Chinese performing arts show rich history and culture

Cayman Brac’s environmentalist, educator and author Martin Keeley spent time in China this holiday season. Here is another missive he sent Weekender from across the planet.  



Lijiang, Himalayas – There are many different ways to understand Chinese culture – some of which have been around for 5,000 years. 

For me, having been raised in the theatre, perhaps one of the best ways is to check out the performing arts. And so each time I visit China I try and take in shows of different styles. 

In Beijing it was the traditional Chinese opera as well as a stunning version of the History of Kung Fu. In Shanghai, an acrobatic troupe worthy of the Olympics. In Xian, a mixture of dance, music and theatre. In Lijiang, China’s oldest traditional orchestra – the only one to survive the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s. In Lijiang and Yangshou, incredible Johnny Mou extravaganzas.  

Each show in itself is a way to guide the observer – and listener, too – through one of the multiple facets of China’s complex culture.  

For example, anyone who caught the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics will be familiar with the work of Johnny Mou. He’s used to operating on a larger-than-life stage. 

The first show of his I saw in Yangshou, situated on the beautiful Li River, was a water show. It was based on the lives of the fishermen – they’re the ones who use tame cormorants to fish with – and it was a graceful ballet that all took place on flowing blue and green lit water in pole driven boats. 

The story was the classic love story, the maiden of the village and the handsome young fisherman, and it took place within the context of the lives in the village and of the fishermen. And it took place at night, so evocative lighting was spread over about 25 acres of water and the paths in-between the rivers and lakes. 

The second Johnny Mou show I experienced was in the foothills of the Himalayas nearby to Lijiang. Again the traditional love story, but this one with a difference. The Naxi people, who are the minority living in this region of China, have a legend based on how their lives used to be.  

A young woman was committed in marriage to a young man from another family and could not break this unwritten law. If she fell in love with another man from the village she could not marry him. Instead, the lovers took their horses high up into the famous local mountain and threw themselves off the mountain to their deaths. This rather than betray their love for each other. 

The show itself was in a specially built huge outdoor theatre and reflected life in the village – from the men riding magnificent steeds around the perimeter of the stage then drinking in the equivalent of the local beer hall, to the women climbing the mountain with huge baskets on their backs. 

The story also followed the customs of the Naxi people inter-linked with a dramatisation of the love and death of the young lovers. 

Music for both the Johnny Mou shows was especially composed and was as dramatic as the shows themselves, interwoven with the choreography of the casts of hundreds. Both made a vivid impression and were totally different to the Beijing classic opera and Shanghai acrobats, although both contained similar elements of music, staging and choreography. 


Xiamen show  

And so it was with an open mind and curious anticipation that I took in the Magic Min’nan Show in Xiamen. 

Min’nan is the old-time name for Xiamen, the city in Fujiang Province which is my current port-of-call. The story, if such there is, behind Magic Min-nan – the name of the show – is a mixture of what has happened in the past history of the city and what is happening now. Behind it, of course, is the love story – in this case of a young man who goes to sea and travels abroad to bring back his new bride. 

The various scenes of the show move through “Nobleland of Religion and Ancestry,” “Happyland of Southeast China,” and “Spirit of Sea” to “Hometown of National Hero” and “Hometown of Harmony.”  

The narrator is a strange looking creature of half fish and half man, and much of the show obviously features sea creatures and ancient Chinese ceremonies like the tea ceremony. Dance with spectacular choreography and costumes underlie the performance.  

There are traditional battle scenes, and this time a fire-breathing puppet – puppets of all kinds play a leading role, whether they be tiny emperor or African/monkey puppets or human beings role-playing puppets. 

For me there was a strong element of humour throughout, though I’m not so sure that the 100 per cent Chinese audience found some of the scenes as funny as I did. One dance number involving dancing tea-cups gave a new perspective on the ancient Chinese tea ceremony, and there was a hilarious dance number involving mixed religious perspectives with angels performing for Buddha.  

There was a Chinese rap number (has to be heard and seen to be believed) where the townfolk do a dance routine together with one of the lead characters, a kind of Chinese clown figure who tended to pop up all over the place with much face-pulling and eye-rolling. The “youth of today” was also commented on – not without much humorous posturing 

The show was written and composed specifically for the city of Xiamen and had English translations projected onto the walls. This is something I recommend for any English-speaking visitor to such shows. Wherever possible get a running translation from either the show itself, or a translator/interpreter that you bring with you. It makes a huge difference in understanding what’s going on! 


The Min’Nan ladies portray dolphins.


The show had spectacular lighting.


In front of a giant Buddha, the Min’Nan performers show their skills. – Photos: Submitted


A Merman, as portrayed at Min’Nan.