‘The wind comes over and the spirit of the songs is everywhere among the rivers and the mountains’- says the prelude to the show. I gaze towards the wide expanse of sky. Suddenly a dozen illuminated peaks burst into my vision accompanied by romantic strains of music. The mist, the inverted reflections in the water and the moonlight, it’s like nothing that I have seen before. It reminds me of a lavish movie set- it’s no wonder because this extravaganza is directed by the acclaimed Chinese movie director, Zhang Yimou, who also directed the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Zhang has directed costume dramas, even western operas. What’s amazing is that the stage is the Lijiang River, the props are the dramatic mist shrouded limestone karsts jutting into the sky like dragons of yore and the backdrop is the star studded sky. It’s the extremely creative ‘Impression San Jie Liu’ show at Yangshuo, China. Designed by a team of 67 artists, this production took five years and five months in the making and is staged in the world’s largest open air theatre. Our guide tells us that only one half of the performance is by man- the other half is nature herself. If it rains, the audience gets raincoats, if its summer, anti-mosquito sprays! What’s different about the show is that it’s a poverty alleviation show too. All the farmers and the fishermen get a part of the income from the tickets and this theatre has a 2500 capacity, quite often packed with audiences from around the world.

To watch this extravaganza, we have taken a cruise on the jade green Lijiang River from Guilin to Yangshuo, passing a surrealistic landscape straight out of a Chinese scroll painting. We sail along limestone formations called karsts in all shapes and sizes, water buffaloes meandering on the shores, local women pounding laundry in the waters and farmers with the typical conical hats working in the fields. Who is San Jie? She is a legendary figure in the Zhuang minority folk tales. There are many versions of her story. San jie means the third daughter in Chinese. She was a talented girl during the times of the Tang Dynasty, a girl who belonged to the Zhuang ethnic minority and was gifted with the talent of singing folk songs. She never sang for fame or money but against the oppression of the farmers by the landlords. A local tyrant wanted to have her as his concubine but with the help of her boyfriend and other villagers, she managed to escape. This popular story was made a hit musical movie in the 60s.

The show is unique in the sense that there are no characters, scenes or plots- instead there are a series of impressions derived from nature and local life. The show is divided into seven chapters, each following one main colour with elements of ballet, contemporary and folk dance. And the performers? Drawn from minority regions like the Zhuang, Miaos, Yaos, Huis, local fishermen and school children numbering to almost 600! The first part is the ‘Red’ Impression where songs are combined with hundreds of fisherman with their conical straw hats piloting bamboo boats and lifting reams of red silk fishing nets in such a synchronized flow that it looks like red ripples. They sing in the local Duige fashion where the singers sing a question and another group sings back with an answer. The Zhuang singing is soft and melodious and they are people who often hold singing festivals. Spotlights flash across the river and hills; it’s an orgy of colours, movement and sound that has us enthralled. The ‘Green’ Impression represents a garden-nature and vitality. It has rafts, shepherd boys, cooking smoke curling upwards to the skies, women washing clothes waiting for their husbands , and some herders returning home with their water buffaloes, all painting a poetic picture of local life. This probably represents the background where SanJie liu was born.

The ‘Blue’ Impression is the love song- ‘without the trees the vine’s life would be as dry as dust!’ There’s a bamboo forest, a wooden house, even a gaudy yellow moon with a woman dancing on top of it! Local women wash their long and lustrous hair in the waters of the river. Fishing lights, the local fishermen with their cormorants (used to fish in a local custom), rain capes, all make up the ‘Golden’ Impression. The actors in this section are two hundred fishermen and women from five villages. They work on the river in the daytime and in the evening are part of this moving spectacle. A chorus line of a hundred young girls in ethnic costumes covered with battery powered tiny silver lights, lighting up one by one make up the ‘Silver’ Impression. It suddenly becomes a flash of of red as they all open up their red umbrellas! They seem to walk on water, glitter, change colours all part of a wondrous performance... Slowly the fishing rafts are gone, the lights turn off and there’s only the haunting music in the air. The crowd bursts out in spontaneous applause as the performers’ parade down the stage thanking the audience for listening to them. Thank you for the music, the songs I’m singing...Thanks for all the joy they’re bringing. Abba said it long ago. Who can live without it? What would life be, without a song or dance?

The author is a Japanese language specialist and travel writer based in Chennai

Published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine, 2010