Yangshuo County, Guilin, China
September 5, 2017
Harmony of sky, mountain, river, and me.
I thus captioned my selfie on a riverside boulevard in Yangshuo. The view of Li River from that turn at a corner had already been composed: the languid river cutting through jutting peaks, a fishing boat anchored midstream, and fluffy clouds against the gentle blue of the sky. All these elements cast a mirror image on the placid waters. Nature and uncanny timing created this Chinese painting landscape, and I felt compelled to shove my mug into the scene. In all fairness to me, I did snap an unadulterated photo of the river.
Further on was Zhang Yimou Li River Art School, named after the film director most recently known for Yingxiong (Hero in English), the most visually stunning movie I had ever seen with the added attraction of featuring Jet Li, my celebrity man-crush. The school was established in 2000 to train village youth in visual and performing arts for a minimal tuition fee. Three years after, their post-academic employment was assured. They inevitably joined the cast of thousands in a twice-daily cultural performance in Yangshuo. I came late in the afternoon before the first show. Crowds of teenagers and children in all-black outfits were making their way from the school building to an outdoor theater.
My friend, Quinn, was taking me to see Impression Sanjie Liu, the world’s largest outdoor performance. A sizable crowd had already gathered at the ticket outlet. Quinn was able to snag seats for about 200 RMB each for the 7:45 PM performance (the second show was at 9:20). He explained that the show was a community effort. All 600 supporting performers were villagers – students and even farmers trained at the performing arts school. It was the county’s cottage industry providing, not only income to the local community, but also a career change. Participating Zhuang people may have partly given up traditional farming and fishing yet would still be celebrating and promoting their culture. The terraced 3,200-seater quickly filled up as we took our prime seats at the dead center – neither too close nor too far, neither too low nor too high.
The show was developed in 2004 by Guanxi-native Mei Shuaiyuan and the aforementioned film director. The real collaboration, though, was that of culture and nature. This outdoor “natural theater” had Li River as the shimmering watery stage and 12 silhouetted karst peaks, most prominently Shutong Hill, and the night sky as the painterly backdrop. Soon, the lights went down, music wafted from the river, and Liu Sanjie (the main character) appeared in the sky. The show told the legend of the titular Song Dynasty folk singer belonging to the Zhuang ethnic minority in this landscape of sugarloaf hills rising from moonlit waters. Was it a modern opera, a cultural pageant, a light-and-sound show, or water theater? It was more akin to an Olympic Opening Ceremony show. Indigenous music emanated from hidden sound equipment in harmony with the sound of wind and water. Visually, the burst of colors in ethnic clothing and accessories breathed life to the deep darkness of river and sky.
The narrative was more a series of vignettes than a conventional plot. They were impressions of the daily life of indigenous peoples – Zhuang, Yao, and Miao – around the area of the meandering Li River. From these visual and musical impressions, the audience could draw the story of Sanjie and her people.
Quinn admonished me for attempting to record the show as the Chinese tourists in front of us were doing for the entire hour. He wanted me to simply take in the experience in real time. I slipped my phone back to my pocket and enjoyed the show. Despite the lack of digital documentation, the sights and sounds remained etched in my (not phone’s) memory. Impression Liu Sanjie strung together seven chapters, each with distinct set pieces, to wit:
Prologue: The Legend of Hills and Rivers. It introduced Sanjie in folk songs along with the 12 peaks spotlighted in the background as a fishing boat rowed into view.
Red Impression: Folk Songs. The choreographed movements of fisherfolk on bamboo rafts waving red silk over the water symbolized the industry of local people.
Green Impression: Garden. This was a light and whimsical section depicting idyllic scenes of daily life: cooking, herding, washing, and socializing.
Golden Impression: Fishing Lights. A sea of bamboo rafts bearing lanterns danced upon the waters. This was when a few cormorants, the avian icon of Li River, made a cameo appearance.
Blue Impression: Love Songs. Sanjie serenaded the night astride a crescent-shaped boat as a fairy fluttered onto the surface of the water. This section was awash with romance.
Silvery Impression: Grand Ceremony. A parade of 200 Zhuang girls performed a traditional ceremony. Their sparkling silver dresses and accessories made clicking sounds as they filed onto the dark waters.
Epilogue. As the fishing rafts floated away and disappeared into the night, Sanjie’s singing voice floated up and echoed through the jagged hills. The ceremony girls lined up on bamboo bridges then marched toward the audience while singing their song of gratitude. People seated at the sides may not have gotten the best view, but they had the chance to shake hands or high five the girls as they exited the theater.
Impression Liu Sanjie had Zhang Yimou’s imprint all over – larger-than-life visuals, precision choreography, and broad emotional strokes. Was he the yingxiong of the people of Yangshuo? Surely, it would be Li River and its environs that were not only a marvelous work of nature but also a cradle of culture that was as spectacular. All impressions considered, there was harmony of sky, mountain, river, and everything therein. I wondered if the Zhuang residents of Yangshuo would agree.