Communist authorities outlawed the "feudalistic" classics after 1949 and replaced them with the Eight Model Plays -- a series of propaganda-style operas based on 20th-century events that focus heavily on class struggle. Many of these are still performed and are worth viewing if only to watch reactions from audience members, some of whom have seen these plays dozens of times and will loudly express their disgust when a mistake is made. But the older stories, allowed again after Mao's death, are more visually stunning. Among the most popular are Farewell My Concubine, made famous through Chen Kaige's film of the same name, and Havoc in Heaven, which follows the mischievous Monkey King character from the Chinese literary classic Journey to the West.
Several theaters now offer shortened programs more amenable to the foreign attention span, usually with English subtitles or plot summaries. Most people on tours are taken to the cinema-style Liyuan Theater (Liyuan Juchang) inside the Qian Men Hotel (nightly performances at 7:30pm) or to one of several other modern venues. These are affordable but supremely boring. Your time and money are much better spent at one of the traditional theaters.
Acrobatics -- China's acrobats are justifiably famous, and probably just a little bit insane. This was the only traditional Chinese art form to receive Mao's explicit approval (back flips, apparently, don't count as counterrevolution). While not culturally stimulating, the combination of plate spinning, hoop jumping, bodily contortion, and seemingly suicidal balancing acts make for slack-jawed entertainment of the highest order. Shanghai is the traditional home of acrobatics and boasts its best troupes, but the capital has done a fair job of transplanting the tradition.
The city's best acrobatics (zaji) venue is the Wansheng Juchang on the north side of Bei Wei Lu just off Qian Men Dajie (west side of the Temple of Heaven); performances are by the fairly famous Beijing Acrobatics Troupe (nightly shows at 7:15pm). The acrobats at the Chaoyang Juchang (Dong San Huan Bei Lu 36; nightly shows at 7:15pm) are slightly clumsier but the theater is more conveniently located, a short taxi ride from most of the city's better restaurants and close to the main bar district.
Puppets--Puppet shows (mu'ou xi) have been performed in China since the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220). The art form has diversified somewhat over the past two millennia, coming to include everything from the traditional hand puppets to string and shadow varieties. Plot lines are usually simple, and some hardly qualify as stories, but the manipulations are deft and the craftsmanship is exquisite. Most performances, including weekend matinees, are held at the China Puppet Art Theater (Zhongguo Mu'ou Juyuan), in Anhua Xi Li near the North Third Ring Road.
Other Venues--Beijing hosts a growing number of international music and theater events every year, and its own increasingly respectable outfits -- including the Beijing Symphony Orchestra -- give frequent performances. Among the most popular venues for this sort of thing is the Beijing Concert Hall (Beijing Yinyue Ting; tel. 010/6605-5812), at Bei Xinhua Jie in Liubukou (Xuanwu). The Poly Theater (Baoli Dasha Guoji Juyuan; tel. 010/6500-1188, ext. 5127), in the Poly Plaza complex on the East Third Ring Road (northeast exit of Dongsi Shi Tiao metro station), also hosts many large-scale performances, including the occasional revolutionary ballet. For information.
Teahouse Theatre--Traditional teahouse entertainment disappeared from Beijing after 1949, but some semblance survives in a number of modern teahouses that have grown up with the tourism industry. Snippets of Beijing opera, cross-talk (stand-up) comedy, acrobatics, traditional music, singing, and dancing flow across the stage as you sip tea and nibble snacks. If you don't have time to see these kinds of performances individually, the teahouse is an adequate solution. If you're looking for a quiet place to enjoy a cup of jasmine and maybe do some reading, look to one of the real teahouses.
Bars and Discos
Although most average Chinese still prefer to get drunk at dinner, the Western pub tradition has gained ground among younger locals, and the city boasts a large, ever-growing population of establishments devoted exclusively to alcohol.
Drinking in Beijing occurs in one of several districts, each with its own atmosphere and social connotations. The city's oldest and still most popular drinking district is Sanlitun, located between the east second and third ring roads around the Workers' Stadium (Gongren Tiyuchang). The area's name comes from Sanlitun Lu, a north-south strip of drinking establishments a long block east of the Workers' Stadium that at one time contained practically all of the city's bars. Now known as North Bar Street (Sanlitun Jiuba Jie), it has been overshadowed by other clusters of bars on South Bar Street (also called Dongdaqiao Xiejie) a half block east of the City Hotel, in the Xingfucun area north of the stadium, and scattered around the stadium itself. Bars here are rowdy and raunchy, and packed to overflowing on weekends. Similar watering holes surround the south and west gates of Chaoyang Gongyuan (park) to the east, an area the government has tried to promote as the new drinking district because it has fewer residential buildings. Bars and clubs in Haidian, the city's university district to the northwest, congregate around the gates of several universities and cater to a predictable crowd of local English majors and foreign students.
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