Mission 100 is a 12-episode documentary series recording my journey learning about the physical aspect of Jingju or Peking Opera through firsthand experience. Peking Opera is one of the most exigent Chinese performing arts out there, requiring an extensive toolbox of skills: strong vocals, great muscle memory and coordination, exceptional body control, meticulous attention to detail and a whole lot of self-discipline. I have just 100 days to nail down the basics, pick up a few head-turning moves and eventually put on a show in front of a live audience.
My leg muscles are still aching from the first training session but the sun is not waiting for me to recover and a new day comes sooner than I thought it could.
Day 4 starts early and before the clock strikes eight, I am back at the barres – grunting and groaning, naturally. He Yishan, a professionally trained Wusheng (male warrior) with enough strength to make flying across the room seem like child's play, volunteers to go over the warmup routine from the night before with me.
It's a welcome gesture but his helping hand is no soft touch. He holds me from the back and pushes with all his might to bring my upper torso closer to my toes. To say it was excruciatingly painful is an understatement. My body is still stiff, my muscles unyielding and my breathing tough. It's not a great start to the day and the morning doesn't bring any respite.
Yishan excuses himself to go to rehearsal but I continue my practice. The moves are many and time is tight. Frontward kicks? Easy peasy! Diagonal kicks? Done deal! Sideways kicks? Houston, we have a problem!
On paper, the exercise is pretty straightforward: Stand sideways then bring one arm over the head to touch the opposite leg as you kick up. Turn to the other side and repeat.
In practice, the whole thing was a mess... The move requires strong muscle coordination and multitasking is not my strongest suit.
Luckily, my mentor, Liu Dake, is never too far away and walks me through it, one tiny step at a time. His approach works but I wonder if these performers had rewired their brains for the art given how differently they perceive and execute the same move.
I make use of the lunch break to enjoy some fresh air, indulging myself in retail therapy as I shop for workout essentials. But no matter where I go, I'm bound to return at the barres. My teacher, the strict but kind Zhu Lingyu, wants an encore of the leg stretches I did just hours earlier and my attempt to persuade him otherwise is futile.
Training focuses on a couple of new moves characteristic of the male warrior role I'm learning, including how to form a fist. Peking Opera is the art of details, and different roles clench their hands in different ways to reflect their disposition – elegance for female characters (Dan), strength for male protagonists (Sheng), and grandeur for painted-face roles (Jing).
Zhu laoshi (teacher) also introduces a rule to up my endurance game: No water breaks to my heart's content. Sips are only allowed after a specific set of exercises is completed.
"It'll help you in the long run," he matter-of-factly explains. "You can't drink every three minutes when you're on stage."
If physical discomfort isn't sufficient reason to keep my guards up about this journey, I'm now working out with a dry mouth. Not an optimal arrangement but I have no choice but to trust the process.
Video Cover Designer: Gao Hongmei Chief Editors: Zhang Wan, Chen Ran Line Producer: Ma Chutian Producer: Xu Jiye Executive Producer: Zhang Xiaohe Supervisor: Zhang Shilei
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