Sichuan Opera’s face-changers, British variety acts & magical Chinese medicine

In 1942, screenwriter and science fiction author Leigh Brackett wrote that what seems witchcraft to the ignorant is simple science to the learned. In 1962, this was re-phrased by science fiction author Arthur C Clarke into his Third Law of Prediction: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

The Chinese ambassador’s wife (left) and Professor Ke (right)

The Chinese ambassador’s wife (left) and Professor Ke (right)

A couple of nights ago, I went along to the official opening by the Chinese ambassador’s wife Madame Pinghua Hu of the Asante Academy of Chinese Medicine’s new site in Highgate, north London.

In 1991, I was hit by the sharp edge of an articulated truck while standing on a pavement in Borehamwood. I blogged about it in 2011.

I was thrown backwards with a slight spin and the back of my head hit the sharp edge of a low brick wall maybe nine inches above the ground. What I did not know until much later was that my spine had been twisted and jerked when my head hit the wall. It took about nine or ten months to get over the concussion. I still have trouble reading. I still have a slight line in my head where it hit the edge of the wall. The discs at the bottom of my spine are still slightly mis-aligned and occasionally cause me extreme pain if I twist my back at certain angles. It took about eighteen months to (mostly) sort out the pain in my shoulder.

My shoulder in 1991 - pulverised in two places

My shoulder in 1991 – the bone was pulverised in two places

In 1991/1992, I was in extreme pain from my shoulder for about 80% of my waking hours. My GP asked me what drugs I wanted for the rest of my life. Instead, I went to a Chinese doctor, knowing that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is slow because, whereas Western medicine tries to cure the symptoms, Chinese medicine tries to cure the cause.

The Chinese doctor gave me some Die Da Wan Hua Oil to rub on my shoulder and, within two weeks, my shoulder pain was gone. It has never recurred unless I put extreme pressure on the shoulder – and, even then, it is discomfort rather than pain.

The ‘miracle’ cure for my shoulder pain cannot have been psychological because it never entered my head that TCM could have a quick effect. I had thought, if it did work, it might take many months or maybe a year.

I have no idea how it worked and, surprisingly, when Madame Pinghua Hu officially opened the Asante Academy of Chinese Medicine’s new site this week, she too said she had no idea how TCM worked.

Anything sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic to the uninitiated and this ’thing’ is several thousand years old.

Professor Ke at his new Asante building in Highgate this week

Professor Ke at his new Asante building in Highgate this week

The Asante is run by the Chinese doctor who helped me – Dr (now Professor) Song Xuan Ke. He started to learn his skills when, aged 13, he was apprenticed to three herbal masters in his home province of Hubei in China. He qualified in both Chinese Medicine and Western Medicine at university in Canton in 1982.

I found him in 1991 because he tended to be interviewed on ITN TV news reports whenever they referred to Chinese medicine – and because he was listed as an advisor for an Observer newspaper series on alternative medicine.

Since then, among other things, he has been providing an acupuncture service in NHS hospitals including London’s Royal Free, Whittington and North Middlesex, has been involved in TCM research programmes with various London hospitals and became president of the British Society of Chinese Medicine and vice president of Pan European Federation of TCM Societies. He is actively involved with the UK Department of Health in the process of statutory regulation of professional practice and he was a member of its Regulating Working Group.

But the reason for writing this blog is not because of the near-magical-seeming effects of some traditional Chinese medicine but because, as part of the opening of the Asante centre this week, Professor Ke booked a man called Hou De Zhang who did a face-changing (bian lian) dance as performed in traditional Sichuan Opera.

Sichuan Opera face changing this week (Photo by my eternally-un-named friend)

Sichuan Opera face-changing this week (Photo by my eternally-un-named friend)

It seemed as magical as some Chinese medicine.

The dancer wears a face-hugging silk mask which can be changed in a split second into a totally different face-hugging silk mask. I have seen a video in which a photographer says he set his shutter speed to 1/200th of a second and could not capture the mask-changing moment.

The dancer twirls with his hands visible – or, for literally a split second, obscures his face with a fan or with the briefest of head-spins (without touching his face) and the mask changes.

At one point, Hou De Zhang shook me by the hand while his other hand was visible and, with a head shake, his face mask changed, but I did not see the point at which it changed.

Hou De Zhang performed at the Asante this week

Hou De Zhang performing at the new Asante

There is some sort of trigger mechanism which, I understand, can be hidden almost anywhere on the body. I reckoned it was in his hat. But it is impossible to see the point of transformation and how it can change one face-hugging silk mask into another is beyond my weak ken.

At another point in the dance, a moustache suddenly appeared on his face and then disappeared. My eternally-un-named friend (who does a neat line in Monk-like thinking) suggested it might have been inside his mouth. I suppose that must be right, but it was impossible to see. The moustache just appeared.

The dance was arguably the best variety act I have ever seen because it seemed to be actual magic. Perhaps Jerry Sadowitz’ close-up magic equals it, but it is a close-run thing.

I mentioned at the start of this blog Arthur C Clarke’s Third Law of Prediction.

His First Law is: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

His Second Law states: “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”

I am all for that… in everything.

There is a video of Sichuan Opera face-changing on YouTube.

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Filed under China, Dance, Magic, Medical, Theatre

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