As usual there was no warning. A garbled message from the waiban on my answering machine, mentioning 7pm. Well, I was due to be taught Chinese at 7.30pm. Then later, another call, still vague. There was to be an artistic performance at the Hubei Art School. Did I want to go? I hesitated. The last time one of these invitations came it turned out to be in a huge stadium, where we, the audience, were a cast of millions for a TV station running some sugary pop music variety show. You just never can tell.
While the boring business of daily business may be a bit shoddy in China, when it comes to big performance entertainment productions, they are up with the best. Maybe 3000 years of keeping fickle emperors amused pays off in this scene, maybe it is a natural in the culture. In any case, mass song & dance routines are a major industry here, with countless performers, musicians, choreographers, armies of set makers, and all the accompanying hangers-on. Television performers rate as the aristocracy in this modern gala, the artists in large hotels as the downmarket wannabes (who nevertheless can wrangle a very tidy income indeed), and "traditional" culture performers as timid wage-workers, providing the face paint for tourist and propaganda offices.
So did I want to go? My Chinese teacher thought it sounded like just another amateur school show. I wasn't so sure. Heck, I'm here to experience the Chinese world. At 7pm the International Office waiban was there with a minibus. His line of work is not a 9 to 5 job, and it must have its interesting moments. He tries hard to be personable. We talked a little about the skittish loyalty of motorbikes: he lost the skin from both knees a couple of days ago when his fake Harley Davidson lookalike took its wheels off in the wrong direction. Where were all the other foreign friends for the outing? Well, actually, I was to be CCNU's only representative. Presently a visiting American Fullbright professor from Florida finished his dinner and joined us.
Our bus edged up narrow alleys, lit by the little pools of light from night stalls. It brushed carefully past their clients, who wandered in thongs and singlets or cotton shifts, for the night was warm. The theater, when we found it, was an anonymous mass of concreted buried behind countless other grey buildings. There was a bustle of people at the door, and we were handed handsome programs. Should I have changed from jeans into something classier? Inside the bare concrete floor and simple fold-up chairs reminded me of the repertory theaters in Australia which survive from season to season on a shoestring. Yet when I looked around the interior was surprisingly cavernous. The stage, when we got to see it in operation, had width and depth, and all the gizmos that are needed for large-caste productions. Foreign friends, all two of us, were of course seated in the front row, behind what looked like judges desks, but which were thankfully equipped with nothing more threatening than bottles of mineral water. I found myself in the company of CCNU's president, and his executive assistant, who later proved very helpful in interpreting events.
This was definitely not sugary pop, but nor was it "traditional Chinese music" as everyone I asked immediately described it. Anything with an historical reference tends to be described as "traditional". What we were to see was in fact a very modern and very excellent dance ballet performance of about two hours. The ballet was called "Jingling Shi Er Chia" (literally "The Twelve Hair Pins of Jingling" -- a mansion). Its theme drew directly on the classical novel of the same name (China's best known romance, usually rendered into English as "A Dream of Red Mansions", by Tsao Hsueh-chin & Kao Ngo). Virtually everyone knows this story of twelve young aristocratic ladies and one very pampered young gentleman living out their romantic fantasies and tragedies in the large, rich mansion of a declining aristocracy. The artistry of the novel is in its exploration of the different characters expressed by each of these maidens, and this was exactly what the ballet sought to develop.
In a series of six tableaux, quite different moods of music, colour, theme and dance enveloped the set. Some of the symbolism was ingenious. How do you render the act of writing love poetry into dance? You give the dancer a large brush, real ink and a scroll, and she paints a giant symbolic Chinese character with perfect control. One girl in the spartan surrounds of a temple struggles with a great rope of plain wooden beads, succumbs to a necklace of flowers, then is drawn back to asceticism. Another wrestles with madness, brilliantly presented in a deadly hanging wall of white mop-like strings, and suicides. She vanishes down Huang Quan Lu, the road to the underworld, through a sea of white banners slashed with ominous black calligraphy. One lives like a dragon fly, in a filmy green world of summer heat, one succumbs under a yellow veil of sickness. In the closing tableaux, winter winds whip the stage, wrapped figures, swirling snow (that theater has remarkable snow and mist machines).
The impressive choreography blended perfectly with the instrumental music. Nobody could tell me the origin of the music, nor was it on the program, which seemed very strange for such a major piece of composition. Days later I discovered that an Opera by the same name was written in the twentieth century, so this may have been its genesis. With a live orchestra it could have been memorable, but the loudspeaker recording was the evening's one flaw. The dance directors, my program said, were Yang Feng Xian and Yao Xiao Ming; the choreographer Tian Xiao Peng. What was driving the performance? Well it seems that we were witnessing a dress rehearsal for a national competition in Beijing. That would be a great thrill for the real stars of this show, the dancers. For the dancers were all fifteen to sixteen years old, gorgeously lissome and nubile.
On the curtain fall my enthusiastic applause suddenly sounded lonely. I looked around and found myself clapping alone. No encores here! In the Chinese style, like their banquets, when it's done it's done: a perfunctory clap, a scraping of chairs and goodnight. Well, not quite immediately. The university president, the Art College principal, and various luminaries scrambled up onto the stage to hog centre place in a group photograph which seemed to be as choreographed as the performance itself.
My hosts were as pleased as children that I was pleased. Foreigners, they knew, are so contrary and always complaining; you can't win with them... Our conversation fell back to "A Dream of Red Mansions". Was this China's most erotic novel? Heavens no. It may have seemed daring in the sexually repressed years of Mao madness (not that Mao himself was exactly shy with women). But the novel is more implicit than explicit, so that everyone can find it chaste or adventurous to their taste. China's one genuinely erotic classic, I was told, is a Ming Dynasty novel called Jin Pin Mei, it's title taken from the names of three women who shared the affections of one exhausted man. Later, someone wickedly adds that this very year a new sexy bombshell has hit the bookstands, "Shanghai Baby", about the supposedly autobiographical exploits of one Wei Hui. Bored by her Chinese husband, she seeks the perfect lover, and strikes it hot with a married foreign man. Hmm. Wonder when that will be choreographed. Could somebody please cast me as the leading gent...