Wednesday, May 21, 2014

All Around China - Famous shows from the North, East, South and West

During our short 16 day stay in the Middle Kingdom, the family and I got to see the most famous shows in China. They all had an incredible amount of talent, and each had their own strengths.  Some were more culturally relevant, while others oozed young talent. Here's my take on the shows of shows in China.

1.  NORTH - The Legend of Kung Fu, Hebei Province, Beijing 


The Legend of Kung Fu is the most popular tourist show in Beijing showing at the Red Theatre. But for a show labeled "The Legend of Kung Fu" there is less Kung Fu, and more attempt at telling a stereotypical story of a man, who happens to be a monk, who is tempted by an [evil] woman and ends up overcoming his trials through a montage.


The story is about a boy, Chun Yi, who is dropped off at a Shaolin Monk temple when he is 5 years old, and he doesn't want to leave his mother, but relents at the coaxing of his new peers.  He grows up in the temple and excels to be the best, when his ego takes hold of him, and he begins thinking of his mother again which distracts from his practice.  He has an inner struggle about this, which is portrayed as a scantily clad seductress fairy, which he eventually overcomes. He passes a final test to show his devotion, and the headmaster passes the torch to him before he dies.

Actor posing before the show starts.

This show was obviously meant for a western audience.  Not only is the show in English, but the western style of big production and lazy storytelling was distracting to me.  The acrobatics were impressive, but repetitive and more dancing-gymnastics than kung fu.  I personally would have rather seen people practicing kung fu rather than dancers and actors simulating what kung fu is. The actors did an impeccable job in their roles; but with the pretense of having a story, the show fell short.

Main character, Chun Yi showing his strength before being taken down by ego.

We saw some of the actors earlier that day at the Temple of Heaven practicing.  These young boys are very devoted and struck a pose for me when they noticed me taking a picture.  Their acting, dancing and kung fu are fun to watch, but realize the show is made for westerners and does not portray an accurate cultural story, nor a well told story. The show is worth seeing for the dedication of the actors who provide stunning choreography and acrobatics, but you will not gain any cultural insight or better understand local folklore. If you're a person who enjoys glitz and glam, and doesn't care much for storytelling, or you enjoy big production CGI movies without much plot, you will enjoy the Legend of Kung Fu.

Devoted practitioner and main child actor on stage. Most of the boys are under 17 years old.


2. EAST - ERA : Intersection of Time, Jiangsu Province, Shanghai


If you are expecting Cirque de Soliel, you are going to be disappointed.  The acrobatic show we saw at Shanghai Circus World was the ERA - Intersection of Time, which is considered the best acrobatics show in Shanghai.


It's not for the lack of talent, but rather the show is just not Vegas big. It is, however, a show none like I have seen before.  The acrobatics in Broadway's Pippin was equally impressive, but the way this show incorporated modern, urban culture with hints of traditional past (hence the name Intersection of Time) was a delight to see and kept me guessing.


I think what makes this show seemingly less BIG than something from Vegas is that there are only about 20 people or less who perform the entire show.  These aerialists are so multitalented that some can perform in every act, doing flips one moment, and throwing and balancing heavy pottery the next. The small number of people make the show seem small, but it really makes it that much more impressive to realize that these dozen people carry an entire show for 100 minutes. Every seat in the house is a good seat which also gives a small feel, but draws you in that much more.

Portrayal of China's first manned space mission in 2012.

There were bicycles on stage, break dancing acrobatics, and the famous finale of caged motorcycles with flashing lights, honking horns, and a moving background of the city : perfectly portraying what it's like to be amidst the hustle and bustle of Shanghai traffic or any city.

Mats facing every direction with road marks give a clear visual of "jumping through hoops" in a bustling city. 

This show really gave me a sense of the city, and though it is not Cirque, there are not nearly as many people, and it's not nearly the spectacle, but it is a stunning art piece all it's own.

7 motorcyclists were in the cage on the left all at the same time.  With flashing white and blue lights and a Maglev train multimedia background image, you feel right in the thick of traffic.

3. SOUTH - Show of Impression : Liu Sanjie, Guanxi Province, Yangshuo 


This show is set on the biggest natural theatre in the world, with the beautiful backdrop of the Karst mountain range, on the Li River.  Created by famous Chinese director Zhang Yi Mou who also directed and choreographed the opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing olympics. There are 600 people who perform in the show, most of whom are local farmers and fishermen of the Zhuang minority who get a chance to tell their own history and sing their folk songs which is an integral part of preserving their culture.


The Show of Impression is about the Liu Sanjie, who, in local Zhuang folklore, would inspire the local people with her captivating voice and limitless beauty, as she is believed to be an incarnation of the lark.  The choreography in the show gives an impression of daily life for the locals.  In the 7 parts, each part has a color to demonstrate different feelings of the everyday life of the Zhuong.

First Chapter : Red Impression - The red symbolizes the enthusiasm and labors of the local people.

The story goes that Liu Sanjie falls in love with a village farm boy (Wesley?) and a warlord, Mo Huairen, plots to kidnap her to make her a concubine and keep her lovely voice to himself. When Liu Sanjie resists, he hires an assassin to murder her but the farmboy and her village band together to save her and she escapes. Liu Sangie and farmboy Li Xiaoniu sang as they travelled, and turned themselves into larks so more people could be inspired by their melodious voices.

Chapter 7 : Silvery Impression - Local Zhuong girls come out wearing traditional silver dresses.  The show ends with all 600 people coming on stage and proudly singing their folk songs.

This show was relaxing with a bucolic backdrop of misty mountains on the lake, but remember to bring mosquito repellant and a poncho; all of that beauty comes from lots of rainfall. The water illusions were colorful and impressive, the props are large and creative, and the lights in the show are used to help tell the story and drive emotion. To really get an understanding of local culture, see this show.  This story is so intertwined with local culture, it would be a shame to visit the Guanxi region without having the perspective of how Liu Sanjie pertains to the local people.


4.  WEST - Sichuan Opera : Sichuan Province, Chengdu


The Sichuan Opera blew me away.  Not only me, but my 4-year-old was captivated for the entire 1.5 hour long show. Let me repeat, my 4-year-old stayed up from 7:30pm to 9:00pm after a full day of seeing the sights, without a nap; and watched, laughed and clapped for the entire show.

Neva and I in front of the Sichuan Opera House

The Sichuan Opera is a compilation of talents that is prefaced with ladies dressed in red, and pouring tea from large pots in mirrored synchronization.


After the audience is served tea and has a chance to settle in, the bright colors, costumes and make-up hit the stage along with the high notes from the leading lady.  The first act of opera is jaw dropping not only from the talent, but from the immense energy coming from all of the professionals on stage. The show is both visually and otically stimulating with lots of fun movements and an heir of comedy.


With such a strong beginning act, you might expect the rest of the show to pale in comparison, but the acts stay strong; one after another, after another.

Chinese violinist.  He shredded the Chinese violin, playing fast, fiddle-like songs for his second set.

From the Chinese violin player, to the female puppet master, to the shadow puppet man, and the husband and wife comedy routine, each act hits strong.

The puppet master was seamlessly able to articulate the hands and wrists of the puppet, enough to pluck out a hair pin and wave her handkerchief at the crowd.

With so much going on, the last act sneaks up on you.  After all, the Sichuan Opera is known as the "face changing" act. After an incredible display from multiple actors, artists and singers, the finale is still breathtaking.


There is fire breathing, face changing, and even full wardrobe changes in the blink of an eye; not only from one actor, but a well choreographed line of 8 people moving as one with giant fans waving in front of their face, and after each wave, a new face appears.

If there is one show that you want to see in China, THIS is the show.


I hope you enjoyed that synopsis of my thoughts.  Do you have any thoughts to add on the shows I listed, or know of any famous shows that I excluded?  Let me know in the comments.  Stay tuned for a list of our favorite temples in China!

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