The Chuanju Western

by Liza Bielby

in Global Connections

Post image for The Chuanju Western

(Wen Jinzhen combines chuanju and the iconic American west. Photo: Eleni Zaharopoulos)

When we landed in Shanghai, we could finally see the moon – a strange sight after four weeks in cloudy Chengdu. Other differences between the two cities are immediately apparent. Chengdu is a provincial capital, a boiling pot in a geographic basin filled with spicy food and spicier people. Ideas simmer in Chengdu and take on the flavor of what is already cooking in the pot. Shanghai is flat. Wind spills in from the ocean. Its Concession roots are visible everywhere, from the number of foreigners that fill its streets to the architecture that mixes European and Chinese aesthetics. Shanghainese go for high tea, and even if there’s an Asian touch like shaomai to the spread, it damn well better include some macaroons.

The difference between the two phases of our project, our two sets of collaborators has also been clear from the onset. In Chengdu, we were pairing with young chuanju (“Sichuan opera”) performers/teachers at the Sichuan Professional Arts College– my former classmates when I studied the form in Chengdu years earlier- as well as retired performers with deeply traditional training but a love for co-opting the best of any art form. Our Shanghai partners gave up on their xiqu (“Chinese opera”) performing careers, knowing that they would never become top-tier performers – our singing voices aren’t strong enough, says Zheng Wen, and without a good singing voice, you’re nothing in xiqu. Instead, they moved into xiqu directing and actor training with a bent for the experimental.

Final group training in Chengdu (l to r) – Richard Newman, Wen Jinzhen, Liza Bielby, Steven Dewater, Eleni Zaharopoulos, Liu Hai, Liao Mei. Photo: Eleni Zaharopoulos

One night in Chengdu, the four of us from the Hinterlands train alone in an upper classroom, physically processing the exchange to date. Most of our Chengdu partners are too tired to come by – they’ve been teaching all day in a faraway suburb, where the main campus is located – but Xie Zhixiong stops by to check out our work. The next thing we know, he jumps in to correct our chuanju martial walks; we counter by demonstrating some of the physicality we worked in on our last piece, Manifest Destiny. You can really do anything with chuanju physicality, he says. Still wearing his pink puffy jacket and white tennis shoes, Zhixiong squares off with Richard in a typical Western pre-shoot out circle, hands at his hip on an invisible gun in an invisible holster. He uses the step of the xiqu martial man; Richard, a walk we developed and call “the Gunslinger.” Later, we will use this arrangement and echo this kind of teaching exchange in the piece we create together.

We came prepared with vaudeville-related costumes, props, the beginnings of routines only to find that the Chinese translation I’ve found for vaudeville-zashuabiaoyan– apparently means something awful, the equivalent of street performance (a bad thing) and circus clowning (also bad). Despite almost five years of living in China, I can’t figure this out. Contemporary China embraces the variety show, in live format or on television, holiday-themed or just for the hell of it. Linking the variety show to American vaudeville format somehow got lost in my translation, as did our insistence that the kooky chuanju piece with a man with puppet-like movements doing female impersonation and then chasing after a guy in a tiger suit would fit wonderfully in the world of vaudeville. Let’s do a Western, said Xie Zhixiong in Chengdu, and, motivated by our partners’ enthusiasm, we move in that direction. Luckily, we tossed in our cowboy hats from our summer performance just minutes before Richard, Eleni, and Steve got on the plane, thinking we might have a chance to perform excerpts from the piece during our stint. We divide our costume pieces between the eight of us, collectively create plot points based on the characters that had emerged, and search for links between our two performance styles. Each side looks for a way to access their own training in the short piece, while integrating in something new they learned from the other artists. The result is something bizarre, oddly satisfying, a campy nugget of a Western. It makes sense: chuanju’s got heroes, horses, epic battles, terrible villains, wronged women, flashing eyes and so does the Western. And Enrico Morricone’s score works surprisingly well with chuanju horse-riding choreography.

Before we leave Chengdu, Zhixiong and his girlfriend (also a performer) Ji Miao, have us over to their home for tea, Korean seaweed snacks and chuanju videos. Though I have known them for almost a decade, I have never seen them in a full-out traditional performance. Zhixiong puts on “Cang Dao” –“The Hidden Knife,” a classic chuanju piece in which he plays a rotten, powerful man who goes on a killing spree in order to steal someone’s wife. Liu Hai, one of our other partners, plays one of his victims. He winces when he comes on the screen. They’re good –committed, expressive – but I guess every actor everywhere is the same: you could have always done better.

Training exchange, Chengdu (l to r) – Wen Jinzhen, Liao Mei, Liza Bielby, Xie Zhixiong, Liu Hai. Photo: Eleni Zaharopoulos

In Shanghai for phase two, we’ve returned to our original interest of vaudeville. While our Chendgu partners were looking for new material to which they could apply their classic training, our Shanghai partners are looking for new training which they can pass on to traditionally-trained performers. Material is secondary. We instigated a series of talks on Sunday and Monday night about possible topics, methods of working, investigations each group has underway and came to the reoccurring theme of urbanity: the thoughts of urban dwellers, the hidden voices of a city, the unique groups and sounds that make a city what it is. Tonight, we’ll propose to use Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities as the collective source material for this phase of the project.

My heart flip-flops through the project, inner voices shouting “amazing!” or “impossible!” as the challenge of combining two wildly different performance methods hits me. Everyday – maybe even every half-day -could be broken down into one feeling or the other. A chuanju lecture with Wang Qijiu in which he talks about the xiqu artist as an actor-poet; a discussion about yijing, the Chinese artistic concept in which the audience must bring their imagination to fully realize what is hinted at on stage – “Amazing!” We think about the same things, we work with the same concepts. A jingju (“Beijingopera”) performance with an eclectic MIDI soundscape and lip-syncing throughout – “Impossible!” Baffling: pre-recorded music in a form so heavily dependent on singing?! Are we on a fool’s errand, trying to combine our aesthetic with our Chinese partners? Rarely are my thoughts in-between. Sunday and Monday were “amazing;” Tuesday was “impossible.” Today is Wednesday. I feel good.


Liza Bielby, co-director of The Hinterlands is a creator, physical performer, and renegade marching band member based in Detroit. This collaboration conducted by Bielby, Richard Newman, Steven DeWater and Eleni Zaharopoulos of the Hinterlands was also a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas funded by Asian Cultural Council.


The Global Connections program was designed by TCG and is funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Learn more here.