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29 May 2018.
She’s standing in the aisle of the theatre a few levels up from the stage. She’s facing our row and looking right at us. I’m sitting about five seats in from the aisle and she’s right there. Her outfit is glorious, her headdress magnificent. She’s like a brightly coloured bird, a vision from some fantastical jungle, but it is her face that we are watching. It is covered in an intricately designed and beautifully coloured mask. Suddenly, with a flicker of movement so fast and infinitesimal that we cannot detect it, the mask is gone only to reveal a different one. My jaw drops, but even before there is time for that to happen the second mask is gone to reveal a third. My eyes widen. I’m paralysed with shock, intrigue, excitement, and mostly because if I move even a muscle I might miss something. And there she stands before us, moving so little that it is undetectable, revealing mask after mask, each one unique. It’s as if one mask slides instantaneously into some mysterious hiding place as another arrives. And it happens so quickly that you can’t even see the movement. There are about six different masks revealed one after the other until the last one, in the blink of an eye, disappears, and there she is, showing her true face as she smiles at us and then turns away and returns to the stage. The whole thing takes about ten seconds. Magic!

We are at a performance of the Sichuan Opera in Chengdu, and I hardly know where to start to describe one of the most extraordinary pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen. It is highly polished, the costumes and sets are spectacular, the acting is excellent and believable, and there are great laser shows and special effects.

The traditional Chinese music is intriguing, perhaps difficult for western ears; this is not Mozart or Puccini. There are drums, cymbals, a gong, horns that sound like bagpipes, and a stringed instrument called a muqin that’s at best whiney; the singing is high pitched. From time to time during the more dramatic moments there are also what sound like western instruments – think action movie soundscape. The music and singing always enhance and inform the action on stage.

There is a fairly large signboard on one side of the stage that tells the story of each act in lights, in both Chinese and English. Alas much is lost in translation. At the beginning of each act a smartly dressed woman comes onto the stage and tells the story of the next act, first in Chinese, and then in English. Unfortunately her accent is so strong it’s almost impossible to understand her. Alas again, much is lost in translation.

This is what I glean. It is a traditional romance. The hero and heroine

are lovers but are obstructed, perhaps by social standing or by wealth (or lack of it). The show opens with what I guess is something like a royal court, with heralds, and banners, and elaborately dressed important personages attended by acrobatic minions bearing royal standards.

There is a powerful evil man, the villain, who wants the heroine for his bride. He vanquishes the hero and leaves him for dead. The hero survives, and the lovers are finally allowed to be together. The end.

In between all this there is what seems to be a street scene that I think may be a performance within a performance. With no other information to go on but my imagination I decide it is a show put on for the villain who must be an emperor or nobleman of some sort. We see acrobatics


a puppet show

and dancing.

There’s a wardrobe scene with several characters interacting. It is colourful and captivating even though I haven’t a clue what it’s about,

and there are several different dance scenes

and even a downpour.

And then come the face-changing characters and fire-spitters.

In the next photo look at the mask of the character in blue, and also note the pink mask of the man with the big red epaulettes.

In the following photo the man in blue wears a different mask; it happens instantaneously.

Suddenly out of nowhere there is fire in the air.

The fire-spitters are blowing on fuel that appears to come from their mouth. Spectacular! And all the while this is happening the music is getting louder, the drums are beating, and all these characters are swirling their capes all over the stage in stylised steps and movements and changing their masks every second.

Here’s the red-epaulettes character now with an orange mask

and now black:

and another character:

My interpretation, but it’s just a guess, is that these are the henchmen of the evil villain who’s after the heroine.

More loud music and drums and in a swirl of smoke this man appears in a green robe and mask.

With a theatrical sweep of his arms the robe drops to the floor and falls away revealing a red robe as his mask changes also to red. Another sweep of his arms and he stands instantaneously before us in an elaborate yellow costume and a black mask.

And then comes this woman who has not just a mask on her face but five on her headdress!

And with each roll of the drums and sweep of her big red flag ALL the masks change. Drums pounding, flag flying, and she and all the masks in her headdress have a new face again. And again. After she reveals five or six masks she retreats to the background while the whole constellation of other characters and performers come on stage for their final bows.

And at some point in the show the hero arises from the dead. I’ve seen a lot of theatre in my life. I was raised in the theatre so it has been a part of my life from when I was very young. Dance also. I don’t dance but I seek it out wherever I go as it can tell you so much about a culture. The scene where the hero comes to life is truly a moment; one of the best I’ve seen anywhere ever.

The villain and all the other characters have left the stage. The lasers and scenic projections have stopped. It is quiet. There is simply a dead man in a plain grey robe collapsed in the centre of the stage. We watch him and for a few seconds, an eternity in theatre, nothing happens. And then the slightest flutter of the fingers of one hand. Oh, he is alive! And then another flutter, like the wing of a tiny frightened bird. And then the other hand. It is a slow, powerful, believable, delicate, and deeply moving unfolding, hands, then arms, then a movement of the body, then gradually more and more until he is standing upright, unsteady and weak, but alive. It must have taken ten minutes, again an eternity in theatre, and yet it’s one of the most compelling and beautifully performed pieces of acting/dance that I’ve ever seen and it will remain with me always.

The face-changing, known as Bian Lian, is exclusive to Sichuan opera, which is more like a play than other forms of Chinese opera. The masks are family treasures showcasing ancient designs of traditional well-known characters. They are hand-painted silk and have been passed down through the generations along with the secret of how they work. The secret is that the masks are worn in layers and each mask is attached by a fine silk thread hidden within and attached to a part of the costume. A slight flick of that part of the costume or body (raising the hand, swinging the sleeve, or tossing the head) pulls on the string and removes the topmost mask revealing the next one. The actors change more than ten masks in less than twenty seconds!

The following YouTube links show some of the performance. They were not made on the night I attended (as far as I know) but it is the same show.

Next post: A three-night cruise on the Yangtze River. It’s river cruising Chinese style – questionable luxury.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2019.