After intense cuddling with panda cubs and browsing dozens of street vendors, we concluded our day in Chengdu with a night of Sichuanese Opera. According to locals, the best place to see Sichuan Opera is “屬風雅韻” [Shufengyayun Sichuan Opera House]. The stage is inside a famous Taoist temple, which has functioned for over a hundred years. Of all the interesting acts on the set list, we were all most excited to see the face-changing, or ” 變臉” [bian lian]. Face-changing is a trade secret that is traditionally passed down from one generation to the next within families. Women were not allowed to learn the secret, since women were married out of the family.
There are four ways of face-changing: blowing dust to obscure the face “吹脸” [chui lian], beard manipulation “髯口功夫” [hu kou gong fu], pulling down masks “扯脸” [che lian], and face-dragging “抹脸” [mo lian]–where the actor drags greasepaint to change his appearance. Switching between masks was like flipping a light switch on and off. So, so fast. Each mask portrays different characteristics and personalities of the characters.
We were also given a traditional Chinese music concert, with cymbals, brass, and a type of “胡琴” [hu qin], or vertical fiddles (usually two-stringed). There was a very talented “二胡” [er hu]–two-stringed fiddle–player, as well as an amazing “簫” [xiao]–a vertical bamboo flute–player. The others were less memorable. I could never adjust to is how high-pitched and “squeaky” Chinese instruments sometimes sound.
The shadow puppets were great to watch to. Fluid and elegant. Seamless transitions. Hand puppets came to life under the masterful manipulations of the puppeteers. They too, could do face-changing, or dress changing, play instruments, dancing, or fight against each other–even could change their facial expressions. Quite amazing.
After intermission, we were treated to a short opera of iridescent robes donned by ancient war heroes battling in the struggle for power.
The night concluded with “滾燈” [gun deng], or “rolling light”: a technique unique to Sichuanese Opera. “Rolling light” originated in the Han dynasty and the story stems from a husband and wife arguing over the husband’s excessive gambling; as punishment for his addiction, the wife forced the husband to perform progressively difficult stunts to perform. The last of these stunts was balancing a flaming bowl on his head–while rolling, tumbling, and diving over and under chairs, tables, and benches.
If you’re ever in Chengdu and want to see Chinese music and performance art in a nutshell, this is the place to go. It’s tons of fun and full of things you would not find outside of Sichuan province. (Also, there’s free tea, massages, and ear wax removal (?!?!) provided).