Yang Guoding stood motionlessly by his farm, staring at the water running onto his fields from a nearby reservoir.
To the 66-year-old farmer and many others living in his village, irrigation water became rare once the reservoir was transformed into an open-air theater, where a mythical drama is being staged using the water as a backdrop.
“They would hold the water for the performance unless it’s necessary to discharge, like today,” Yang said.
The reservoir is right next to Dali Gucheng, or the ancient town of Dali, a popular tourist attraction in southwest China’s Yunnan Province.
Although the local water authorities have arranged a deal between the show’s investor and the villagers to pump water from nearby streams free of charge, Yang and many farmers still worry about water shortages during droughts.
The show debuted Wednesday evening amid controversy over the impact of the open-air theater on the environment.
“Xiyi zhi Dali,” literally “Mysterious Dali” but officially translated as “Imagining Dali,” is directed by Chen Kaige, a Palme d’Or winner in 1993 for his movie “Farewell My Concubine.”
The show also features music composed by renowned Japanese musician Joe Hisaishi.
It’s a love story of local lore about a hunter and a princess. Unable to marry each other, the hunter eventually turns into a mountain while the princess transforms into clouds so they can be together.
With funding from a government-backed company, local officials hoped that the show will further boost tourism in Dali.
However, some local residents as well as Internet users have questioned the necessity of building the stage over the reservoir.
Some said it was improper to construct modern architecture in the ancient town because it destroys the town’s style, changes the natural landscape and affects local residents’ daily lives.
On weibo.com, a twitter-like service operated by sina.com, user “Xuge Arinsha” expressed hope that the show wouldn’t damage the local ecosystem.
More aggressive opinions appeared on douban.com, a popular forum featuring book, movie and music reviews. Netizen “Bingdao” said the show is the result of a typical commercial activity, in which the investors get money, the government gets credit, but local residents get nothing.
But the show’s organizers say environmental concerns have been fully addressed, and transforming the “obsolete reservoir” into an open-air theater is like “turning waste into wealth.”
In response to online critics, the show’s chief producer Wang Bing said people should come to Dali to watch the show and see what has really happened before posting negative ratings.
Although some tourists applaud the show, others said they hope the ancient town can stay quiet and simple.
Zach Splittgerber, a U.S. student who studies Chinese in Beijing, said Dali’s most attractive features are its architecture and peaceful lifestyle.
Although he admitted that every town is entitled to pursue its own path of development or modernization, he hopes the ancient town can maintain its own characteristics and avoid being over-commercialized.
While some local residents remain concerned about the influence of the show, others view themselves as pragmatic and have begun seeking opportunities for profit.
Yang Baoneng, who lives in a nearby village, plans to open a restaurant or a shop near the site of the show, hoping that it will bring him lots of customers.
Producer Wang Bing said the show has offered jobs to over 1,000 local residents and about half will join the show as extras.
The show will stimulate the service sector in nearby communities, add to people’s incomes and contribute to improving the town’s cultural charm, Wang said.