In 2017, the producers of Wolf Warrior 2, the highest-grossing Chinese movie ever, had a problem.
They needed to capture the sound of a missile flying for some action scenes, but it was nearly impossible to record.
Instead of getting a sound designer, they found Haiyang, a vocal artist who could make the sound with his mouth.
Haiyang is a master of kouji 口技, a traditional Chinese art form similar to beatboxing. Translated literally as “mouth techniques,” kouji’s roots date back thousands of years to when people imitated birds and other animals.
But nowadays, Haiyang, whose real name is Jiang Lianying, can perform all sorts of modern sounds, including cars, planes, and explosions, which is what he did for Wolf Warrior 2.
“In primitive times, humans used kouji to communicate,” Haiyang says, “so I like to say that once there was sound, there was kouji.”
There are stories of people performing kouji as far back as the Warring States period in 300 BC, when China was a bunch of small kingdoms at war with each other.
Over centuries, the techniques were refined and documented on paper, but nowadays, 39-year-old Haiyang is one of only a handful of kouji masters left.
The level of discipline and patience required to achieve mastery is so high that the Chinese government has formally categorized kouji as an acrobatic art—alongside high-flying trapeze, plate spinning, and a host of other dangerous acts frequently performed in circuses.
But unlike the more physical acts, kouji is not taught in any Chinese school or institution, and finding a qualified teacher is difficult.
Haiyang’s mentor, Niu Yuliang, has traveled to over 30 countries and performed for such dignitaries as the king of Cambodia and George H.W. Bush, but even he was hard to find. Haiyang only started training under Niu in 2011 after years of searching and self-studying, having grown up in a rural part of Henan Province mimicking farm animals as a child.
“I didn’t formally go to school for kouji, but I still knew how to imitate animals,” Haiyang says. “Like in the mornings, when the roosters crowed, I would follow along and learned how to crow like a rooster.”
Haiyang has come far from his farmboy days, touring China year-round for live shows and televised appearances. He even performed for Ivanka Trump at a Chinese Embassy event in Washington, DC, in 2017.
(Read more: Imagine Donald Trump singing in a Chinese opera)
Despite the prestige, Haiyang has yet to find an adequate protégé.
“I have some students, but they are all progressing very slowly,” Haiyang says. “It’s understandable. They have jobs, their own lives, their own problems.”
Becoming skilled at kouji requires decades of practice, Haiyang says, which is why many kids have gravitated toward beatboxing instead.
“A lot of young people like beatboxing because it imitates music and it’s relatively easy to do,” he says. “But kouji is universal. I may not speak the same language as you, but you will recognize the sounds I make.”
During our interview at a small park opposite the training grounds of the Beijing Acrobatic Troupe, I ask Haiyang to demonstrate a few sounds.
A short-tempered man responds to an imitation of a deafening ambulance alarm with a cold glare, while mothers with children cheer in delight upon hearing an uncanny rendition of the high-pitched vocals characteristic of Peking opera.
With the natural instinct of a performer, Haiyang walks over to a 91-year-old man in a wheelchair and asks if he can borrow his bird. The man obliges, and Haiyang starts chirping in an attempt to get the bird to respond back.
After a few tries, a frustrated Haiyang gives up.
“This bird is one of the cheapest kinds,” he says with indignation. “In the past, Beijing locals would take pride in breeding expensive birds that could sing beautifully.
“But this practice, like many other old Beijing arts, is dying out.”