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The Great Wail of China

Even for locals, Beijing Opera can be a challenge

Author James Michael Dorsey

BEIJING – “Tonight we will see a living treasure!” announces our guide, Bao Chui. He is referring to Beijing Opera, an arcane theatrical form that combines costume, dance, mime and martial arts in a flurry of action that delights audiences. The music, however, is another matter.

To the Western ear in particular, the rising and falling atonal counterrhythms used by the performers—described by one listener as “singsong baby talk”—can be jarring. It is not uncommon for tourists to get up and leave during a performance.

After tonight’s show, in which flying wizards did battle with dragons and saved a beautiful princess, Bao furtively provides his own take on the ancient tradition. “It’s sort of like fingernails on a chalkboard to me,” he says. “I prefer Bruce Lee movies.”

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