talented and easy on the eyes to boot.

  2. Wow this is my first time actually reading so much about Zhang Yunlei. Most articles I found about him were in chinese, which I hate reading in. Thanks for compiling all this information in English. What’s ironic is that I first heard about him from my classmate who is constantly watching his videos but I never rlly paid attention about him until I read this article

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