Suzhou is lovely. It’s so clean and calm. Chai Shaohua, principal at the drama school, tells me that Suzhou is a city of 10.4 million people, sprawled out over 800 square miles. There is only a tiny handful of skyscrapers. The rest of the city barely climbs above four stories, nestled in among wide avenues and picturesque canals, with steps leading up to the banksides as if they are still used for transporting goods and people. The Grand Canal itself, or at least a trunk channel that feeds into it, still slices through the middle of the old town as wide as the Thames at Westminster, with a chunk of the old city wall still flanking it, the waters as calm as a lake, unless the wind whips them up into little ripples.
Today we are in the Kunqu living museum, a 19th century town-house built around several courtyards, which was converted into a theatre and drama school in 1927. Kunqu, the local opera tradition, has recently been decreed to be an Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, and the place seems suitably posh. It is across the road from a shiny new Chinese opera theatre, but the museum itself has at its heart a proper open-air theatre. Or rather, a courtyard around a central pond, where one side the stage, another is the seats, with little pathways through the bamboo in between, a pavilion to one side for the orchestra, and another on the other side for those all-important balcony scenes and lovers’ trysts.
A trio of mynah birds sitting in courtyard cages have been suitably trained by the occupants.
“Hello,” says one of them as I walk in.
“Hello,” says another. “We welcome your august approach.”
Our director loves interviewing actors. They understand the nature of rehearsals and faffery with the lights and sound. They can stop mid-sentence, hold a thought for two minutes, and then continue as if nothing has happened. They can rewind and fast-forward their speeches and blocking. And they understand that even if I have got something right, the crew needs to show me getting it wrong again in close-up. The theatre is also an understandably soundproof location, so we can rattle through our set-ups without having to wait for passing moped, fireworks or troupes of schoolchildren.
Fang Jianguo is waiting for me in one of the ante-chambers, a room which used to be a scholar’s study. He is clad all in black, in expensive leather shoes and a fitted shirt. He looks like a proper thesp, because he is one.
“I’m going to teach you how to walk like a man,” he tells me. “You’ve been getting it wrong all your life. Your head needs to be up, UP like this. Your eyes must remain level at all times. Lead your head with your eyes, never move your head before focussing. And when you walk, you must walk like this, raising your left foot first, up to a forty-five degree angle, your foot turned to the left. Hold it, then place it firmly down, like this. Then switch your arms, bring your right foot to rest at right angles to it. Then raise your right leg to a forty-five degree angle, turning the foot outwards once more, hold it… then…”
This slow-motion goose-stepping is impossible to do with normal human posture, but becomes remarkably easy when I maintain the ramrod-straight bearing that he has been perfecting his whole life. Behind the camera, the crew are all giggling like schoolgirls as I fall over, forget which arm moves in tandem with which leg, and generally act like an idiot.
After half an hour of this, we move on to running like a man, which involves a kind of scurrying in a circle, the arms held upwards and outwards towards the audience, the body straight, and the face fixed, staring on a central point.
“Light up your eyes!” he tells me. “Make them shine, like this!” and he stares at me with a sudden electric glare.
He was supposed to also teach me how to move like a thief, another stock character from Kunqu opera, but time is already running short.
We move on to a speech, something relatively simple from a Chinese opera whose name I didn’t catch, which looks on the page something like: “Oh young lady, what a beautiful view, made all the more glorious by your presence.” Well, that’s what the Chinese says. But a Chinese opera script looks more like a Shakespearean soliloquoy embedded in a sheet of quadratic equations. The page is festooned with numbers and punctuation 28..6376.#~41~1~15276438, all denoting tones and lengths of notes. Even the simple phrase “your presence”, which in simple Mandarin is ni li, takes almost fifteen seconds to say: a high-pitched and sustained first syllable, followed by a second syllable that starts high, goes even higher, wanders up into a place where only dogs can hear it, and then bumps down a series of low hills before a little flourish at the end. Meanwhile, although the characters on the page are recognisable, their pronunciation is in the archaic Suzhou dialect, so “young lady”, or literally “big sister” (jiejie) transforms into zeze, the second syllable rocketing off somewhere into what Mandarin speakers of this parish would call second tone, before dropping off a precipice into what Cantonese speakers would call the sixth.
“Not bad,” he lies. “I think with ten years’ training, you might get pretty good.”
“How long does it normally take to train someone?” I ask.
“Ten years,” he says.
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E05 (2016).