Penned between the South China Sea and a range of three imposing mountains lies Hailufeng, a rough-and-tumble region of southern China with a long and proud tradition of rebellion and self-reliance. In the words of a local expression: “In the heavens, there is the Lord of Thunder; on Earth, there are the people of Hailufeng.” Residents treat the comparison to the belligerent deity as a badge of honor.
Despite being situated along the southeastern coast of Guangdong, the wealthiest province in China, average income in Shanwei — the administrative unit that most closely corresponds to Hailufeng’s traditional borders — is lower than in inland Guizhou, one of the country’s most impoverished provinces. If you’ve heard of Hailufeng, chances are it was from a headline about a drug raid, a public execution, or a civil uprising.
Hailufeng isn’t just distinguished by its fractiousness, however. It’s home to a vibrant folk culture: The region is peppered with temples and shrines to Taoist sages, portly Buddhas, and local folk heroes. And across the region, crowds pack temple courtyards and temporary bamboo platforms to watch as troubadours and actors jostle for the favor of the gods.
On one of these stages, illuminated by lights hanging from a bamboo canopy and sweating in the late spring heat, is Yu Zefeng. Wearing the gold and crimson robes of a Tang dynasty official, he kneels as he wails away in an archaic tongue about the kidnapping of his just-born child. Yu is the youngest member of Hailufeng’s Western Qin opera troupe, which claims to be the last remaining heir of an ancient art still performed in the same, 500-year-old dialect used by the intrepid soldiers who may have brought it south from the central Chinese plains.
The troupe has been invited to perform in honor of the Lords of the Three Mountains — the Taoist deities enshrined at the temple that hosts their stage. It’s the final scene for Yu’s character, a hapless scholar-official who makes the grave mistake of falling in love with an immortal. After making peace with his fate, he is summarily executed by Erlang Shen, one of the greatest warriors in the Chinese pantheon.
A general view of the stage at a local temple in Haifeng County, Guangdong province, Nov. 14, 2018. Courtesy of Yu Zefeng
With the bright lights, rapt crowd, pungent incense, and lingering evening heat, the spectacle is impressive. For Hailufeng, however, this kind of scene is commonplace: Across the region, similar performances may take place on any given night.
Apart from Western Qin, Hailufeng is an incubator for two other rare opera forms, as well as Taoist ceremonies, so-called fishers’ songs, and several schools of shadow puppetry, to name but a few of the events on the region’s lively folk culture calendar.
For Yu, it’s the locals’ enthusiasm for these events and their indomitable will to maintain their traditions in the face of a swiftly modernizing China that define Hailufeng.
“Actually, this is a misconception,” Yu tells me after the performance, referring to the Hailufeng people’s supposed resemblance to the Lord of Thunder. “People have tried to distort its meaning to suggest that the people of Hailufeng are wild, lawless, and unmannered. But in fact, the Lord of Thunder was known for his bravery, boldness, and authenticity,” he says with a smile. “So, all it means is that people from Hailufeng are uncompromising and authentic in spirit.”
According to Yu, traditional culture is like a channel running through a community, nourishing it like a root — and Western Qin opera epitomizes the spirit of this region that refuses to forsake its ages-old identity.
The exact origins of the art are hotly debated, though scholars believe that it descended from Qinqiang opera, in what is today Shaanxi province in China’s arid northwest. As for how it migrated all the way to the southeastern coast, academics are split. Some attribute it to a Ming dynasty official from the northwest who brought three troupes along with him after he was reassigned to Guangdong. Others believe it traveled south with the fleeing armies of Li Zicheng, a rebel leader who toppled the Ming and seized the throne for a brief period during the 17th century.
“Western Qin opera touches on loyalty, filial piety, humanity, and righteousness — so the moral themes of the plays we perform are more profound and philosophical than those of other kinds of opera,” Yu explains. “In Hailufeng, we’ve preserved Western Qin opera in its most primordial form.”
For Yu, it’s not uncommon for the people of Hailufeng to “fossilize in amber” certain facets of traditional culture, which, he says, is evident in everything from the region’s “three rare opera forms” to its distinctive fulao dialect.
“Here in Hailufeng, we’re relatively closed-off,” Yu says. “We’re not like Guangzhou or Shanghai, where people come and go frequently, and the local culture gets watered down. Things here have a tendency to remain preserved in their original state.”
Yu Zefeng stands backstage before a Western Qin opera performance in Meilong Town, Haifeng County, Guangdong province, Jan. 10, 2019. Courtesy of Yu Zefeng
According to Lü Weiping, the brawny, thickset leader of Yu’s troupe, Hailufeng’s identity was forged over centuries in an “us against the world” crucible. “We’re jammed between the Cantonese speakers in Guangzhou and the Teochew speakers in Chaozhou, while the mountains to the north are Hakka, and in the other direction is the sea,” Lü says. “We’re quite surrounded, you see.”
Foremost among Hailufeng’s myriad manifestations of folk culture, Western Qin opera celebrates the marauding spirit left behind by pirates, vagrants, and wandering armies. “Our rare operas are all connected to that bold, uncompromising coarseness for which we’re so often chastised,” Lü says.
Before “The Magic Lotus Lantern” — the play in which Erlang Shen abducts Yu’s newborn son — the troupe performed a crowd favorite about Ma Yuan, the first-century general who became a national hero after quelling malcontents along the Han dynasty’s southern border, particularly in present-day Vietnam.
In the version preferred by Hailufeng locals, the conclusion of Ma Yuan’s story differs from both the historical record and generally accepted mythology. General Ma — played by Lü — has the wisdom and clemency to end the battle and cede control of the region back to its local heroes.
“Western Qin opera is a way for us to express our feelings of independence,” Lü says bluntly.
Like much of the Hailufeng’s folk culture, Western Qin opera infuses lively entertainment with a spiritual undercurrent. The temples that host the performances are chosen not only for practical concerns of space and amenities, but also for fulfilling what Yu and Lü describe as the highest purpose of their art: “to let the spirits watch.” While crowds of people fill the courtyard beneath the bamboo stage, raised up behind them and directly opposite the performers are effigies of the honored deities — on this occasion, three kingly figures resplendent in gold robes, thick black beards, and dark black-and-crimson faces.
Yu Zefeng (in orange) and Lü Weiping (in lavender) during a Western Qin opera performance at the Ma Sicong Arts Centre, Shanwei, Guangdong Province, Aug. 12, 2018. Courtesy of Yu Zefeng
For Lü, the region’s spirituality, along with a sense of it being suspended in time, are what set it apart from the rest of the country. “In Hailufeng, just like in ancient times, people revere the natural world,” he says. “When they would discover a boulder, they’d dedicate a temple or shrine to it and honor it as a deity. As a result of this practice, Lü says, there’s at least one temple in every village, and each household prays to its own gods.
Yet, not everything in Hailufeng is fossilized in amber. Among the scatterplot of temples are newly built housing developments, open-air bars, and karaoke palaces. After the actors perform their Tang dynasty romance before the Taoist immortals, and the musicians put away their zithers, gongs, and two-stringed erhus for the night, odds are they’ll be joining the local residents at one of these gaudy entertainment venues.
All the same, the region struggles to match the bright lights and opulence of Guangzhou and Shenzhen, the Pearl River Delta’s two megacities. In 2017, domestic media referred to Shanwei as “Guangdong’s most backward city,” and in 2018 it had the second-lowest GDP in the province.
The pull of those lights has grown stronger with expanded infrastructure. In late 2013, a high-speed railway station opened in Shanwei and, in 2016, a new highway connecting Hailufeng and the provincial capital Guangzhou was completed. Last year, provincial authorities established the Shenzhen-Shanwei Special Cooperation Zone, which gives Shenzhen an outsized role in promoting local development.
The highway in particular cuts a hard, straight line through the vast, bowl-like landscape between Huizhou in the south and Hailufeng. On reaching the foreboding mountains that once granted Hailufeng the separateness it so cherishes, the road continues straight on through, boring a gaping hole in the hills.
In other words, Hailufeng is no longer an end-of-the-road destination for pirates and lost armies. Music students from all over China visit the region to document and participate in its unique art forms, and Yu and the rest of his troupe travel far and wide to give their performances.
But he always comes back, a choice he credits to the continued vibrancy of the region’s culture and way of life. “You don’t get this in Guangzhou,” Yu says, gesturing to the many bustling nightlife spots around us as we drive through Hailufeng late at night. “There, everyone is in bed by 1 o’clock, but these small towns are much more suitable for young people.”
To Yu, it’s the faith of the people of Hailufeng that accounts for its otherwise difficult-to-explain vitality. As he sips tea in the dilapidated courtyard serving as the troupe’s headquarters, he ponders whether modernization and urban sprawl could someday pose a threat to the folk culture inextricably linked with his sense of home.
“No, not at all,” he says after carefully considering his answer. “As a member of a clan that has faith, it doesn’t matter where you go — to Hailufeng, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, or wherever — folk culture has the power to bring people back together.”
Editors: David Paulk and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: A local ritual held in Haifeng County, Guangdong province. Courtesy of Yu Zefeng)