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The Unique Sichuan Art Form that Refuses to Die

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Through a network of alleyways, in an otherwise indistinguishable pocket of Chongqing’s historic Ciqikou town, there’s a teahouse that opens up to a surprisingly large interior. Inside there are multiple floors of stages, seating, and kitchens. The show, unfailingly, is a style of folk opera native to Sichuan province.

Sichuan opera isn’t as well-known as its more rigid, diplomatic brother, Beijing opera (often referred to in English as Peking Opera). But the Sichuan style actually predates Beijing’s, and originated one of Chinese opera’s most iconic performances: the face-changing opera, which is closer to a magician’s act than that of a western opera performer. I’m with a team that’s shooting a local promotional video, and I’m lucky enough to sit in on a performance by Lu Jinxin, a face-changer who’s been practicing for nearly half his life.

(After the show, I asked him how it was done. Naturally, he laughs — he can’t answer that. That information is classified, he says.)

On stage, there’s a lot to keep track of. One performer pours tea out of a four foot-long teapot, swinging it around his body like a martial artist and emptying its contents into tiny cups. Another act is a clown, who crawls through a self-devised obstacle course with a lit candle on top of his head. But the audience is clearly most excited for the third performer, the face-changer.

One minute into the show, and he’s changed masks three times. The crowd loves it. At one point, he leaps off the stage and into the audience. He grabs my finger and touches it to his mask — one foot away from my face in plain view, it switches again. The audience applauds, and I’m left with no explanation.

Lu, now 20, started training in opera when he was 12 years-old. He’d seen the performances and pushed his parents to let him study under a master. They found one who lived in Chengdu, Sichuan province’s capital city. So they sent Lu to Chengdu, where he lived as an apprentice in the master’s home.

“It’s nothing too exciting,” he says. “Just training every day. Each session would go on for hours, holding every pose for at least thirty minutes. The movements of Sichuan opera have a lot in common with martial arts.”

To an outsider, the idea of living in an immersive opera training environment might seem excessive. But for Lu, it’s just another day in Sichuan. Traditionally, opera students have always received room and board at their academies or the homes of their masters — even Jackie Chan honed his original kung fu and singing skills as a young student at an opera academy.

Jackie Chan poses as a member of his opera troupe, the Seven Little Fortunes

The depth of the techniques isn’t something you can totally grasp from the outside. The movements are packed with literary allusions, mythology, and classical character tropes that will go over your head if you’re not well-versed in Chinese culture. The smallest details — the way you walk, facial expressions, hand placements — are all drilled into performers through endless hours of training.

“Back when I was a kid, there wasn’t much entertainment here in Sichuan,” Lu explains. “So it was normal for us to go to the opera house and see these shows. I can’t even remember the first time I saw it. But the feeling of Sichuan opera is just interesting — when I watched the shows, I immediately wanted to learn it myself.”

But Sichuan is no longer the quiet province it used to be. Today, Sichuan is a breakaway success on the charts, its GDP climbing from 3 to 4 trillion RMB over the past three years. Chengdu has been officially knighted as a “first-tier city”, a hotspot for underground music and China’s fast-growing hip hop scene — it’s certainly not short on entertainment. The Sichuan of Lu’s childhood might have lacked excitement, but that’s no longer the case.

Meanwhile, in the western hemisphere, opera is in decline. In the ’90s, the Metropolitan Opera in New York — one of the art form’s foremost institutions, and a useful barometer of its popularity — would consistently rake in 90% of its potential box office revenue. Today that number teeters in the mid-to-high 60s, with a distinct downward trend.

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It would be easy to assume that, amid Sichuan’s exciting growth, its unique classical cultural products would be in similar jeopardy. But Lu thinks the art is far from waning in popularity. Rather, he feels its influence is expanding.

“Nowadays you can watch Sichuan opera online or on TV,” he tells me. “There’s a whole channel for it. And I think next is the international stage.”

Sichuan opera’s uniqueness — plus the one-of-a-kind visual appeal of the face-changing performance — make it more adaptable to the internet generation. The niche art form has found its way into a small pocket of awareness overseas, through TV shows like America’s Got Talent and ambassadors like magicians Penn and Teller.

It’s not the first time Sichuan opera has found a way to endure. Initially, the form was composed of five disparate styles, each with their own unique histories, and might not’ve lasted through China’s transition into the modern era. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that a movement for revival and reform began, led by Kang Zhilin and his Three Treasures opera company, the first to combine the five old styles into a single coherent performance.

Dr. Susan Jain, who specializes in Sichuan opera and performing arts and is based at UCLA, points to the historical context that underpins it all:

“During the Cultural Revolution, all forms of traditional Chinese opera were banned from the stage. Cut off from traditional culture, a whole generation of people in China grew up without exposure to their own forms of local theater.

Today, the government is working hard to promote traditional culture. Increased government funding is enabling Sichuan opera troupes to perform in local schools, put on their own plays, and compete in televised contests. It will be interesting to see if that government support will create new audiences for Sichuan opera, one of the world’s most dynamic forms of theatre.”

A State-driven resolve to protect and promote “intangible cultural heritage” is a necessity in China, where diverse, centuries-old art forms number in the thousands. Skyscrapers continue to spring up around the country overnight, and the question of preservation is a salient one.

But more significant than the support of the authorities is the passion people feel for their own local traditions.

“I always loved to hear Sichuan opera people say, ‘if you can’t take the chilies, you can’t sing Sichuan opera,'” Jain recalls. “Like its food, Sichuan opera is truly unique, and deserves all the attention it can get.”

Photos/GIFs: Visit Chongqing and Kevin Cook

Adan Kohnhorst
Adan Kohnhorst is a Shanghai-based writer, producer, and multimedia artist, and the Associate Editor at RADII. His work has been featured in publications such as Maxim and the Chinese-language StreetVoice, and he’s an active member of the hip-hop and DIY music scenes in Shanghai, NYC, and Dallas. He learned Mandarin in high school so he could train at the Shaolin Temple, but now just uses it to interview rappers.

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