You could, I promise you, hear a pin drop. This is Beijing’s Red Theatre, with a façade so red that it hurts the eye! And this evening, the compact auditorium is silent but packed to the gills. Those waiting for the curtains to lift on The Legend of Kung Fu are mostly Western tourists, but here and there I catch a smattering of Indians, too, some with a decidedly bemused expression on their faces. Clearly, the show is part of their package deal, and they aren’t too sure if they will like it.
I, however, have no such doubts. As a regular practitioner of t’ai chi, catching this show has been on top of my to-do-in-China list. Usually, I do some reading on whatever it is I am about to take in, when abroad. This time, however, I am at the Red Theatre with just the haziest notion of what a show titled The Legend of Kung Fu could be about. In fact, I’m not even sure how much of the story I will understand, since it would probably play out in Mandarin.
As it happens, there is hardly any talking involved, and what little exchange is there is in English! Just before the show starts, the overhead signboard beams some startling facts about the show. We are watching the 7,411th show; The Legend of Kung Fu, presented by China Heaven Creation International Performing Arts Co. Ltd (CHC). China’s leading performance art production company has been playing two shows every evening at the Red Theatre since July 2004, which makes it 11 years and counting. The show has garnered several awards in China, has travelled abroad to Europe, Turkey and Russia, and is now well known around the world.
The Legend of Kung Fu turns out to be one of the most spectacular shows I have ever seen. Using virtually all the ancient Chinese martial arts (wushu) beautifully choreographed to look like one graceful dance, it tells the tale of young Chun Yi who is left by his mother at a monastery to become a Zen monk as well as a Kung Fu master. The boy is a quick study and soon leads his peers in the arts. But sure enough, the snake in this garden of Eden is lurking just beyond. Temptation comes in the shapely form of a young woman who leads Chun Yi (ironically enough, the name means Pure One) astray from his discipline and concentration of meditation and the martial arts; as he loses his grip on Buddhist practices, he loses his mastery over Kung Fu, too. After an intense dalliance, performed beautifully by the two dancers with 3-D visual effects, aerial acrobatics and surrounded by fluffy-white clouds that wrap them in a romantic mist, she dumps him.
Chun Yi returns to the monastery much chastened and undergoes rigorous punishment, involving a demonstration of his newly forged will and innate courage by breaking metal and stone with his iron-hard body even as he takes on other warriors wielding the sabre and making lethal martial moves. He also learns to subdue his ego…cue the graceful art of t’ai chi!
In the interim, he loses his mother and that almost breaks him. I was both amused and entranced to watch a segment where the errant monk dances a dance of regret and serenity with his mother, to the most soulful music ever, a sentimental segment that would immediately appeal to most Indians.
Eventually, Chun Yi, having freed himself of his ego, now fears nothing and becomes a Zen master, and ascends to the post of head abbot of the monastery after a fine display of just about everything he has learned in all these years. All’s well that ends well, indeed.
The show, comprising a deftly choreographed mix of martial arts presented in ballet form, lasts about 70 minutes and is a grand spectacle: action wins over story here. The performers are all clearly adepts in the martial arts, given that they need to lie on sharp knives, leap very high into the air, break metal daggers on their heads as also execute perfect forms of various disciplines. There are three little boys who actually do forward flips on their heads.
The Legend of Kung Fu has it all: music, dance, acrobatics, martial art, a generous modicum of universally human sentiments, and an underlying message that to control and elide one’s internal and external selves is to become a true master at Zen and in wushu.
As I exit the theatre, I overhear an American tourist tell her husband, “I never thought I would enjoy it as much as I did, and I don’t even like fighting. It’s exactly like a Broadway show!”