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1 June 2018
The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, it must divide. Thus it has ever been. These are the opening lines of Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

I walk in and my jaw drops. The Chinese know how to do BIG more than any other country I’ve been to. The “stage” alone is 32,000 square metres. That’s the size of over six American football fields just to give you some kind of reference. And it’s covered in water so everything on it is reflected. And there are two enormous towers on either side, and between them at the back of the stage there are five giant pillars.

The setting alone is spectacular, never mind all that takes place within it.

I was on a three-night Yangtze River cruise and I’d seen trailers on the TV screens in the lobby of the cruise boat and knew immediately that I wanted to go. It was an excursion offered when the boat docked in Zhongxian on the second night of the cruise, and was advertised as War of the Three Kingdoms: a large-scale landscape live-action show.

When we arrive at the outdoor “theatre” we’re given a brochure calling it Three Kingdoms Saddled by Beacon Fires. I’m still puzzled as to what that actually means. Anyway I then read the “Preclude” (which I take to mean prelude) in the brochure that describes each of the scenes of the performance about to take place. This is what it said:

Edged sword and dragon sword, God shaped coldly standing in the cave in the central huge circular waters, in the Light capture in the shadows. Huge 3D holographic water curtain projection around the Dragon Baodao roll up in the water Waves, as the image has been magnified and the direction change, the constant concentration of energy. Suddenly, the waters behind the giant The mountain suddenly opened, a generation of Wu-Sheng – Guan Yunchang, wearing a dragon jersey, straddling a red rabbit, holding Yuan Yue knife, Imposing manner throughout history to the present.

Okay. Having read this far I give up on trying to understand anything of what I’m about to see and decide to just relax and enjoy the show. If anything, this translation, which I suspect comes courtesy of Google, is a sublime example of the vast gulf between Chinese culture and western culture. How can people be so much the same and yet so different – in their language and written expression, in their thinking, in their ways of being in the world? To this day it still fascinates me.

Anyway the huge 3D holographic water curtain projection was a breathtaking and magical start to the show.

The show is based on the Chinese literary classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written by Luo Guanzhong in the fourteenth century and draws on history, folklore, and fantasy to create an idealized tale of the political and social affairs of the Three Kingdoms era. It is China’s equivalent of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

It is the time of the collapse of the Han dynasty in the early 3rd century CE. Courtiers and eunuchs scheme, corrupt leaders fall, and great conquerors arise from heroic combat. Nobles and generals vie for sovereignty and soon three great leaders emerge: Liu Bei, Cao Cao, and Sun Quan. All three are formidable men, in character, expertise, and cunning. Each eventually rules their own kingdom. And each aspires to rule all three.

I’m on the edge of my seat. Suddenly the water curtain turns to fire! Soldiers bearing royal standards march into battle,

and then the horses come galloping in, their warriors brandishing their swords high in the air. It is a stunning display of colour and action matched by the soaring music, which is equal to the best action-movie sound track, pounding and urgent.

The cavalry has arrived! Heroic combat happens before my eyes. Galloping horses, fierce and skilled horsemen, water flying with every move, combat soldiers with royal standards. And all of it intensified by being reflected in the water. It’s truly spectacular. 

As the scene ends and the riders gallop off the stage,

suddenly off to the left and high above, out of nowhere, I see a cloud of pink gossamer. It is so unexpected, a wondrous moment. What is this?

As the music softens and the gossamer cloud comes closer I see it is blossom trees with pink-robed maidens suspended between them.

With a gentle grace they land on the stage.

The water curtain glows pink in the background.

Three men (Liu Bei, warlord and founder of the Kingdom of Shu, and the warriors Zhang Fei and Guanyu) form a sworn brotherhood in the peach blossom forest, asking not that they be born on the same day, but only that they would all die on the same day. Brothers for life.

The cold moon and the Peach Blossom Forest remain unchanged, just like the three of them who seem to reside in the place forever, as it is the place where their dream commenced.

The war between Liu Bei and Cao Cao: in 199 CE Liu Bei kills the governor of Xuzhou and gives the job to his sworn brother Guanyu. This enrages Cao Cao, the evil warlord and leader of the Kingdom of Wei, who sends an army against Liu Bei.

The fire on the water curtain explodes again, the cavalry returns, Liu Bei and his comrades prepare for war!

And just when I think it can’t get any more mind boggling in its colour, action, and sheer extravagance, the army marches in. Truly an army. Hundreds of them.

The battle rages – warriors running, water flying everywhere, horses charging, banners waving, soaring urgent music.

Then, as that scene comes to an end, I feel the earth move. The bank of stadium seating that I’m sitting on begins to move! Seriously! The entire bank of seating, holding half the audience, starts to turn slowly clockwise, so that it becomes situated at right angles to the other bank of seating. And in the space formed between them is this:

It is the palace of Cao Cao. In the last battle Guanyu had allowed himself to be captured so he could protect Liu Bei’s family who presumably had also been captured. Of course at the time I don’t know this. I’m just rendered speechless, again, by the audacious size and magnificence of the setting, the performance, the dancing maidens, and the accompanying music. The colour! The reflections! The lights! I’m a complete puddle of wide-eyed wonder. I can hardly believe what I’m seeing.

Guanyu escapes with Liu Bei’s wives. Legend has it that he rides alone for 1000 miles, killing six generals as he traverses five mountain passes, and finally manages to cross the Yellow (Yangtze) River and reunite with Liu Bei.

I think at this point in the story Cao Cao is emperor of the Kingdom of Wei lying to the north of the Yellow River. Liu Bei has declared himself Emperor of Shu-Han, south of the river in the east, and Sun Quan has declared himself the emperor of the Wu Kingdom, south of the river to the west. Cao Cao sends an army south to conquer Liu Bei and Sun Quan, but they form an alliance and defeat him. It is known as the Battle of Red Cliff.

The seating has returned to its original position and there are now some eye-popping projections of this battle onto the five huge columns.

And as if things aren’t already astonishing enough, suddenly the centre sections of the pillars begin to slowly descend to the water

creating five warships.

According to the brochure: Sound of scream, blast and yelling combined is astounding. The audience will sure be enraptured when positioned in the scene. Well they got that right!

I can’t figure out what happens next. What I see are truly amazing giant-size completely life-like moving statues projected onto the pillars.

Guanyu rides away to the mountains to write a book about military strategy.

Maybe Guanyu was worn out after a life time of military combat. He only concerned about his battleground, his buddies, his Red Hare Horse and the appealing Peach Blossom.

The three emperors continued to fight each other. The next battle tells the story of submersion of seven army forces in water in which Guanyu is the conquering hero and becomes famous throughout the land.

I didn’t think it could get more incredible, but after some more projections onto the water screen

a giant battleship arrives on stage!

Not only that, the lower level of the ship has five trampolines spread out in a row, and there are acrobats jumping from one to the next and back again, rolling and tumbling and leaping high into the air.

Oh and if there hasn’t already been enough of a visual feast these arrive from on high and hover above the ship,

before descending gracefully to the stage

and rising again as the cast take their final curtain call.

And this isn’t even all of it! There are some scenes I omitted, but I hope I’ve shared enough to give you a feel for this unbelievable extravaganza. The whole thing is just epic!

The Three Kingdoms period (220-280 CE) is considered of special historical importance to the Chinese, a time of mighty power struggles and sophisticated military strategies. It began when the Han dynasty collapsed leaving a power vacuum. This led to a phase that was brief and bloody. It has been romanticised time and time again in Chinese culture including this extraordinary performance set on the banks of the Yangtze River.

If you’re ever there go! You don’t have to do a Yangtze River cruise to see it. I believe there are tours from Chongqing (about a 3.5 hour drive away) that will take you there.

Three videos of the show. The first is about ten minutes, the next two less than one minute each. Have a look.

Next post: Yangshuo – the most beautiful scenery in China: cycling through rice fields, and a visit to a tea planation.

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.