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Previously in Atlantic Abroad

  • Alone on the Brink (William Langewiesche, Chile, June 11, 1997).

  • Globetrotting with the Doozer (Jeffrey Tayler, Greece, May 29, 1997).

  • The Car as Social Barometer (Gregg Easterbrook, Belgium, May 14, 1997).

  • Of Bird Songs and Buddhas (Matthew Gurewitsch, China, April 30, 1997).

  • The Discreet Charm of the (Chilean) Bourgeoisie (William Langewiesche, Chile, April 16, 1997).

  • Beware the Eighth of March (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, April 2, 1997).

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    June 25, 1997

    After days exploring the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, the Great Wall, and other attractions of Beijing, I was tempted at the end of my recent trip to China just to chow down and crash. But I didn't want to pass up the chance to see what I hoped would be real Peking Opera and real Chinese acrobats. Besides, the evenings start early in Beijing. Curtain time is 7:30 at the latest, and shows like the ones I wanted to see are short, scarcely more than an hour. According to my best sources, the prime spot for Peking Opera was the Li Yuan Theatre at the Qian Men Hotel. For acrobats, I was sent to the Chao Yang Theater.

    At both venues tourists arrive by bus in droves, which gave me mixed feelings. Ten days before, in Chongqing, I had joined an otherwise all-Chinese audience for a sort of play with dances and singing (lyrics projected on a side wall in Chinese). The Chinese were having a wonderful time, but not me. I could make some sense of the comic business, but the main action -- involving a chorus that literally flipped their wigs to switch from youth to age -- left me in the dark, and the wheedling singing was sheer torture. The next evening, in Xi'an (home to the famous terra-cotta soldiers), I saw a visitor-oriented show purporting to recreate the authentic court dances of the Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.). Ha! Tang dynasty in Las Vegas, maybe. But a few instrumental numbers in Xi'an had a patina of antiquity that was quite beautiful, and at least the show was fun.

    To contemporary Chinese taste, Peking Opera is laughably old hat. (The rage is karaoke.) But for visitors from the West, the populist combination of music, storytelling, and high-voltage acrobatics -- not to mention the boldly theatrical costumes and makeup -- retains its appeal. My only previous encounter with Peking Opera came in Europe when I was a boy. I went home from the theater and instantly redecorated my room with anything I could find that would suggest China. The show at the Li Yuan brought back many of the unforgotten stage pictures but not the magic. Bilingual titles on a huge light board demystified the action to some extent (sample dialogue from the Chaplinesque Monkey King: "I havoced in Heaven"), but this time the performing style struck me not as fantastic and exotic but as insufferably smug and coy. (The highly capable star ruined everything with his incessant winking at the audience.) There was a nice bit when two ghosts -- one all in black, one all in white, in costumes cut in the style of the Ku Klux Klan -- came to abduct the sleeping Monkey King, but otherwise the narrative and vocal sections were tedious. The only good stuff was the juggling and the tumbling, both in much too short supply.

    The next night, at the Chao Yang, I was over the moon. I wish the program had included the balancing act depicted on the ticket; it involved three Chinese dragons, a giant ball, and a seesaw. Nevertheless, we did see guys flying head first, feet first, and even in airborne splits through hoops scarcely wider than their shoulders. Then there were the three lovelies with their Chinese yo-yos, and a corps de ballet executing their whole dance while spinning six plates apiece; these were sights to gladden the heart of George Balanchine. For a change the contortionist acts were not stomach-turning but charming. Human pyramids circled the stage on bicycles. An almond-eyed beauty of Kashmiri appearance stood on one foot on her lifter's head, balancing six porcelain bowls. Classic tricks, of course, but they felt fresh, brimful of energy and grace. And whereas in a big American circus it would be a point of honor for the headliners to do one number each, here the same faces kept showing up -- sometimes solo, front and center, sometime lending support. Recognizing them from act to act enhanced the joy of it all. What luck to have saved the Chao Yang for my last evening. I was on air all the way back to New York.

    Matthew Gurewitsch writes on culture and travel for publications including The Atlantic Monthly, Town & Country, Live!, and Departures.

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    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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