Last April (2008) I travel to the city of Chengde, in Hebei Province, in the north of the country, and even though I didn’t find any contemporary street theatre, I could experience the Chinese reaction to it: a re-creation of the past.
Any street spectacle in Chengde is linked to tradition; we can see street theatre which was a common sight before the Communist era (at the end of the last dynasty, the Qing, at the beginning of the 20th Century). It is a street theatre without soul, it is part of a cultural policy which is aiming to preserve the past or even reinvent it, always based on the preconceptions the government has of it. Street theatre has become a stamp from the Chinese past, a way to recreate the imperial dream when spectacles fed the people (yes, communist goals remain). Today, this street theatre gets its own stage: new traditional (and touristy) streets where acrobats and musicians can perform under the watchful eye of the police of cultural policy and keeping the order of the Chinese society.
Never before until now had I experienced the latent danger of the art I chose as a living. Its non existence speaks for itself.
Spectacles with animals, an Asian tradition
In China the situation is less nice and interesting. If street spectacles are under the police eye of cultural government policy, spectacles using animals are simply not an issue: they are not dangerous (they are using animals, not humans), they are not regulated, they are few and they co-exist with beggars, like casual acts. Using animals in China has a religious origin, linked with the past, but today there is no trace of that, we can only observe small groups of two or three beggar-like men, exploiting (without any scruple) animals in productions of very poor quality.
Traditional street spectacle makes a come back at Puning Temple
Chengde is known as the summer city for Chinese emperors; there, emperors built a palace to spend a big part of the summer because of the terrible heat of Beijing during that season; around the palace there are dozens of small replicas of the biggest and well known provincial icons of imperial China, sites where emperors wanted to please their provincial chiefs by showing how big their knowledge about their culture was. Small replicas meant big temples, like the replica of the Potala palace of Tibet for example. So, the city of Chengde is a very expensive theatrical production where temples and palaces don’t function as such, where they were visitor parlors, halls for receptions (one or two receptions!), expensive guest rooms for personalities and, now, they are museums of uselessness, beautiful replicas, but nothing else. We see a big theatrical scenario without any plays.
Puning temple is a real religious (Buddhist) point of reference in Chengde, and it’s a very important tourist site for the local government; it has the biggest statue in China of the Kuanyin with many arms. The temple was rebuilt and now it is the only beautiful spot inside the modern, ugly and polluted city of Chengde. Its monastery is now a very interesting traditional hotel and restaurant, with a special “tourist street” called “Puning street”, where Chinese life at the end of Qing dynasty is recreated, with shops, actors (real actors) dressed like people from that time and performing short spectacles which were usually given on the street: acrobatics, pantomime, musicians, storytellers, etc.
Even though this wasn’t a kind of modern street theatre, my interest was to record them in video and compare these spectacles with those I have seen in ancient films about Chinese life in 1927. For me it was a kind of anthropological production; Children acrobats, 二贵摔绞 (ergui shuaijiao) an actor in comic pantomimes, 拉洋片 (Layangpian) storytellers and their “image machines”. Puning’s small spectacles were technically not as good as their counterparts from the past, and people, that important ingredient, showed a little less interest that you can see in the ancient films.
Layangpian, the storyteller and his “image machine”, grabbed most of my attention. I had seen one of them at another temple fair in Beijing almost three years ago and from both experiences I can recall some elements: the voice technique, the rhythm and melody and, of course, how the story is told. The spectacle consisted more of the voice more than the images, but your eyes must focus on the inside the machine, watching the cartoons, while your ears create the world the voice proposes (2).
The video I took is frustratingly short because of some technical problems with my camera, but I could get one from Youtube that shows a scene of this street scenic manifestation and where you can appreciate the whole experience.
Now, you can compare what I videotaped in Chengde with these performances from a German documentary 80 years ago.
Girl Acrobat in Shanghai, year 1927
二贵摔绞 (ergui shuaijiao) Comic pantomime, Chengde, year 2008.
二贵摔绞 (ergui shuaijiao) Comic pantomime, Shanghai, year 1927
拉洋片 Layangpian. Story teller and his “image machine”. Chengde, year 2008
I will keep waiting for the new wave of Chinese street spectacles, where, possibly, tradition becomes a trampoline for a new way of doing theatre.
(1) This or any other manifestation that is not viewed as dangerous in China will remain so until some foreign NGO criticizes such manifestation or until it is negatively reviewed in some publication as an error of Chinese cultural policy, thus shaming the Chinese government.
(2) Layangpian is quite an important activity in China’s cultural tradition. The use of the machine is not very common nowadays, but the tradition persists as comic shows with two or three actors, telling stories, telling jokes, using some vocal play. But only with the use of the machine, of the Magic Lantern, and the fantastic use of voice rhythms, that the show becomes, from my point of view, remarkable.