Nuo opera, claims the ebullient Qin Falai, has been around for 6,000 years. It is a theatre that has grown out of shamanic dances, maybe of the ancient Ba people who once lived in Sichuan, and preserves many elements of ancient culture, quite possibly the Yelang culture that once flourished in ancient times in what is now Guizhou, where we are today.
Or quite possibly not. He talks me through a long mural detailing the greats of the tradition, and his own ancestors, and it becomes plain that whatever Nuo used to be, it has undergone cataclysmic transformations over the centuries. Originally a ritual pattern of steps designed to cast out demons in the New Year, it was changed beyond recognition by its encounters with Daoism and Buddhism, which dumped a whole load of new stories and concerns on top of it. The Tang dynasty, notably the age of Empress Wu, threw in female practitioners for the first time, and may have been when Nuo was exported to Japan as No, with which it has many striking similarities. In the Ming dynasty, it supposedly became more theatrical, incorporating skits and stunts, and thereby becoming so intertwined with the usual Chinese opera that my bumper Dictionary of Chinese Theatre doesn’t actually have an entry for it.
The last figure on the mural is a wizened old man blowing a cow-horn trumpet, and Mr Qin’s breezy lecture falters. “This is my father,” he says. “He was my father and my teacher, and he suffered so much. In the Cultural Revolution, they broke into our house and destroyed everything we had spent three hundred years trying to preserve. We were beaten and we were persecuted.”
Tears begin to roll down his face as he recounts his family’s sufferings for being regarded as religious or superstitious in a time when China crusaded against the “Four Olds”. I pat his arm in vain as he weeps.
“I put him here, on this wall of gods,” he says, “not because he was my father. Not because he was my teacher. But because of everything he went through.”
I console him in the shadows and see that we are still filming. But the director is shaking her head. There is no way we will be allowed to broadcast much of this footage, mainly because it soon becomes clear that the most recent attacks on the QIn family were in the supposedly enlightened 1980s.
Mr Qin wants to teach me the Pattern of the Eight Directions, a mystic dance of footsteps designed to lock a shaman in some sort of protective force-field. You must enter from the north, step to the middle, then the south, then north, then east, then west, then… maybe the middle again, then diagonally to the… I already forget. But this goes on for a while, and once you have started into the Pattern, you can’t stop, and you can’t get down.
Oh, right, I forgot to mention that. In order to train pupils to step at the correct length of pace, the training for the Pattern of the Eight Directions is conducted on top of a set of nine stubby pillars, so the crew have a good laugh watching me teeter and trip, while Mr Qin stands at the side with a pointy stick, shouting “NOW LEAP TO THE PILLAR OF THUNDER! LEFT, YOU IDIOT! NOW LEAP TO THE PILLAR OF WIND. NO! NOT THAT, THAT’S THE PILLAR OF FIRE!”
Having thus had my brain thoroughly scrambled, we move onto a performance, which is apparently is the World-Creating Dance of Kaishan, Divider of Mountains. This involves donning a mask unsurprisingly like that of a Noh demon, waving an axe around and proclaiming that one is going to Open the Mountains in various directions, and possibly fly about a bit. Mr Qin confuses things a bit by dropping into Guizhou dialect on occasion, but the text seems confused already. “Opening the Mountains” (kaishan) is sometimes a reference to the Pangenitor deity of Chinese folk religion, and sometimes a reference to the arrival of Buddhism in the sticks, but sometimes also a reference to Yin Kaishan, one of the faithful lieutenants who supported the grab for power of the first Tang Emperor, and whose alleged grandson was the famous Tripitaka. So we’re mixing two religions and one historical figure, while spinning in circles and pretending to be a bird. It’s all in a day’s work for a Clements. I’ve had weirder Tuesday afternoons.
“You’ll stay for dinner, of course,” he says. “I’ve already killed a chicken.”
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S05E05 (2019).