Peanuts, Tea and Massage: A Night at the Sichuan Opera

Travelling the Silicon RoadCHENGDU, China — Last night I attended the Sichuan Opera here in Chengdu, the capitol of Sichuan province. Lemme tell ya, it ain’t fat ladies in brass brassieres and horned Viking helmets singing Wagner, that’s for sure.

Nor is it a black-tie affair. Peanuts, sunflower seeds and tea are served, and people roam the aisles offering massages, their white jackets proclaiming “Ear Cleaning and Health Massage.” And there are boisterous conversations throughout the audience, throughout the performance — I confess, my Western sensibilities sometimes got the best of me, and I found myself wishing I knew how to say “Give it a rest!” or “Shut the hell up!” in the local dialect once or twice.

In fact, during the one part of the performance that actually involved dialogue, the woman next to me was getting a full-body massage — while fully clothed, get your minds out of the gutter — and her and her masseuse kept up a steady stream of conversation. Then, on the other side of the theater, there was some sort of fight or altercation that distracted everyone except the performers — a night at the Sichuan Opera is kind of like being at a bar or a ball game back home, or maybe a football game (think soccer, my American brethren) in the U.K.

I think the European tourists sitting next to me were rather appalled.

But I of course thought it was great; one of those wonderful “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more” moments that I treasure while traveling abroad.

No, opera means something entirely different to East and West. I confess that I’ve never been to a Western opera; the closest I’ve come is that hilarious Bugs Bunny cartoon that spoofs the aforementioned Wagner. But I know enough to know it isn’t anything like what I saw here last night.

But there are some 1,300 operas throughout China, and they vary from region to region, from what I can gather. There are some 300 types of opera as well. So from what I understand, if you’re familiar with the Beijing Opera, well, Sichuan may be something else again.

Where to begin? I’m not sure I can describe the spectacle without offending the literary sensibilities of at least one reader, Goose Hosage (see the comments section of this particular blog entry). The Sichuan Opera has a 200-year tradition; it is currently housed in the back of a very crowded market adjacent to the Wuhou Temple grounds, Wuhou Temple being a monument to Zhuge Liang, a famous Chinese military strategist who served the emperor Liu Bei some 2,000 years ago.

In other words, you probably want to hook up with someone local in order to find the opera. My interpreter, Zhike, almost refused to go, when he found it was 120 yuan per person to enter (about 12 bucks American); he was sure we weren’t paying the Chinese price. But then he queried a Chinese tour group, and sure enough, they were charged the same price.

Then he decided that it must be a tourist trap, as surely the local Chengdu residents couldn’t afford the admission price. I tended to agree, but I still wanted to see what it was all about — after all, that’s part of the reason I’m here, finding out what China is all about.

And in the end, he decided it was pretty cool, as did I, and well worth the admission price.

Electronic News Travels to ChinaHow to describe it? Part slapstick, part performance art, part magic act, part circus acrobatics, part modern dance … flame eaters, puppets, balancing acts, skits, martial arts … acrobatic tea pouring, a voluptuous MC in a flaming bright chartreuse dress — the list goes on. The evening culminates with the mask dancers, elaborately costumed dancers who, with the flick of a wrist, as they dance, constantly change their masks — elaborate, full-face affairs that match the costumes.

In short, the opera is about as spicy as the food in Chengdu. Speaking of which, it’s dinner time, and me and my trusty interpreter are off to a restaurant whose name translates into English as The Little Chili Pepper, or some such. Sounds right up my culinary alley.


Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a news story written by me that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. It’s former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge). You can still see a copy of this story at EDN.

Original Comments

at 11/8/2005 9:41:01 AM, David said:

How does one arrange for a personal interpreter in Chengdu? What is the cost?

at 11/15/2005 1:20:14 PM, Jeff Chappell said:

David, there are a number of ways to go about hiring a local interpreter. If you have professional contacts in China, I would start with them (that’s what we did; the student that traveled with me was hired through our staff at EB China). There are a number of expat Web sites and language translation sites where people advertise their services as interpreters and translators. If you are looking specifically for someone local in a certain place, I’d start with Google, and advertise on local message boards as well.

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