A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Saturday, November 26, 2016

Catawauling in Wuzhen? Must be Chinese Opera night!

One of the great things about going to exhibitions and conferences is what you find on the periphery of the events themselves. I’m down in Wuzhen attending an internet conference, but to be perfectly honest what really floats my boat is the town itself, and in particular the West Area.

That building that you see in the picture above is the town theatre, and it’s been arranged that all invited guests to the conference can attend a special performance of Chinese Opera there. The theatre looks pretty nice in the schematic, but I can’t say that it looks particularly appealing in the cold light of day.

But at night time it comes alive with lighting used to great effect.

The performance is called “The Heavenly Beauty”and is an integration of a number of different types of Chinese opera including Peking, Kunqu, Yue, Shaoxing, Diaoqiang, Shaanxi, Wuju, Sichuan, and Luantan operas.

As part of the show, there is a focus on the five major types of roles in Chinese opera – the clown, the main female protagonist as well as vivacious and unmarried women, the ghost, the main female and male, and the fairy tale in military form.

Chinese opera, or xìqǔ (戲曲) has roots going back to ancient China. It’s an amalgamation of various art forms – such as music, song and dance, martial arts, acrobatics, as well as literary art forms – that reached its maturity in the 13th century during the Song Dynasty.

According to Wikipedia, Chinese operas exist in 368 different forms, the best known being Beijing (Peking) opera, which assumed its present form in the mid-19th century and was extremely popular in the latter part of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911).

Exaggerated paint on opera performers’ faces, which ancient warriors decorated themselves with to scare the enemy, are used in the opera; each colour has a different meaning, and are used to symbolize a character's role or fate, and illustrate the character's emotional state and general character.
For instance,
  • White symbolizes sinister, evil, crafty, treacherous, and suspicious. Any performer with a white painted face usually takes the part of a villain of the show. The larger the white painted area, the crueller the role!
  • Green denotes impulsive behaviour, violence, no self-restraint or self-control.
  • Red stands for bravery or loyalty.
  • Black denotes boldness, fierceness, impartiality, and roughness.
  • Yellow symbolizes ambition, fierceness, or intelligence.
  • Blue stands for steadfastness (someone who is loyal and sticks to his principles, no matter what ).
  • Pink symbolizes sophistication and cool-headedness.
The show opens with a stage full of performers, showing off some of the amazing costumes to great effect.

Through the use of captioned surtitles, we are told that “the fancy costumes of Chinese Opera is made with with manual embroidery. It is filled with golden silk which is very fabulous”.

It is certainly that!

The evening is split into five “chapters”. The first is called “The Zither and the Sword - Chinese traditional melodic and percussion instruments”.

“The icy full moon is creeping up again casting much shade to this lonely palace. Clearly I see thou. The Jade Hare of the Fairy, flying away to the east. Should Chang'e, the Fairy, be companying the moon, like me companying you?”

After this somewhat quiet start, things begin to take on a more dramatic turn with an extract from “Shaoxing Opera: Monkey Subdues the White-Skeleton Lady”.

Shaoxing opera, also known as Yue opera, is the second most popular opera form and features actresses in male roles, as well as femininity in terms of singing, performing, and staging. “Monkey Subdues the White-Skeleton Lady”, is based on an episode from The Pilgrimage to the West, a mythological novel by Wu Cheng-en, which has had a wide appeal among Chinese readers since its appearance in the 16th century.

In front of me a girl from Xinhua news agency is streaming the entire performance onto a Facebook channel via her smartphone. If you are interested, you should still be able to see the recording of this evening’s event stored for posterity on FB.

Now, we are treated to some Wuju Opera (婺剧) which is a form of Chinese opera from Jinhua, in the eastern province of Zhejiang. There are apparently 11 Wuju troupes in eastern China, and it is characterised by six well known tunes and a way of singing with dominant instruments.

Next, it’s time for some Peking opera or Jingju (京剧) which combines music, vocal performance, mime, dance, and acrobatics. It arose in the late 18th century and became fully developed and recognized by the mid-19th century.

Extremely popular in the Qing dynasty court, traditional Chinese string and percussion instruments provide a strong rhythmic accompaniment to the acting, which is based on allusion through gestures, footwork, and other body movements to express such actions as riding a horse, rowing a boat, or opening a door. Spoken dialogue is in the form of recitative and colloquial speech, the former employed by serious characters and the latter by young females and clowns. The traditional repertoire of Beijing opera includes more
than 1,000 works, mostly taken from historical novels about political and military struggles.

Here we are treated to “The Women General of Yang Family” which is a sad story about She Tai Jun who went in to battle although she was old.

Taizhou Luan is the local opera of Zhejiang, described as simple and warm. Yan Poxi is a story about a pair of lovers taken from the Water Margin, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature.

Yan Poxi (閻婆惜) is Song Jiang's concubine. Her mother persuades an initially reluctant Song to marry the 18-year-old Yan after he paid the funeral costs for Yan's deceased father. Yan gradually comes to detest Song and has a secret affair with his assistant, Zhang Wenyuan.

In complete contrast, Qinqiang (秦腔) opera from Shaanxi in northwest china is rough and loud. Jiao Guiyang tells a legendary revenge story of a Chinese ancient heroine and uses a bangzi (woodblock) as one of the accompanying instruments, from which it derives its other name, Bangzi opera.

The third “chapter” of the evening represents Everlasting Love in the form of famous love stories of Chinese Opera.

Peking Opera’s “The Matchmaker” is considered one of the masterpieces of the Xun Style. The Matchmaker, we are told, “is an essence opera that witnesses all changes of Chinese cultural forms. The characters in the opera are now considered as symbols of love and marriage by the Chinese people.”

Kunqu Opera is next with the Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭) – a play written by Tang Xianzu in the Ming Dynasty and first performed in 1598 at the Pavilion of Prince Teng. It was the most popular play of the Ming dynasty, and all Kun theatre troupes include it in their repertoire.

Chapter IV features military plays. Martial arts in Chinese opera are filled with many trick stunts such as ‘turning the beat’, juggling and scenes of bustling activity.

Some of it is visually spectacular…

… while some can be quite dangerous – such as this fire eating (what they call Fire spraying, or Blowing fire).

Bian Lian (变脸) – literally: "Face-Changing" is an ancient Chinese dramatic art that is part of the more general Sichuan opera. Performers wear brightly coloured costumes and move to quick, dramatic music. They also wear vividly coloured masks, typically depicting well known characters from the opera, which they change from one face to another almost instantaneously with the swipe of a fan, a movement of the head, or a wave of the hand.

Changing masks is a magic trick that is closely guarded by its practitioners. But having said that, it is widely believed that there are four main ways of “face-changing” that are used:
  • Blowing Dust: where the actor blows black dust hidden in his palm or close to his eyes, nose or mouth, so that it obscures his face.
  • Beard Manipulation: where beard colours can be changed while it is being manipulated, from black to grey and finally to white, expressing anger or excitement.
  • Pulling-downing Masks: where the actor can pull down a mask which has previously been hidden on top of his head, changing his face to red, green, blue or black to express happiness, hate, anger or sadness, respectively.
  • Face-dragging: where the actor drags greasepaint hidden in his sideburns or eyebrows across his face to change his appearance.
It’s certainly spectacular to watch…

Another spectacular thing to watch is “Flat teeth Play”, also known as “Playing Tusks” or “shuaya” (teeth playing). Teeth playing requires performers to use 8 or 10 canine teeth taken from male pigs, usually 5 to 6 centimetres long, in their mouths. Apparently it is extremely difficult to do, and very few have mastered this artform.

Playing Tusks is mainly used in Ninghai Opera, which is one of the oldest opera forms in Zhejiang province. It was on the first National Intangible Cultural Heritage list announced by the Ministry of Culture in May 2006. With a history dating back four centuries, it enjoys an equal reputation with Face Changing in Sichuan Drama. Together, they are known as “face in the west and tusk in the east”.

Four steps are involved when playing tusks: biting, licking, gulping and disgorging. Actors play tusks flexibly and quickly in their mouths to create cruel and greedy images on stage.

I have to admit that before this special performance I had little idea about the different genres of Chinese opera despite occasionally watching the Chinese Opera Channel (CCTV11). But now I’m a fan!

A night to remember: Wuzhen’s Wedding Museum


Wuzhen, by anyone’s definition, is a pretty little town – and doesn’t it know it! All the best scenic areas have been pulled together into two areas for which you are normally charged an entrance fee. Is this the reason there is a handful of museums in both – so that punters can feel like they are getting their money’s worth by being allowed free entrance to the museums?

Maybe I am being somewhat cynical… (what? Your favourite blogger cynical? Surely not!) but taking the Wedding Museum as an example, one is left with the distinct impression that this was set up purely for the tourists. Well, why ever not!

Located on Xizha Street, the Wedding Museum claims to be the first museum to “display the act of marriage as it was historically conducted in this area”. It is housed in a two-storey building that has four entrances and four courts.

The blurb tells you that the museum “consists of the front hall, the wedding hall, the meeting hall, the sedan hall, the worship hall, the coloured pavilion, the bridal chamber and the back garden. In these rooms the dowry, decorations, tools, furniture, costumes, jewellery, wedding boats, and musical instruments used during marriage are on display.”

Here is a collection of bathroom mirror boxes…

Meanwhile this elegant wardrobe would not look out of place in your favourite blogger’s residence.

There is a small selection of bridal sedan chairs, such as this one, arranged for a wedding ceremony. “Red silk is usually chosen for the curtain of the sedan chair on which there are embroidered patterns with special auspicious meanings,” we are told – though what those auspicious meanings are, the museum is tight lipped about this.

There are also painted and carved panels on show, though again there is little to tell us about where or how they were used.

Some of the doors leading off into the courtyard have pretty reliefs carved into them – though I notice that the birds are not storks. Again these would not look out of place in the Salter residence…

One gets the impression that the courtyard could look a lot smarter with a minimum of tidying up; but I guess this museum is all about weddings, rather than the beauties of nature.

It even has a lookout perch “decorated”, if that is the right word, with some verdigris-coloured rockery. I’m not sure I’d want that in my garden.

Of course, being a wedding museum, it would not be complete without shots of happy couples …

There is also a gallery full of wedding certificates

and wedding registration documents, but again little in the way of documentation.

And of course you would expect a display of food boxes since, as the accompanying notice tells us, “It’s a kind of dowry to put food”.

And what historical museum would be complete without a picture of happy peasants?

(Not to mention happy landlords in times gone by.)

Upstairs there is another wedding sedan, which is quite elegant. The blurb on the notice tells us that it is “regarded as a special transportation vehicle in South China. It is wooden structure and in the shape of a pagoda”.

I particularly like a washstand which reminds me of chairs by the renowned Scottish designer Charles Rennie Machintosh which he made at the end of the 19th century. This one, we are told, is “a piece of furniture and made for holding a wash basin and towels,” – though where you put the towel I am still left wondering.

Finally there is a rather splendid Phoenix Coronet on display in a shabby glass case which must have turned a few heads in its day (the coronet, that is, not the shabby glass case). A phoenix coronet is said to have enjoyed a supreme position among female fashionistas. Over a long period of time, it was regarded by women as “the tiptop glory to wear the phoenix coronet and the cape. The former almost became the synonym for a noble lady.”

It is at this point that perhaps I should add that I was almost certainly the first visitor of the day to enter these portals. Reading more of the blurb offered by the Wuzhen tourism gurus, “visitors can even participate in the wedding experience themselves. And worthy of mention in the museum are the interactive games for tourists. These include tossing the bouquet (an embroidered ball in this case), shaking the sedan chair while carrying the bride, and jumping over the wall to meet your love. By partaking in these traditional wedding activities, visitors can experience the hardships of courting followed by the happiness of a lifetime together. By doing so, one can understand why the wedding night is traditionally considered one of the most important moments in life.”

My mind is working overtime, imagining jumping over walls and experiencing the hardships of courting before indulging in a lifetime of happiness. So this is why the wedding night is considered such an important moment? I feel older and wiser now.

Water, water everywhere. Welcome to Wuzhen!

I’ve often wondered what it is about Venice that makes everyone want to share in its glory.

There are loads of cities around the world that claim to be the “Venice of the North / South / East / West” but some of them have such a flimsy case that I wonder what the burgers of Venice make of it all.

Wikipedia lists seven “Venice of the North”s – though my favourite, Amsterdam, has more canals and bridges than the Italian city (while Hamburg has more bridges than both of them combined).

As for “Venice of the East”, Wiki lists 20 in all – of which five are in China (do you think they vie with one another for the real title?). One that is listed, that appears to have almost nothing in common with that great Italian city, is Wuzhen – though I have to say it is gorgeous in the extreme despite that.

Wuzhen is located 16kms north of the city of Tongxiang, 120 kms west of Shanghai and 90kms north of Hangzhou. Its 1,300-year history, with its ancient lanes, centuries-old stone houses and arched bridges, make it one of China’s top ancient water towns south of the Yangtze River.

The many tourist blurbs eulogising the place sum it up… “Canals run through the city in lieu of larger roads, keeping the pace of Wuzhen charming. Wuzhen is divided into the West Area and East Area with many visitor attractions including shops, restaurants, and various museums. Distinct arts including indigo-dye printing, loom weaving, and wine distillery delight visitors. There are also many folk performances offered in the East Area, including shadow puppet plays, the Huagu Opera, bamboo pole climbing, and even martial arts performances on boats. The waterways there are vibrant with small skiffs carrying passengers up and down the watery routes.”

It is undoubtedly true that the entire town is devoted to tourism, but it is still lovely despite that.

Your favourite blogger is in Wuzhen to attend an international internet conference. Some clever person in the town’s planning committee must have thought that combining a (state of the art) conference centre with a historic town was an unbeatable combination. How right he / she was!

The conference centre is located in Wuzhen’s West Area (or Xi Zha) where there are also a number of boutique hotels. It’s larger than the eastern area, and conference delegates don’t have to pay the 120 kwai entrance fee.

The Beijing-Hangzhou canal – a.k.a. The Grand Canal – is the oldest and longest canal in the world. It passes through Tianjin and the provinces of Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang to the city of Hangzhou and connects the Haihe, Yellow, Huaihe, Yangtze and Qiantang rivers over a total length of 1,794 kms. There used to be thousands of ships on the Grand Canal and during the Tang dynasty there were 100,000 people living in Wuzhen and boats were their principal mode of transport.

As well as the waterways, there are lovely old streets to wander through, passing centuries-old wooden houses, and taking in the scenery of arched bridges and waterside pavilions, most of which have been restored “to look as they did during Wuzhen’s original establishment in 872 AD” (complete with litter bins and street lights!).

Along this road you can find the Zhaoming Academy… Xiao Tong was the eldest son of Emperor Wudi of the short lived Liang Dynasty (502-557). He was named Zhaoming after dying at the tender age of 31. Apparently he was a gifted kind of guy, and wrote the first poetry and essay collection of ancient China which, the notices tell us "influenced later literators a lot".

During Emperor Wanli’s reign in the Ming Dynasty (1614), local people built a stone archway to commemorate him, while the tourism chiefs, nearly 400 years later on built the Zhaoming Academy, "not only to pay reverence to the former wise men, but also to encourage our coming generation to inherit and develop the spirit of enthusiasm for learning and self fulfilment." How sweet!

Mind you, you must behave yourself. Not only are you not allowed to spit here, but you can’t even throw your own food and rubbish into the water. (Presumably if you give a friend your rubbish and he gives you his, then that’s OK, I guess.)

Some of the bridges are stunning.

while many of the carved doors are equally attractive.

That set of doors, btw, leads into the Chinese Footbinding Culture Museum – an amazing collection of over 800 pairs of shoes designed for bound female feet, numerous pictures, and associated items, all accompanied by detailed descriptions.

Footbinding was a controversial custom that existed for over a thousand years. Chinese men, so we are led to believe, got more turned on by small feet than by a woman’s breasts or legs. (Strange people!)

The beauty of a Chinese woman was judged by the size of her feet, and the standard for beauty was three inch feet – or 7.6cm. This is said to be the best museum in the world devoted to the “three-inch lotus” (a euphemism for the bound foot). I can believe it. The collection is stunning, and the explanations of this very painful pursuit of beauty are fulsome.

Unfortunately, photography is strictly forbidden; and even first thing in the morning, there is an army of minders to make sure you do as you are told… (I counted at least 12 of them, while I was the only visitor.)

(Sorry, minders… my finger must have pushed the shutter by mistake…)

Outside again, and everywhere there is a view that just begs to be photographed.

Early morning sees a few intrepid delegates from the conference taking their constitutional…

Many of the buildings have decorations to attract the passing tourists in order to sell them something inside

Though autumn has well and truly turned to winter in Beijing, with the first snow already arrived, here the autumn fall is only just starting. It is, after all, 25 degrees warmer here than in the northern capital. Yet another stone-beamed bridge spans the waterway.

The White Lotus Pagoda in the north west of this western area cries out to be photographed from so many different vantage points…

… while the view from the top gives you a good impression of the surrounding area, albeit the early morning mist does its best to block your view.

There’s even a stone boat – presumably they got the idea from Empress Dowager Cixi’s Marble Boat in Beijing’s Summer Palace – but I think they really needn’t have bothered…

One of the biggest disappointments of the entire town is the privately owned Mu Xin Art Museum, which opened in November 2015. Five permanent galleries are dedicated to Mu Xin’s work, displaying ephemera, his writing and his art, though I have to say I really didn’t like any of his work one little bit.

There are also two temporary exhibitions devoted to Friedrich Nietzsche’s influence on Mu Xin, featuring manuscripts and books loaned from the Goethe and Schiller Archive, the Anna Amalia Library and the Nietzsche Documentation Centre. It marks the first exhibition in China of Nietzsche since his works were first translated into Chinese.

There are no explanations given in English – unlike the rest of the attractions in Wuzhen, this is designed for Chinese visitors only. And maybe it is more a measure of my lack of artistic appreciation; but frankly I couldn’t get out of the place fast enough. This museum now tops my list of the most boring / awful / unappealing museums in the whole of China.

But as for Wuzhen? I love it. And next time I visit, I will explore the eastern area of the town.