If you've been in Chengdu for a few days and managed to pet the pandas at the Breeding Center, stuff your face in the lanes and alleys of town and visited the monasteries and temples the guidebook tells you to visit and you are still looking for something to to kill that last day in town, then consider an afternoon of sunflower seed spitting and tea drinking at the opera.
But not just any opera ... the fire breathing, face changing circus of red and orange that the Sichuanese call opera.
Down Home version of an Elegant Style
Sichuan opera is characterized by a celebration of colorful costumes, acrobatic flips and gestures as well as a bag of magic tricks including third eyes, fire-spitting, knife-hiding and face-changing.
The opera developed out of an amalgamation of styles across southwestern China, from Yunnan and Guizhou to Shaanxi.
The operatic style which developed in Sichuan is quick, funny and down to earth – revelling in local dialects and legends – while the eastern styles are concerned with loftier affairs and more nuanced themes.
Kunqu, one of China’s oldest operatic styles, originated in the highly refined provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu, near Suzhou. The elegance of kunqu found its roots in the intellectuals of the day and expressed itself in allusive and complex language accompanied by quiet strings and minimal percussion.
This style prevailed for hundreds of years until, as legend has it, Wei Changsheng, a master of Shaanxi opera living in Chengdu, visited the capital during the Qianlong Emperor’s (r.1736-1796) 70th birthday and introduced the clapper-opera style, which originated in Sichuan and changed the face of Chinese opera forever.
This new style basically involves a storyteller telling outrageous tales in a thick, bawdy dialect to the beat of his clapper. Itinerant clappers still roam the countryside putting on shows, sometimes accompanied by a troupe of performers spitting fire into delighted crowds and shocking the children with a dazzling display of face-changing — showing all the colors and emotions of the spectrum in the span of a few seconds.
These raucous celebrations in the hills of Sichuan become a bit calmer as they enter the teahouses of the cities where the elderly gather around bamboo tables, chomping sunflower seeds and sipping tea to the high-pitched singing and rapid-fire acrobatics of a show, while ear-cleaners and masseuses tour the audience.
Established venues for Sichuan opera abound throughout Chengdu.
If there is no time to explore the side streets and find a small teahouse with a clapper telling tales, then be sure to visit the Sichuan Opera Academy, People’s Park or the Yuelai Teahouse for a dose of Sichuan humor. One place to search for impromptu performances is underneath the bridge heading south on South Renmin Lu towards the airport.
Places to go:
— Sichuan Opera Academy, 20 Zhangyuan Jie
— Shunxing Old Teahouse, next to the Chengdu Exhibition Centre
— Shufeng Square People’s Park
— Yuelai Teahouse Huaxingzheng Jie
— Under the South Renmin Lu Bridge to the airport