Before coming to China, many foreigners only read or hear about the mysterious art of Peking Opera, generally considered to be the quintessence of traditional Chinese culture.
But a visit to Beijing's Peking Opera houses offers them a face-to-face encounter with the old art.
Spending an evening at the Beijing Liyuan Theater, which was 10 years old yesterday, is more than a simple pastime choice.
The theater revives the leisurely ambience of Beijing at the turn of the century.
Theatergoers can relax in Ming-style armchairs before a Ming-style square table, sip Chinese tea and sample some local snacks while watching opera excerpts especially packaged in short programmes for foreign audiences.
The performances are in original styles and in Chinese but subtitled in English.
Just 10 years ago, "foreign guests to Beijing found it hard to find entertainment of a Chinese flavor to fill their evening time," recalled Hu Guodong, the general manager of the Liyuan Theater. "They had to go to mostly Western style bars or discotheques."
Approved and supported by the Beijing Culture Bureau and Tourism Administration in 1990, the Qianmen Hotel and Peking Opera Theater of Beijing signed a long-term deal to jointly run a Peking opera theater - the Liyuan Theater.
Since it was born in October 1990, the theater has been the only one in China to open nightly (except for China's New Year's Eve), and can accommodate more than 1,000 people, according to Hu.
It is estimated the Liyuan Theater has had 1.7 million foreign guests in the past decade.
Encouraged by its success, other Peking Opera houses have started up, including the Beijing Chang'an Grand Theater, Zhengyici Theater and Huguang Guild Hall Theater.
Every day at the Liyuan Theater at 7:30pm, performers from the Peking Opera Theater of Beijing (POTB) stage Peking Opera episodes selected from about 90 different stories, according to POTB president Wang Yuzhen.
Mostly, the programmes feature less dialogue and more martial arts and stunts than the operas designed for Chinese audiences, Wang said.
"That makes it easier for first-timers to savor the charm of the art within a brief stay of about two hours," she explained.
Some props and sets had been redesigned with brighter colors and improved with modern technology to achieve better visual effects, she said.
"We have benefited a lot from the Liyuan Theater," Wang said.
"On the one hand, we have successfully spread traditional Chinese culture among foreign friends in a vivid fashion. On the other hand, regular performances here not only provide our Peking Opera actors with more opportunities to hone their skills but also serve as an important source of steady income for the artists, who are faced with an increasingly competitive market."
For eight consecutive years, the Liyuan Theater has won the "Best Evening Leisure Activity Award," jointly issued by the Beijing Culture Bureau and Tourism Administration.
Since January 2000, the Qianmen Hotel has given 300,000 yuan (about US$36,000) to renovate the theatre.
Foreign guests to the Liyuan Theatre may see huge painted masks, commonly seen in Peking Opera performances.
"This is meant to create a stronger atmosphere of Peking Opera culture for the audience," explained Hu.
In the lobby outside, they may find models wearing colorful stage costumes and color photographs of Peking Opera performances on the walls.
Before the show, visitors can go to the dressing room to see how the actors dress themselves for the performance.
After the show, they can go to the souvenir shop where almost everything related to Peking Opera can be found, including books, pictures, visual compact discs and CD-Roms.
They can also buy clothes and handicrafts such as bookmarks, paper-cuttings and tablecloths with interesting ancient Chinese or folk art patterns.
As the theatre is not used during the day, a special training course for foreign Peking Opera fans will open next year on Sunday afternoons.
"We aim to foster an audience with a deeper understanding of Peking Opera and a more refined taste for Chinese culture and art," explained Hu Guodong.
(China Daily 10/09/2000)