Portrait of a Beijinger: Beneath the Makeup4 min read

A Peking Opera singer takes off his mask – Tom Fearon


Editor’s note: Portrait of a Beijinger is a four-part video series by Tom Fearon and Abel Blanco, profiling a different and unusual character from the streets of Beijing. In this first episode of the series, Tom meets Peking Opera singer Liu Xinran, and describes the encounter in his own words below. The video is viewable on Youku for streamers in China, and on Vimeo:

Liu Xinran has a face many Chinese women would envy. High cheekbones, smooth skin and a narrow chin give him a coveted guazilian or “melon-seed face”. He introduces himself in a voice much softer than the one that will fill the Zhengyici Peking Opera Theatre in a few hours time.

“Did you find your way here OK?” he asks.

“No problem at all,” I reply, shaking his manicured hand.

We step into the 300 year old theatre. It is empty except for a couple of janitors whose vacuum cleaner drowns an erhu (Chinese fiddle) strummed by a young woman in glasses by the side of the stage.

Dressed in a knitted pullover, grey trousers and cloth shoes, Liu struts around stage waving a wand-like prop and warming up his vocal chords. He stares into the camera as if confronting an intruder on stage, his eyes as piercing as his voice. Each delicate step is timed to the downbeat of the erhu. A passionate argument of falsetto versus fiddle ensues, begging for an opera gong to weigh in and restore calm.

Peking opera has the shortest history of the hundreds of Chinese opera styles, but remains the most influential. The curtain fell on it during the Cultural Revolution when it was denounced as bourgeois, but curious tourists, nostalgic locals and state-run drama academies are providing a modern encore for a national treasure.

Liu, 38, is a rarity. Unlike many of the performers in his troupe who were trained as children, he took up the craft after quitting his job as a publicity clerk for the Beijing Meteorological Bureau in 2010. His parents protested, but his destiny had been sealed four years earlier when he won the top prize at the Beijing Amateur Peking Opera Competition.

He also stands out as one of only around a dozen active nandan performers in Beijing – men who portray female characters in Peking opera. I ask if he is inspired by the most famous nandan, Mei Lanfang, whose black-and-white portrait eyes us solemnly from the back of the theatre. But Liu says his mantra on stage is innovation, not imitation; copying Mei will lead to the “death of my artistic life”.

After the interview we head backstage. An old man irons sequined loose-sleeved costumes as the cast trickles in. There are no makeup artists or hair stylists; all preening is done by performers themselves. Eyes locked on their rapidly transforming reflections, they chat excitedly about plans for the upcoming Spring Festival.

An announcement prohibiting photography during the show is made as the audience settles into cushioned wooden chairs, but we are told it doesn’t apply to us. Apparently, we aren’t alone. Smartphone shutter noises click between cracking sunflower seeds throughout the show, but the performers aren’t fazed. Having their photos beamed on WeChat feeds might draw new faces the next night.

Later, Liu shows me his other passion: his beverage can collection. We walk down a narrow concrete corridor stained with cellphone numbers towards his eighth-floor apartment. A thick haze lingers overhead and firework debris dances below. Liu’s home is tidy, with a framed calligraphy scroll in the living room and an impressive collection of scotch and other expensive liquors. But he explains his year-round drink of choice is hot water, to protect his voice.

The cans are all in mint condition. It is a collector’s (and trash peddler’s) heaven. Sorted by age and location, each can contains a memory of a certain place or performance. Liu picks out a dozen of his favourites and gives them a gentle polish before lining them on a table in the living room for our slow dolly pan.

Before parting, Abel and I offer him a token of our appreciation – a nice bottle of Spanish olive oil and some TimTam chocolate biscuits from Australia. Mementos from our respective countries, to add to his collection. ∎


This post first appeared on the AnthillText, interviewing and subtitles by Tom Fearon; cinematography and photos by Abel Blanco.