Sichuan Opera has amazed countless travelers with its magical Chinese mask changing, fire breathing and Chinese puppet show. Some opera shows even meet overseas travelers' expectations to see Kung Fu performances while in their journey to China. Here is a brief introduction to this traditional opera show in Sichuan.
Quick Facts About Sichuan Opera:
Listed as the Cultural Heritage of China, Sichuan opera is a treasured Chinese folk art found mainly in China's southwest provinces, including Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou.
Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan Province, has been the proud home of this traditional opera since ancient times. Some performances in Sichuan Opera even has a history of thousands of years. Consisting of five operatic elements, its current form dates back to nearly 300 years ago, to the Qing Dynasty (1644-911 A.D.).
Like many traditional folk arts, it is threatened by growing modernization of China. Traditional folk artists usually have a very hard time finding understudies to pass their knowledge and skills on. Without proper protection, it may well die out in the future.
What to See in Sichuan Opera
Sichuan opera never fails to crack the audience up - it is lively and witty. You may find yourself deeply amused, though you never really understand a single line.
Opera performances include Chinese mask changing (bianlian), fire breathing (tuhuo), rolling lamps (gundeng), Chinese puppet shows (mu'ouxi), shadow puppet show (shouying).
Sometimes there are men dressed up as women. The whole performance usually centers on a family, with a husband and a wife.
A Chou (a male clown) entertains the audience with thick Sichuan dialect and funny performances, along with dramatic interaction with his wife.
Occasionally some performers would try Chinese Kong Fu. They get lots of "wow" from the audience by doing Chinese acrobatics. Nevertheless, hold on your expectations and find out what they have got for you.
Chinese Mask Changing
Chinese mask changing is the highlight of Sichuan Opera. It is called "bianlian" in Chinese, which literally means "changing faces". It is an art performance that uses a technique of changing face masks amazingly fast.
Legend has it that people in Sichuan put on colorful masks to scare predators away in ancient times. Gradually, those masks became a tool of entertainment. They are designed to represent different emotions of characters on stage.
As much as 8 masks can be changed seamlessly in a row by top performers, all in the blink of an eye. Much of the intrigue lies in how performers are able to switch masks so rapidly and with such high accuracy.
Talented performers render it so flawlessly that it appears to be an illusion or magic trick. The art and fame of Chinese mask changing, or bianlian have spread overseas for its mysterious techniques and optical-illusion quality.
Fire Breathing in Sichuan Opera
Fire breathing (tuhuo) is an stunning art not only found in Sichuan or other parts of China. It is performed world wide. Given that, why see it in Sichuan Opera? What is so special about it?
Fire breathing show in Sichuan Opera is unique as compared to other such performances. Artists have combined Chinese mask changing with fire breathing, which is super difficult and dangerous to do.
The fire column spitting out from the mouth of performer can reach 2 m. (6.6 ft.) high! Both mask changing and fire breathing are derived from the old Shu Kingdom more than one thousand year ago.
Chinese Puppet Show
Chinese Puppet Show originated in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.). It was not until the Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 A.D.) when folk acrobatics was introduced that the puppet show became complete.
Today, Chinese puppet performance is a type of on-stage puppet and performer presentation, with the Wood Head Show and Pleading Puppet Show being the most famous.
The puppet segment of the opera is usually solemn, a reflection of their use in ancient times to honor the ancestors. Due to its difficulty, few people are able to perform this obscure art today.
Note that it is different from Chinese Shadow Puppet play, another ancient folk art seen in cities including Chengdu and Xi'an.
Hand Shadow Show
Hand shadow show is also known as Chinese shadows, for it originates in ancient China. The show is magical, yet its basics are simple and easy to learn. A light source, a blank background (wall, screen etc.) and your hands are all you need to play with shadows.
To deliver a knock-out performance with these seems unlikely. The hand shadow show in Sichuan Opera will never fall flat, however, for it is delivered by top notch artists in this field. Check out by watching a show!
Rolling Lamp Show
The last segment of the opera, Rolling lamp, is a classic clown play. Audiences are often so impressed that they often hold their breathes when they see the performers doing complex physical comedy while successfully balancing a flaming bowl on their heads.
The whole performance involves two actors: the "husband" and the "wife", who argue over the husband's gambling. The wife keeps requiring the husband to do strange and dangerous stunts over the course of the argument. Throughout the routine, the husband struggles to do what his wife asked while keeping the flaming bowl on his head.
More often than not, the requirements of his stunts are so intense that his flexibility in performing the stunts will make the audience wonder whether he is made of rubber!
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Where Can You See Sichuan Opera?
Top recommended places in Chengdu to see such show by local Sichuan Opera lovers and Chinese travelers includes:
- Sichuan Opera Theater at No. 20 Zhuangyuan Street.
- Chengdu International Exhibition Center at No. 258 Shawan Road.
- Shufeng Yayun Garden in the Culture Park.
- Shufeng Square inside People's Park at the city center.
- Shunxing Old Tea House at No.258 Shawan Road (Chengdu International Expo Center, 3rd Fl.)
- Jingjiang Theater, the old Yuelai Tea House at No.54 Huanxing Zheng street, Jinjiang district.
Note that they usually do not provide dinner, but they do have tea ready for you (fees usually included in ticket price).
Top Pick From WindhorseTour:
Shufeng Yayun Garden in the Culture Park is our top recommendation, as shown in the picture. It has been a crucial culture spot for Sichuan Opera with top performers in Sichuan. This theater is very Chinese-flavored, and enjoys great reputation among domestic and foreign audience.
When Will the Show Get Started?
Performances usually begin at 20:00. A Sichuan Opera show usually lasts around one and half an hour.
Most Sichuan Opera theaters offer performances on a daily basis, while some only open during the weekend. Better go for the weekend show for highlight performances.
How Much Does A Sichuan Opera Ticket Cost
Prices of a theater ticket for one Sichuan Opera show vary from 100 - 350 RMB (15 - 55 USD). Some local tea houses also offer shows at much lower prices, which are reasonably less grand and dramatic.
If you plan to see top artists with highlight performances, then you are recommended to go to those Sichuan Opera theaters as mentioned above.
Tickets for these theaters are hard to get, as Sichuan Opera Show are increasingly popular among Chinese and expats alike. If you buy tours from WindhorseTour, we can book tickets for you in advance at discount prices, saving your time and money.
Other Art Performances in Chengdu
For overseas travelers who are particularly interested in exploring Jinsha site, the Jinsha Musical is a must see when you visit Chengdu. It tells the 3,000 year old legend of lovers Jin and Sha in a dramatic way. Ticket price for Jinsha Musical is around 400 RMB (60 USD).
The show was inspired by the recent discovery of a huge collection of artifacts from the ancient Shu kingdom.The musical includes a wide array of musical performances, from the humorous 'Song of Egg', to the inspirational 'Song of Working', and to the touching and tragic 'Battlefield'.
Friendly Tips for Seeing Sichuan Opera
Prepare yourself a new pair of eye-glasses if you wear one. Your glasses may well be shattered by those pretty raw opera singing in a Sichuan Opera show.
Chinese Kungfu is performed in some Sichuan opera shows. Some of you may wonder: is it true that all Chinese can fly around and kick asses as they want?
Sadly, the answer is no. Everybody in China wish they have those super powers. That kind of Kung Fu is only shown in movies. Find a local master to teach you how to play Taichi if you are interested.
Seeing Sichuan Opera in Chengdu is an exhilarating experience that you do not want to miss.
WindhorseTour can make arrangements for you to see Sichuan Opera along with Volunteering work in the Panda Base. If you plan to have a city tour or stay overnight in Chengdu, feel free to contact us for tailor made tours!
Feel the Chinese culture while having tea just like the locals do. Try not to blink your eyes when you watch Chinese mask changing and fire breathing!