The stage was at the entrance of Anchang Village on the banks of a canal and very high up above the audience. Two main characters, ladies dressed in flamboyant pink silk and heavy makeup, moved gracefully from one corner of the stage to the other in time to the music of the erhu. They were talking, semi screaming and singing but their lips hardly moved. The audience ranged from old villagers, shopkeepers and security guards to nicely dressed kids, but all were familiar with the commotion on stage. This was the spirit of a traditional Chinese village a stone’s throw from Shanghai and I loved it. Behind me there was a Temple which I wasn’t allowed to go in during the performance. I decided to sit on the steps and wait until the play finished but before I managed to sit down a bamboo chair was offered by the one of the villagers. I felt embarrassed but to refuse the offer would be an even bigger embarrassment. I pulled the chair behind the back row in case I blocked someone’s views and sat quietly. Suddenly a plate with fresh red watermelon appeared in front of me and I was grateful as it was a hot day for November and I was tired after the drive from Hangzhou.
Immersing myself in the celebratory atmosphere in the hot sun I tried very hard to comprehend what was happening on stage without any success. I didn’t understand anything but I truly enjoyed watching the Chinese faces whose expressions told the whole story – the performers were just painted emotion and the real faces were around me – the public. They smiled, made loud comments, pointed at the ladies, laughed loudly, even got angry at one point while the performer’s expressions and movements stayed the same. When the play finished we all clapped for a long time.
In the past Village Operas were held to worships gods and pray for protection from them – to the God of Land for example in this region of Shaoxing where Anchang Village lies, where there were frequent natural disasters such as floods, earthquake and plagues. The stage would be set up over a river and in front of the temple, the villagers would invite all their relatives to watch the performance and serve them with the best food, and everybody would be dressed in their best clothes. These ceremonies become a symbol of Shaoxing folk culture and the Anchang Vilage offers a perfect living example of this.
After the warm welcome I followed the local villagers and we entered the “Oxford Street” of Anchang Village, where instead of designer goods we found home made local products. A friendly Chinese man, a master sweetmaker, offered me a hard white slab of something made from rice that I couldn’t work out how to eat! You couldn’t bite or suck it but the guide suggested breaking a small piece off and keeping it in the mouth until it melted. The inside is much tastier than the outside according to him, but after a few minutes my patience gave up and I discreetly spat it into a tissue and stashed it deep in my pocket.
My eyes were glued on the sumptuous sausages hanging from the eaves of the houses along the narrow street. I was dying to try some – they looked delicious, dried, meaty, ready to eat but before I committed to anything I wanted to try a piece. Unfortunately you can’t try before you buy over here! Later we found out that the sausages needed to be boiled or fried before eating so we decided against buying any so long before getting home.
Walking along the canal on stone-flagged streets lined with typical Chinese houses with their upturned eaves, we came across small local supermarkets squeezed into tiny spaces selling bizarre combinations of goods – such as colourful kids’ homemade shoes and live eels, or dried duck hung next to the black woollen hats the village is well known for. Further down the narrow cobbled street there was a row of empty wooden tables and one in the middle was full of delicious food , a village restaurant, and next door a craft shop producing wooden barrels with tools no longer seen in the West, and made to hold the local rice wine.
Before meeting our guide on the other side of the village we took lots of photographs of this typical ancient village, a perfect example of the old, fast disappearing China beyond the high rise buildings. At one of the bridges we were approached by a local dressed in his Mao uniform – the blue workers jacket, trouser and cap. He smiled broadly and asked where we come from, of course in Chinese. We in return replied in English that we didn’t understand. Then he repeated his question and we replied the same, and the game could have gone on for a long time when a fashionably-dressed girl on her mobile passed and translated his question to us. She replied to the old Chinese man too and in return he shook our hands and said “NJihao” then slowly walked away.