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Presented on the biggest natural stage in the world!
The river as the stage, the mountains as the backdrop!
A cast of over 600 local Zhuang performers!
Modern and traditional music!
Special multi-coloured lighting effects!
Traditional ethnic songs and dances on the river!
Traditional Zhuang, Miao, and Yao dress!

And yes all the exclamations are merited. Once again China has done it. The setting, the fabulous creativity, the music and dancing, the costumes, and above all the vision. Such a vision!

About 1500 years ago, by the Li River in Yangshuo County, in the province of Guangxi in southern China, a child was born to a man called Liu. The child was his third daughter, thus she was named simply Liu Sanjie – third daughter of Liu. She was just another new arrival to this village of Zhuang people until it was discovered that Liu Sanjie had the voice of an angel. The girl could sing!

She became a legend. She became such a legend that there are many folk songs about her and at least three different versions of her story. In one local religion she is revered as a god.

She sang in antiphony, meaning there were alternate or responsive parts to the songs, but no one could match her, no one had voice enough to respond to her glorious voice. They called her the Song Fairy and thought her gift supernatural. Warlords came to her village and were rendered speechless and defeated by her singing. There was a boy named A Niu who could sing the replies to her songs. In the tradition of the time she gave him an embroidered ball to signify she liked him. He tossed it across the river and high onto a rock where no one could reach it and there it remained and became an everlasting symbol of their love. They married and lived happily ever after.

In another version of the legend a warlord fell in love with her and kidnapped her, but her lover and friends from the village rescued her, the couple escaped, and of course they lived happily ever after.

In another version Sanjie lost her parents when she was young. The evil landlord, Mo Huairen made Sanjie his slave, but eventually she managed to escape. Singing together Sanjie and her lover travelled and found their freedom even though they experienced many difficulties. Mo had failed at making her his concubine, and he’d failed at having her bested in a singing competition, so he decided just to have her killed. In defiance of Mo she would not give up singing, and to keep the villagers from being killed on her behalf she jumped into a lake. The moment she hit the water a huge golden carp leapt out and carried her to the heavens.

And thus she was immortalised in the culture of the people, and the villagers passed down her songs from generation to generation.

Inspired by the fairy-tale heroine Liu Sanjie, the 1960 musical movie of the legend, other minority singing, and the acclaimed Yangshuo landscape, Zhang Yimou, one of China’s most notable film directors, has created a grand open-air extravaganza of light, music, dancing, and Chinese legend. Using the river and mountains as the canvas he has created impressions of Sanjie’s birthplace, and of the origin and beauty of the folksongs of the area.

The show is called simply IMPRESSIONS Sanjie Liu. It is a series of impressions of the daily life of the people and of the legacy of Sanjie. The word “impressions” is important. The show is not a literal interpretation of Sanjie’s life story, but rather evocative abstract recreations of the life of the Zhuang people and other ethnic groups of the Yangshuo area during the Tang dynasty (618–907).

Entering the gates, after being greeted by a young woman in Zhang minority traditional dress,

we make our way to the stage.

Darkness falls. There is a welcome announcement.

Then images of the area appear as if against the sky.

Lit from the inside a sampan drifts slowly across on the water. A woman stands at the bow singing. Suddenly, as she finishes, fifty or more people appear on the long dock to the left. They carry burning torches and are dressed in traditional clothing. As they move from the dock and then along in front of us, sometimes walking, sometimes running, they sing a joyous prologue to the impressions. They sing of the legend of the hills and rivers.

Meanwhile behind them on the water fishermen quietly paddle their bamboo rafts out onto the water.

The singers come across the paved area in front of the water and up the aisle right next to where I am sitting.

Enthusiasm and joy fill the air along with the smoke and flames from their torches.

Meanwhile the fishermen are moving into place.

It is only the prologue and already I am captivated. What follows has me completely spellbound. The fishermen, in perfect rows, across an expanse of water a few hundred metres wide, kneel down on their rafts

and draw red cloths from the water. They use the cloths to pull themselves across the expanse of water and then proceed to create intricately choreographed waves with them.

It is a dance on water: men in yellow moving up and down and back and forth, red cloths falling and rising in wave patterns, music soaring.

This is the Red Impression. It symbolises enthusiasm, and praises the labours of the local people. While the fishermen do their dance with the red cloths over 600 people sing in antiphony, the call and response singing of a choir divided into two.

Gradually it ends, the red cloths are gathered up, the lights and music fade, and slowly the fishermen make their way to the shore on the right.

Suddenly there is all kinds of movement there on the shore. The lights come up on a typical village scene. Goods are unloaded from the rafts and carried up to the village, on the lower level women do the laundry in the river as they await the men bringing in the catch, and on the upper level the whole village is revealed. Smoke curls up from the fires, buffalo are herded, people ride by on bicycles. This is the Green Impression symbolising nature and vitality and the peaceful and happy life of the people.

This morphs into over forty girls in Yao Minority costumes walking onto the paved area in front of us while singing a traditional song of the hills and rivers.

It’s an entr’acte while the fishermen prepare on the water behind them for the next scene. Men walk with their fishing nets and cormorants (yes, real cormorants),

along the dock and onto the rafts. To add verisimilitude there are children playing and a man with a buffalo (yes a real buffalo) at the end of the dock.

The girls walk off waving good-bye, and lights dot the water as the next scene unfolds. It is the Golden Impression: Fishing Lights. Hundreds of bamboo rafts with golden fishing lights dance on the water and symbolise the simple existence of life on the river.

Suddenly in their midst a half moon appears on the water as if from nowhere and gentle music fills the air.

As the music continues the fishermen move slowly away as more rafts and beautiful fairy “palaces” arrive from the right.

The lighting is blue, melodious music and singing fill the air, a fairy dances back and forth on the moon.

This is the Blue Impression: Love Songs. A deep dark blue sky and deep dark blue water are the backdrop to Sanjie singing, and women dance on the dock, their movements symbolising the notes of her love songs.

As the blue fairy palaces and bamboo rafts drift away a group of young girls sing and dance with red cloths on the dock.

The scene ends with a couple setting off together on one of the bamboo rafts.

Far off in the distance on the right a line of dancing silver lights appears from nothing. As it moves as one unit across the water at an angle the line gets longer and longer. Suddenly it changes direction and turns back to the right but still angled towards us. And the line continues to get longer and longer. Then it angles back to the left forming a huge zigzag across the water until it looks like this:

Dancing silver dolls. Are they walking on water?

This is the Silver Impression. The column that moves across the water consists of over 200 Zhuang girls walking in unison and then dancing in simple choreographed patterns symbolic of traditional ceremonies and folk celebrations in Sanjie’s hometown.

Suddenly the lights in their costumes are extinguished

and we see their festive black and silver outfits as a group of them walk across the pavement in front of the water.

There is an epilogue. The rafts are rowed further and further away while Sanjie’s folk songs fill the air, the fishermen gather on the long dock, and the girls (sometimes red, sometimes silver again) dance in the distance.

Finally the performers come group by group to take their bows.

It is a visually stunning performance. I knew nothing about it at the time, but it didn’t matter. It was so beautiful and so creative, and the scale of it all so mind-boggling that I was completely enchanted.

I’ve never seen anything like it, except perhaps that other great performance I saw in China, War of the Three Kingdoms. I’m in awe of Zhang Yimou’s vision to create such a piece. He also created the opening and closing ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics, and it seems that whatever he can envision, no matter how outrageous, no matter how big, no matter how many people it will involve, he will find a way to bring it to life.

In my four weeks in China I went to four performances: an acrobat show in Beijing, the Sichuan Opera in Chengdu, War of the Three Kingdoms in Zhongxian, and this show in Yangshuo. The acrobat show was pretty good, but I’ve been spoiled by Cirque du Soleil and the show in Beijing didn’t quite measure up. The other three performances were all simply spectacular. Not enough superlatives. Worth every penny. So so glad I made the choice to go see them.

Just a taste 6.48 minutes

The whole show, but not very good quality video 1.04.07

Next post: A little bit about all the things of China that I haven’t shared yet – the Great Wall, the Yangling Mausoleum, sugar people, fun with the language, and more.

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.