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The Shao Must Go On

Shaoxing Opera, also known as Shao Opera, from the northeastern Zhejiang province of China, is a lesser known form of Chinese opera that, despite the onslaught of modern forms of entertainment, continues to hold its own with the support of the working class who appreciate its robust and energetic style of presentation.

Words & Photography: Wang Yuanchang

As evening approached, the symphony of gongs and drums grew louder, and the crowd gradually began to grow in front of the makeshift stage. The enthusiastic audience quickly moved in to find vantage spots to view the show, many with flushed faces – having drunk too much of the locally produced red wine. Above the chatter and friendly guffaws, some began to hum familiar opera tunes, telling others there that they had witnessed the show on previous occasions. Some of the gathered stopped to listen to the humming while others kept their eyes on the stage, waiting for the show to begin. Then, the music started to climb to a crescendo, indicating the impending start. The crowd quickly hushed down and like children fascinated by a magic show, the audience watched in rapture as the curtain parted and the amazing world of the Shao opera came to life.


There are 13 main characters in Shao opera. Three of these characters can be seen in this image: Bailian or White Face (left) who depicts a pure hearted character, Hualian or Painted Face (centre) who is often negative in nature and Dan, a female character.


Shaoxing Opera, also called Shaoju or Shexi, is a local opera tradition that originated from Shaoxing, an ancient town in Zhejiang Province, China. This art form goes back more than 1,000 years, having started as a ceremonial worship ritual, and later evolved into a folksy performing arts form. In his eponymous novelette, Lu Xun (a major Chinese writer from the 20th century) described children frolicking amidst Shexi spectators around a high stage, and boatmen sitting on the stern of their sheltered boats watching the performance. Visit Shaoxing to catch a Shao opera performance now and you will certainly relive the passage that Lu Xun wrote in his novel.


A young Shao opera artist dressed in full regalia making amazingly swift pirouettes on stage.

     The citizens of Shaoxing still embrace the Shao Opera wholeheartedly especially during festivals and celebrations to mark important occasions such as the worship of ancestors or the harvest season in the villages. As a commonplace art form in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, Shao Opera has always been a major source of entertainment in rural areas. In the past, towns and villages in Shaoxing would invite travelling opera troupes to stage performances in their hamlets. Many of these shows would run for days on end.

     Of the different kinds of Shexi operas, the Shao Opera is the most popular because of its strong country flavour, characterised by humour, acrobatics and over-the-top theatrics. Its unbridled expression of emotion often stands in stark contrast to the gentle disposition of the locals. This intense and highly engaging style of performance has obviously found favour with the locals who don’t mind standing for the entire duration of the high-octane shows.


Makeup is an integral part of the Shao opera and actors learn the art of applying the makeup as much as they learn to perform on stage.


Shao Opera has about 400 tales in its repertoire, most of which are derived from folktales and legends such as Tiger vs. Dragon, Qiu Jin (a famous Shaoxing heroine), Cinnabar Ball, Prime Minister’s Aspiration, Dayu Regulated Waters, Near Lingshan Mountain, Life Flight, Hanging Man, Hanging Woman and Jump Captive Ghost amongst others. Of these, the most popular tale is The Monkey King Thrice Defeats the Skeleton Demon, which was also made into an award-winning film. The story is based on the ancient Chinese classic, Journey to the West.

     This tale is also one that is very close to Shao Opera artist Liu Jianyang. As a boy, Liu lived near the headquarters of an opera troupe. Every day, he watched performers practising their roles for the show and musicians rehearsing. Fascinated by the magic of the opera, Liu, at the age of 11, was accepted into the troupe as a rookie performer and earmarked for the role of the Monkey King. Not surprisingly he eventually earned the moniker ‘Monkey King’.


Liu Jianyang aka the Monkey King doing stretches before the show.

     But Liu didn’t enjoy a royal lifestyle despite earning the nickname. Shao Opera is extremely physical and requires tremendous stamina to pull off. The actors need to perform all kinds of acrobatic acts, in addition to mastering martial arts skills. Performing 30 somersaults at a go in just one act is all part and parcel of the actor’s performance and one that Liu has mastered quite artfully. And since he plays the role of the Monkey King, he needs to be more than just agile on stage. Liu also has to fully embody the character of the Monkey King by performing stunts and conveying convincing body language and facial expressions.


The actors in full costume and makeup in a scene from The Monkey King Thrice Beats the Skeletal Demon, a classic play that is based on the famous Journey to the West epic.

     Having performed in the well known The Monkey King Thrice Defeats the Skeleton Demon play numerous times, Liu has mastered the finer nuances of the role and has won many awards and prizes for his portrayal. However, Liu realises that he is only as good as his last performance and continuously looks for ways to up the game. As the audience demands to see more and more exciting acts, Liu is also forced to come up with extraordinary feats and include mind-blowing stunts in his acts. He has even included dialects and performance techniques considered alien to a Chinese audience to keep the excitement alive.

     Wanting to chat, I found Liu warming up in a quiet corner. The boy, on seeing me, quickly pulled a funny face and made monkey noises, reminding me that he was always in character. But soon, we started chatting and he revealed how exhausting the performances were and how they drained him at the end of each day. But like a true performer, he put on a brave face and swiftly moved to the stage area as the next show was about to begin. Liu simply didn’t have time to mope over his woes as an artist.


Despite the onslaught of modernity, children are still fascinated by the colourful costumes and makeup, and the amazing stunts performed on stage.


I couldn’t pin Liu down for long but I did manage to spend some time chatting with Mrs. Zhu Yan, the president of the Shaoxing Opera Troupe of Zhejiang Province. A middle-aged woman with medium length curly hair, she warmly invited me into her office to talk about the troupe.

     According to Mrs. Zhu Yan, the troupe usually works around a tight schedule all through the year, especially during the busy season from September till April. Around the New Year, villages invite the troupe to perform and celebrate the festival. The shows normally start at noon or 5.00pm and last till late at night.

     “But when’s the low season?” I asked. “We do not have a low one. Every year, on average, we stage 300 performances,” answered Mrs. Zhu as she showed me a file of their schedules stuffed with thick piles of show itineraries.


Rehearsal in progress for one of the shows with each performance being filled with newer and even more jaw dropping stunts.

     Mrs. Zhu invited me to share a pot of tea with her, and as we drank, she explained that in the past, the shows were normally staged within Shaoxing and its surrounding towns and villages like Shen Garden, Lanting village and Dayu villages. However, in recent years, the troupe has undergone a slew of reforms with the choreographers making adjustments and introducing new acts into the repertoire for the sole purpose of appealing to a wider audience. “The troupe also visits nearby Shanghai and Jiangsu province annually and has even travelled abroad,” beamed Mrs.Zhu, her face full of pride. “We have to face new challenges and pressures to keep the art alive and relevant. If we refuse to change, the art will die a natural death. A lot of the artists in the troupe will not only be out of jobs, but will also be totally at a loss as to how to continue with life. The opera is all that they know.”


Although stage props, these weapons can still inflict injury and actors need to practise till they are fully adept at wielding them on stage.

     As I sat there contemplating the truth of her words, Mrs. Zhu quickly shifted our conversation to a happier subject. “Tomorrow morning we will go to Zhuji prefecture and stage a three-day performance. Our troupe has risen to be the most popular opera troupe in Zhejiang province and its neighbouring prefectures. Though forms of modern entertainment are flooding in, some time-honored traditions have been well preserved. For big festivals, it is still considered trendy to set up a stage and invite a Shao Opera performance to entertain the crowds. The opera is accessible to everyone and performed on an open air stage. Now, tell me… how can you not love the opera?” she asked with a big smile.


View of Ji Mountain Road at the foot of Wenbi Tower in Changzhou, China. The town is lit up for the Lantern Festival where the Shao opera will keep the townsfolk entertained.


The next morning at 5:00am, the troupe was already on its way to Lüjia Village in Zhuji. Actors, martial artists, musicians and helpers were all packed into a truck that would take them to their next performance location. An hour later, the truck stopped abruptly and everyone hopped out and immediately went about setting up the makeshift stage. The helpers erected the platform while actors busily applied makeup backstage while running in and out to rehearse on the stage. Musicians kept tuning their already well-tuned instruments, perhaps merely to announce that the opera was about to raise its curtains again. That must have done the trick because almost instantaneously, the crowd started to trickle in. I spotted a female actor getting dolled up for the show and approached her cautiously. Fearing she might find me a distraction, I gingerly approached but she flashed a big smile behind the thick makeup and waved me over. Je Ying was a pretty lass and a friendly one too. Encouraged by her demeanour, I asked “What character do you play in the show?” As she deftly touched up her war paint, she explained that she played the role of Yang Jiu Mei (the ninth sister of the Yang Family) for Heroines of Yang Family, taken from the saga of the Yang family’s female warriors of the Song Dynasty. But before she could explain any further, the deafening drums and other percussions instruments announced that the show had started. Ye Jing quickly took her position and soon dashed onto stage to exhibit her artistic skills as a dancer, actor and martial arts exponent. I stood by in the wings in total awe of the girl’s prowess.


The Shao opera is often performed under makeshift stages such as this in Lvjia village in Zhuji.

     As the audience watched and clapped approvingly, I wondered how long more this art form would deflect the onslaught of the digital world. Although there was a demand for such opera shows in smaller cities and the occasional invitation to perform overseas, the opera was already on the decline. Would the tale of the Monkey King continue mesmerising the young ones or would Liu’s humorous expressions and acrobatic stunts become yet another footnote in the history of Chinese arts? But for the moment, I clapped extra loud for the actors, musicians and stagehands who kept the flame alive for the Shao opera.

GETTING THERE AirAsia X flies to Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, from Kuala Lumpur six times a week. Go to www.airasia.com for details.


Villagers gather early for the best spots to watch the travelling opera troupe.


  • The high season is from September till April year round and many towns around Shaoxing invite the troupes to stage opera performances.
  • There are usually three shows per day from 9:00am to 12:00pm, 1:00pm to 5:00pm and 6:00pm to 10:00pm.
  • If you prefer an in-house show, Zhjiang Shao Opera Art Center, located at No. 491, Yan’an East Road, Shaoxing, is a good choice.