Beijing opera

Beijing opera

Beijing opera or Peking opera (zh-stp|s=京剧|t=京劇|p=Jīngjù) is a form of traditional Chinese theatre which combines music, vocal performance, mime, dance and acrobatics. It arose in the late 18th century and became fully developed and recognized by the mid-19th century.cite book | first=Joshua S. | last=Goldstein | coauthors= | title=Drama Kings: Players and Publics in the Re-creation of Peking Opera, 1870–1937 | year=2007 | publisher=University of California Press | work = | pages =3 | language = ] The form was extremely popular in the Qing Dynasty court and has come to be regarded as one of the cultural treasures of China.cite journal | author=Mackerras, Colin Patrick| title=Theatre and the Taipings| journal=Modern China| year=1976| volume=2| issue=4| page=473–501 | pages=473 | doi=10.1177/009770047600200404] Major performance troupes are based in Beijing and Tianjin in the north, and Shanghai in the south.cite journal | author=Wichmann, Elizabeth| title=Tradition and Innovation in Contemporary Beijing Opera Performance| journal=TDR| year=1990| volume=34| issue=1| pages=146–178| doi=10.2307/1146013] The art form is also enjoyed in Taiwan, where it is known as Guoju (國劇; pinyin: Guójù). It has also spread to other countries such as the United States and Japan.cite journal | author=Rao, Nancy Yunhwa| title=Racial Essences and Historical Invisibility: Chinese Opera in New York, 1930| journal=Cambridge Opera Journal| year=2000| volume=12| issue=2| page=135–162 | pages=135 | doi=10.1017/S095458670000135X]

Beijing opera features four main types of performers. Performing troupes often have several of each variety, as well as numerous secondary and tertiary performers. With their elaborate and colorful costumes, performers are the only focal points on Beijing opera's characteristically sparse stage. They utilize the skills of speech, song, dance, and combat in movements that are symbolic and suggestive, rather than realistic. Above all else, the skill of performers is evaluated according to the beauty of their movements. Performers also adhere to a variety of stylistic conventions that help audiences navigate the plot of the production.cite book | title=Listening to Theatre: The Aural Dimension of Beijing Opera| last=Wichmann| first=Elizabeth| year=1991| pages=360| publisher=University of Hawaii Press] The layers of meaning within each movement must be expressed in time with music. The music of Beijing opera can be divided into the "Xipi" and "Erhuang" styles. Melodies include arias, fixed-tune melodies, and percussion patterns.cite journal | author=Guy, Nancy A.| title=The Appreciation of Chinese Opera: A Reply to Ching-Hsi Perng (in Forum for Readers and Authors)| journal=Asian Theatre Journal| year=1990| volume=7| issue=2| pages=254–259 | doi=10.2307/1124341] The repertoire of Beijing opera includes over 1,400 works, which are based on Chinese history, folklore, and, increasingly, contemporary life. [Wichmann, Elizabeth (1991) p.12–16]

In recent years, Beijing opera has attempted numerous reforms in response to sagging audience numbers. These reforms, which include improving performance quality, adapting new performance elements, and performing new and original plays, have met with mixed success. Some Western works have been adopted as new plays, but a lack of funding and an adverse political climate have left Beijing opera's fate uncertain as the form enters the 21st century. [ Wichmann, Elizabeth (1990) pp. 149 ]


"Beijing opera" or "Peking opera" is the English term for the art form; the "Oxford English Dictionary"'s earliest record of the term is from 1953. ["Oxford English Dictionary", 2nd edition, 1989.]

In China the art form has been known by many other names in different times and places. The earliest Chinese name was a combination of the Xipi and Erhuang melodies, and was called "Pihuang". As it increased in popularity, its name became "Jingxi" or "Jingju", which reflected its start in the capital city, Jing, and the form of the performance, Xi. From 1927 to 1949, Beijing was known as Beiping, and Beijing opera was known as "Pingxi" or "Pingju" to reflect this change. Finally, with the establishment of the People's Republic of China, the name of the capital city was reverted to Beijing, and the formal name of Beijing theatre in Mainland China was established as "Jingju". In Taiwan, this type of opera is known as "Guoju", national theatre style, reflecting disputes over the true seat of the Chinese government.cite journal | author=Guy, Nancy A.| title=Peking Opera as "National Opera" in Taiwan: What's in a Name?| journal=Asian Theatre Journal| year=1995| volume=12| issue=1| page=85–103 | pages=85 | doi=10.2307/1124469]



It is regarded that Beijing opera was born when the Four Great Anhui Troupes came to Beijing in 1790. Beijing opera was originally staged for the court and came into the public later. In 1828, some famous Hubei troupes came to Beijing. They often jointly performed in the stage with Anhui troupes. The combination gradually formed Beijing opera's main melodies. Beijing opera is generally regarded as having fully formed by 1845. [Goldstein, Joshua S. (2007) p.3] Although it is called Beijing opera (Beijing theatre style), its origins are in the southern Anhui and eastern Hubei, which share the same dialect of Xiajiang Mandarin (Lower Yangtze Mandarin). Beijing opera's two main melodies; "Xipi" and "Erhuang" originated from Shanxi but developed in Anhui and Hubei. Xipi literally means 'Western Skin Puppet Show', referring to the puppet show that is originated from Shaanxi province. Puppet Shows in China always involve singing. Much dialogue is also carried out in an archaic form of Standard Mandarin, in which Zhongyuan Guanhua (Zhongyuan Mandarin) dialects in Henan and Shaanxi are closest. This form of standard Mandarin is recorded in the book Zhongyuan Yinyun. It also absorbed music and arias from other operas and local Zhili musical art forms. Some scholars believe that the "Xipi" musical form was derived from the historic Qinqiang, while many conventions of staging, performance elements, and aesthetic principles were retained from Kunqu, the form that preceded it as court art.cite journal | author=Huang, Jinpei| title=Xipi and Erhuang of Beijing and Guangdong styles| journal=Asian Music| year=1989| volume=20| issue=2| pages=152–195| doi=10.2307/834024] Cite web|url=|title=What is Kunqu Theatre?|accessdate=2007-04-04|publisher=Wintergreen Kunqu Society|year=2006|author=Wilson, Charles, Hans Frankel|format=Web] [ Goldstein, Joshua S. (2007) pp. 2 ]

Thus, Beijing opera is not actually a monolithic form, but rather a coalescence of many older forms. However, the new form also introduced its own innovations. The vocal requirements for all of the major roles were greatly reduced for Beijing opera. The Chou, in particular, rarely has a singing part in Beijing opera, unlike the equivalent role in Kunqu style. The melodies that accompany each play were also simplified, and are played with different traditional instruments than in earlier forms. Perhaps most noticeably, true acrobatic elements were introduced with Beijing opera. The form grew in popularity throughout the 19th century. The Anhui troupes reached their peak of excellence in the middle of the century, and were invited to perform in the court of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom that had been established during the Taiping Rebellion. Beginning in 1884, the Empress Dowager Cixi became a regular patron of Beijing opera, cementing its status over earlier forms like Kunqu. [Mackerras, Colin Patrick (1976) pp.473–501] The popularity of Beijing opera has been attributed to the simplicity of the form, with only a few voices and singing patterns. This allowed anyone to sing the arias themselves.cite journal | author=Yang, Richard F. S.| title=Behind the Bamboo Curtain: What the Communists Did to the Peking opera| journal=Asian Theatre Journal| year=1969| volume=21| issue=1| pages=60–66] cite journal | author=Hsu, Dolores Menstell| title=Musical Elements of Chinese Opera| journal=The Musical Quarterly| year=1964| volume=50| issue=4| pages=439–451| doi=10.1093/mq/L.4.439]

Beijing opera was initially an exclusively male pursuit. The Qianlong Emperor had banned all female performers in Beijing in 1772. The appearance of women on the stage began unofficially during the 1870s. Female performers began to impersonate male roles and declared equality with men. They were given a venue for their talents when Li Maoer, himself a former Beijing opera performer, founded the first female Beijing opera troupe in Shanghai. By 1894, the first commercial venue showcasing female performance troupes appeared in Shanghai. This encouraged other female troupes to form, which gradually increased in popularity. As a result, theatre artist Yu Zhenting petitioned for the lifting of the ban after the founding of the Republic of China in 1911. This was accepted, and the ban was lifted in 1912, although male Dan continued to be popular after this period.cite journal | author=Chou, Hui-ling| title=Striking Their Own Poses: The History of Cross-Dressing on the Chinese Stage| journal=TDR| year=1997| volume=41| issue=2| pages=130–152]

Beijing opera after the Chinese Civil War

After the Chinese Civil War, Beijing opera became a focal point of identity for both involved parties. When the Communist Party of China came to power in Mainland China in 1949, the newly formed government moved to bring art into line with Communist ideology, and "to make art and literature a component of the whole revolutionary machine".cite journal | author=Yang, Daniel S. P.| title=Censorship: 8 Model Works| journal=The Drama Review| year=1971| volume=15| issue=2| pages=258–261| doi=10.2307/1144648] To this end, dramatic works without Communist themes were considered subversive, and were ultimately banned during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). [ Yang, Daniel S.P. (1971) pp. 259 ] Among the eight model plays eventually retained during that time were five Beijing operas. [ Yang, Daniel S.P. (1971) pp. 258 ] Notable among these operas was "The Legend of the Red Lantern", which was approved as a concert with piano accompaniment based on a suggestion from Jiang Qing, wife of Mao Zedong. [ Yang, Daniel S.P. (1971) pp. 261 ] Performances of works beyond the eight model plays were allowed only in heavily modified form. The endings of many traditional plays were changed, and visible stage assistants in Beijing opera were eliminated. [ Yang, Daniel S.P. (1971) pp. 259 ] After the end of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s, traditional Beijing opera began to be performed again. Beijing opera and other theatrical art forms were a controversial subject both before and during the Twelfth National People's Congress in 1982. A study carried in the People's Daily revealed that over 80 percent of musical dramas staged in the country were traditional plays from the pre-Communist era, as opposed to newly written historical dramas promoting socialist values. In response, Communist party officials enacted reforms to curb liberalism and foreign influence in theatrical works.cite journal | author=Mackerras, Colin| title=Drama and Politics in the China of the Twelfth Party Congress| journal=Asian Theatre Journal| year=1984| volume=1| issue=2| page=147–165 | pages=147 | doi=10.2307/1124562]

After the retreat of the Republic of China to Taiwan in 1949, Beijing opera there took on a special status of "political symbolism", in which the Kuomintang government encouraged the art form over other forms of performance in an attempt to claim a position as the sole representative of Chinese culture. This often occurred at the expense of traditional Taiwanese opera.cite journal | author=Guy, Nancy| title=Governing the Arts, Governing the State: Peking Opera and Political Authority in Taiwan| journal=Ethnomusicology| year=1999| volume=43| issue=3| page=508–526 | pages=508 | doi=10.2307/852559] cite journal | author=Perng, Ching-Hsi| title=At the Crossroads: Peking Opera in Taiwan Today| journal=Asian Theatre Journal| year=1989| volume=6| issue=2| page=124–144 | pages=124 | doi=10.2307/1124455] Due to its status as a prestigious art form with a long history, Beijing opera has indeed been studied more and received more monetary support than other forms of theater in Taiwan. [ Perng, Ching-Hsi (1989) pp. 128 ] However, there has also been a competing movement towards advocating native opera to differentiate Taiwan from the mainland. In September of 1990, when the Kuomintang government participated in a state-sponsored mainland cultural event for the first time, a Taiwanese opera group was sent, possibly to emphasize "Taiwaneseness".cite journal | author=Chang, Huei-Yuan Belinda| title=A Theatre of Taiwaneseness: Politics, Ideologies, and Gezaixi| journal=TDR| year=1997| volume=41| issue=2| pages=111–129| doi=10.2307/1146628]

Modern Beijing opera

During the second half of the 20th century, Beijing opera witnessed a steady decline in audience numbers. This has been attributed both to a decrease in performance quality and an inability of the traditional opera form to capture modern life. [ Wichmann, Elizabeth (1990) pp. 148–149 ] Furthermore, the archaic language of Beijing opera required productions to utilize electronic subtitles, which hampered the development of the form. The influence of Western culture has also left the younger generations impatient with the slow pacing of Beijing opera.cite journal | author=Diamond, Catherine| title=Kingdom of Desire: The Three Faces of Macbeth (in Report)| journal=Asian Theatre Journal| year=1994| volume=11| issue=1| page=114–133 | pages=114 | doi=10.2307/1124387] In response, Beijing opera began to see reform starting in the 1980s. Such reforms have taken the form of creating a school of performance theory to increase performance quality, utilizing modern elements to attract new audiences, and performing new plays outside of the traditional canon. However, these reforms have been hampered by both a lack of funding and a sensitive political climate that makes the performance of new plays difficult. [ Wichmann, Elizabeth (1990) pp. 149 ]

In addition to more formal reform measures, Beijing opera troupes during the 1980s also adopted more unofficial changes. Some of those seen in traditional works have been called "technique for technique's sake". This has included the use of extended high pitch sequences by female Dan, and the addition of lengthier movement sections and percussion sequences to traditional works. Such changes have generally met with disdain from Beijing opera performers, who see them as ploys to gain immediate audience appeal. Plays with repetitive sequences have also been shortened to hold audience interest. [ Wichmann, Elizabeth (1990) pp. 151 ] New works have naturally experienced a greater freedom to experiment. Regional, popular, and foreign techniques have been adopted, including Western style makeup and beards and new face paint designs for Jing characters. [ Wichmann, Elizabeth (1990) pp. 152 ] The spirit of reform continued during the 1990s. To survive in an increasingly open market, troupes like the Shanghai Beijing opera Company needed to bring traditional Beijing opera to new audiences. To do this, they have offered an increasing number of free performances in public places.cite journal | author=Wichmann-Walczak, Elizabeth| title="Reform" at the Shanghai Beijing opera Company and Its Impact on Creative Authority and Repertory| journal=TDR| year=2000| volume=44| issue=4| pages=96–119| doi=10.1162/10542040051058500]

There has also been a general feeling of a shift in the creative attribution of Beijing opera works. The performer has traditionally played a large role in the scripting and staging of Beijing opera works. However, perhaps following the lead of the West, Beijing opera in recent decades has shifted to a more director and playwright centered model. Performers have striven to introduce innovation in their work while heeding the call for reform from this new upper level of Beijing opera producers.cite journal | author=Wichmann, Elizabeth| title=Xiqu Research and Translation with the Artists in Mind (in Symposium: What More Do We Need to Know about Chinese Theatre?)| journal=Asian Theatre Journal| year=1994| volume=11| issue=1| pages=96–119 | doi=10.2307/1124385]

Channel CCTV-11 in Mainland China is currently dedicated to broadcasting classic Chinese opera productions, including Beijing opera. [ Goldstein, Joshua S. (2007) pp. 1 ]

Beijing opera around the world

In addition to its presence in Mainland China, Beijing opera has spread to many other places. It can be found in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and overseas Chinese communities elsewhere.cite book | first=D. Ray | last=Heisey | coauthors= | title=in Chinese Aesthetics and Literature: A Reader | year=2000 | publisher=Ablex/Greenwood | work = | pages =224 | accessdate = 2007-03-22 | language = ] Mei Lanfang, one of the most famous Dan performers of all time, was also one of the greatest popularizers of Beijing opera abroad. During the 1920s, he performed Beijing opera in Japan. This inspired an American tour in February 1930. Although some, such as the actor Otis Skinner, believed that Beijing opera could never be a success in the United States, the favorable reception of Lanfang and his troupe in New York City disproved this notion. The performances had to be relocated from the 49th Street Theater to the larger National Theater, and the duration of the tour extended from two weeks to five. [Rao, Nancy Yunhwa (2000) pp. 135–138] cite journal|title=Brokering Glory for the Chinese Nation: Peking Opera's 1930 American Tour|journal=Comparative Drama|year=2001|first=Nancy|last=Guy|coauthors=|volume=35|issue=|pages=|id= |url=|format=|accessdate=2007-03-24] Lanfang traveled across the United States, receiving honorary degrees from the University of California and Pomona College. He followed this tour with a tour in the Soviet Union in 1935.cite journal | author=Banu, Georges, Ella L. Wiswell, June V. Gibson| title=Mei Lanfang: A Case against and a Model for the Occidental Stage| journal=Asian Theatre Journal| year=1986| volume=3| issue=2| page=153–178 | pages=153 | doi=10.2307/1124399]

Performers and roles


Becoming a Beijing opera performer requires a long and arduous apprenticeship beginning from an early age.cite journal | author=Chang, Donald, John D. Mitchell, Roger Yeu| title=How the Chinese Actor Trains: Interviews with Two Peking Opera Performers (in Asian Theatre Traditions)| journal=Educational Theatre Journal| year=1974| volume=26| issue=2| page=183–191 | pages=183 | doi=10.2307/3206634] Prior to the 20th century, pupils were often handpicked at a young age by a teacher and trained for seven years on contract from the child's parents. Since the teacher fully provided for the pupil during this period, the student accrued a debt to his master that was later repaid through performance earnings. After 1911, training took place in more formally organized schools. Students at these schools rose as early as five o'clock in the morning for exercises. Daytime was spent learning the skills of acting and combat, and senior students performed in outside theatres in the evening. If they made any mistakes during such performances, the entire group was beaten with bamboo canes. Schools with less harsh training methods began to appear in 1930, but all schools were closed down in 1931 after the Japanese invasion. New schools were not opened until 1952.cite book | title=Peking Opera: A Short Guide| last=Halson| first=Elizabeth| year=1966| pages=8| publisher=Oxford University Press| location=Hong Kong]

Performers are first trained in acrobatics, followed by singing and gestures. Several performing schools, all based on the styles of famous performers, are taught. Some examples are the Mei Lanfang school, the Cheng Yanqiu school, the Ma Lianliang school, and the Qi Lintong school.cite journal | author=F. S. Yang, Richard| title=The Performing Arts in Contemporary China (in Book Reviews)| journal=Asian Theatre Journal| year=1984| volume=1| issue=2| page=230–234 | pages=230 | doi=10.2307/1124569] Students previously trained exclusively in the art of performance, but modern performance schools now include academic studies as well. Teachers assess the qualifications of each student and assign them roles as primary, secondary, or tertiary characters accordingly. Students with little acting talent often become Beijing opera musicians. [Chang, Donald (1974) pp. 183–191] They may also serve as the supporting cast of foot soldiers, attendants, and servants that is present in every Beijing opera troupe. [Wichmann, Elizabeth (1991) p.12] In Taiwan, the Ministry of National Defense of the Republic of China runs a national Beijing opera training school. [Perng, Ching-Hsi (1989) pp. 140]


The transl|zh|Sheng ( _zh. 生) is the main male role in Beijing opera. This role has numerous subtypes. The transl|zh|"laosheng" is a dignified older role. These characters have a gentle and cultivated disposition and wear sensible costumes. One type of transl|zh|"laosheng" role is the transl|zh|"hongsheng", a red-faced older male. The only two transl|zh|"hongsheng" roles are Guan Gong, the Chinese God of War, and Zhao Kuang-yin, the first Song Dynasty emperor. Young male characters are known as transl|zh|"xiaosheng". These characters sing in a high, shrill voice with occasional breaks to represent the voice changing period of adolescence. Depending on the character's rank in society, the costume of the "xiaosheng" may be either elaborate or simple.Cite web|url=|title=Peking Opera|accessdate=2007-04-04|publisher=It's China Network - TYCO.COM|year=2007|author=Unknown Author|format=Web] Off-stage, transl|zh|"xiaosheng" actors are often involved with beautiful women by virtue of the handsome and young image they project.cite book | title=Afternoon Tea at the Beijing Opera| url=| last=Chengbei| first=Xu| year=2006| pages=163| publisher=Long River Press] The transl|zh|"wusheng" is a martial character for roles involving combat. They are highly trained in acrobatics, and have a natural voice when singing. Troupes will always have a transl|zh|"laosheng" actor. A transl|zh|"xiaosheng" actor may also be added to play roles fitting to his age. In addition to these main transl|zh|Sheng, the troupe will also have a secondary transl|zh|"laosheng". [Wichmann, Elizabeth (1991) p.7-8]


The transl|zh|Dan ( _zh. 旦) refers to any female role in Beijing opera. transl|zh|Dan roles were originally divided into five subtypes. Old women were played by transl|zh|"laodan", martial women were transl|zh|"wudan", young female warriors were transl|zh|"daomadan", virtuous and elite women were transl|zh|"qingyi", and vivacious and unmarried women were transl|zh|"huadan". One of Mei Lanfang's most important contributions to Beijing opera was in pioneering a sixth type of role, the transl|zh|"huashan". This role type combines the status of the transl|zh|"qingyi" with the sensuality of the transl|zh|"huadan".cite journal | author=Goldstein, Joshua| title=Mei Lanfang and the Nationalization of Peking Opera, 1912–1930| journal=East Asian Cultures Critique| year=1999| volume=7| issue=2| url=| pages=377–420] A troupe will have a young transl|zh|Dan to play main roles, as well as an older transl|zh|Dan for secondary parts. [Wichmann, Elizabeth (1991) p.12] Four examples of famous Dans are Mei Lanfang, Cheng Yanqiu, Shang Xiaoyun, and Xun Huisheng.cite journal | author=Der-wei Wang, David| title=Impersonating China (in Essays and Articles)| journal=Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR)| year=2003| volume=25| pages=133–163 | doi=10.2307/3594285] In the early years of Beijing opera, all transl|zh|Dan roles were played by men. Wei Changsheng, a male transl|zh|Dan performer in the Qing court, developed the transl|zh|"cai ciao", or "false foot" technique, to simulate the bound feet of women and the characteristic gait that resulted from the practice. The ban on female performers also led to a controversial form of brothel, known as the transl|zh|"xianggong tangzi", in which men paid to have sex with young boys dressed as females. Ironically, the performing skills taught to the youths employed in these brothels led many of them to become professional transl|zh|Dan later in life. [ Chou, Hui-ling (1997) pp.136–137]


The transl|zh|Jing ( _zh. 净) is a painted face male role. Depending on the repertoire of the particular troupe, he will play either primary or secondary roles. [Wichmann, Elizabeth (1991) p.12] This type of role will entail a forceful character, so a transl|zh|Jing must have a strong voice and be able to exaggerate gestures.cite journal | author=Ward, Barbara E.| title=Not Merely Players: Drama, Art and Ritual in Traditional China| journal=Man, New Series| year=1979| volume=14| issue=1| pages=18–39] Beijing opera boasts 15 basic facial patterns, but there are over 1000 specific variations. Each design is unique to a specific character. The patterns and coloring are thought to be derived from traditional Chinese color symbolism and divination on the lines of a person's face, which is said to reveal personality. Easily recognizable examples of coloring include red, which denotes uprightness and loyalty, white, which represents evil or crafty characters, and black, which is given to characters of soundness and integrity. [Ward, Barbara E. (1979) p.20] Three main types of transl|zh|Jing roles are often seen. These include transl|zh|"tongchui", roles that heavily involve singing, transl|zh|"jiazi", roles with less emphasis on singing and more on physical performance, and transl|zh|"wujing", martial and acrobatic roles.


The transl|zh|Chou ( _zh. 丑) is a male clown role. The transl|zh|Chou usually plays secondary roles in a troupe. [Wichmann, Elizabeth (1991) p.12] Indeed, most studies of Beijing opera classify the transl|zh|Chou as a minor role. The name of the role is a homophone of the Mandarin Chinese word transl|zh|"chou", meaning "ugly". This reflects the traditional belief that the clown's combination of ugliness and laughter could drive away evil spirits. transl|zh|Chou roles can be divided into transl|zh|"Wen Chou", civilian roles such as merchants and jailers, and transl|zh|"Wu Chou", minor military roles. The transl|zh|"Wu Chou" is one of the most demanding in Beijing opera, because of its combination of comic acting, acrobatics, and a strong voice. transl|zh|Chou characters are generally amusing and likable, if a bit foolish. Their costumes range from simple for characters of lower status to elaborate, perhaps overly so, for high status characters. transl|zh|Chou characters wear special face paint, called transl|zh|"xiaohualian", that differs from that of transl|zh|Jing characters. The defining characteristic of this type of face paint is a small patch of white chalk around the nose. This can represent either a mean and secretive nature or a quick wit.

Beneath the whimsical persona of the transl|zh|Chou, a serious connection to the form of Beijing opera exists. The transl|zh|Chou is the character most connected to the transl|zh|"guban", the drums and clapper commonly used for musically accompaniment during performances. The transl|zh|Chou actor often uses the transl|zh|"guban" in solo performance, especially when performing transl|zh|"Shu Ban", light-hearted verses spoken for comedic effect. The clown is also connected to the small gong and cymbals, percussion instruments that symbolize the lower classes and the raucous atmosphere inspired by the role. Although transl|zh|Chou characters do not sing frequently, their arias feature large amounts of improvisation. This is considered a license of the role, and the orchestra will accompany the transl|zh|Chou actor even as he bursts into an unscripted folk song. However, due to the standardization of Beijing opera and political pressure from government authorities, transl|zh|Chou improvisation has lessened in recent years. The transl|zh|Chou has a vocal timbre that is distinct from other characters, as the character will often speak in the common Beijing dialect, as opposed to the more formal dialects of other characters. [Thorpe, Ashley (2005) pp.269–292]

Performance elements

Beijing opera performers utilize four main skills. The first two are song and speech. The third is dance-acting. This includes pure dance, pantomime, and all other types of dance. The final skill is combat, which includes both acrobatics and fighting with all manner of weaponry. All of these skills are expected to be performed effortlessly, in keeping with the spirit of the art form. [Wichmann, Elizabeth (1991) p.2]

Aesthetic aims and principles

Beijing opera follows other traditional Chinese arts in emphasizing meaning, rather than accuracy. The highest aim of performers is to put beauty into every motion. Indeed, performers are strictly criticized for lacking beauty during training. [Wichmann, Elizabeth (1991) p.2] Additionally, performers are taught to create a synthesis between the different aspects of Beijing opera. The four skills of Beijing opera are not separate, but rather should be combined in a single performance. One skill may take precedence at certain moments during a play, but this does not mean that other actions should cease. [Wichmann, Elizabeth (1991) p.3–4] Much attention is paid to tradition in the art form, and gestures, settings, music, and character types are determined by long held convention. This includes conventions of movement, which are used to signal particular actions to the audience. For example, walking in a large circle always symbolizes traveling a long distance, and a character straightening his or her costume and headdress symbolizes that an important character is about to speak. Some conventions, such as the pantomimic opening and closing of doors and mounting and descending of stairs, are more readily apparent. [Wichmann, Elizabeth (1991) p.6] cite book | first=Elizabeth | last=Wichmann-Walczak | coauthors= editor Corinne H. Dale | title=in Chinese Aesthetics and Literature: A Reader | year=2004 | publisher=SUNY Press | work = | pages =129 | accessdate = 2007-03-22 | language = ]

Many performances deal with behaviors that occur in daily life. However, in accordance with the overriding principle of beauty, such behaviors are stylized to be presented on stage. Beijing opera does not aim to accurately represent reality. Experts of the art form contrast the principles of Beijing opera with the principle of "Mo", mimesis or imitation, that is found in western dramas. Beijing opera should be suggestive, not imitative. The literal aspects of scenes are removed or stylized to better represent intangible emotions and characters.cite journal | author=Chen, Jingsong| title=To Make People Happy, Drama Imitates Joy: The Chinese Theatrical Concept of Mo| journal=Asian Theatre Journal| year=1997| volume=14| issue=1| page=38–55 | pages=38 | doi=10.2307/1124084] The most common stylization method in Beijing opera is roundness. Every motion and pose is carefully manipulated to avoid sharp angles and straight lines. A character looking upon an object above them will sweep their eyes in a circular motion from low to high before landing on the object. Similarly, a character will sweep their hand in an arc from left to right in order to indicate an object on the right. This avoidance of sharp angles extends to three dimensional movement as well; reversals of orientation often take the form of a smooth, S-shaped curve. [Wichmann, Elizabeth (1991) p.4–5] All of these general principles of aesthetics are present within other performance elements as well.

taging and costumes

Beijing opera stages have traditionally been square platforms. The action on stage is usually visible from at least three sides. The stage is divided into two parts by an embroidered curtain called a "shoujiu". Musicians are visible to the audience on the front part of the stage. Traditional Beijing opera stages were built above the line of sight of the viewers, but some modern stages have been constructed with higher audience seating. Viewers are always seated south of the stage. Therefore, north is the most important direction in Beijing opera, and performers will immediately move to "center north" upon entering the stage. All characters enter from the east and exit from the west.cite book | title=Afternoon Tea at the Beijing Opera| url=| last=Chengbei| first=Xu| year=2006| pages=163| publisher=Long River Press] In line with the highly symbolic nature of Beijing opera, the form utilizes very few props. This reflects seven centuries of Chinese performance tradition. [Perng, Ching-Hsi (1989) pp. 135] The presence of large objects is frequently indicated through conventions. The stage will almost always have a table and at least one chair, which can be turned through convention into such diverse objects as a city wall, a mountain, or a bed. Peripheral objects will often be used to signify the presence of a larger, main object. For example, a whip is used to indicate a horse and an oar symbolizes a boat. [Wichmann, Elizabeth (1991) p.6]

The length and internal structure of Beijing opera plays is highly variable. Prior to 1949, "zhezixi", short plays or plays made up of short scenes from longer plays, were often performed. These plays usually center on one simple situation or feature a selection of scenes designed to include all four of the main Beijing opera skills and showcase the virtuosity of the performers. This format has become less prevalent in recent times, but plays of one act are still performed. These short works, as well as individual scenes within longer works, are marked by an emotional progression from the beginning of the play to the end. For example, the concubine in the one act play "The Favorite Concubine Becomes Intoxicated" begins in a state of joy, and then moves to anger and jealousy, drunken playfulness, and finally to a feeling of defeat and resignation. A full-length play usually has from six to fifteen or more scenes. The overall story in these longer works is told through contrasting scenes. Plays will alternate between civil and martial scenes, or scenes involve protagonists and antagonists. There are several major scenes within the work that follow the pattern of emotional progression. It is these scenes that are usually excerpted for later "zhezixi" productions. Some of the most complex plays may even have an emotional progression from scene to scene. [Wichmann, Elizabeth (1991) p.18–21]

Due to the scarcity of props in Beijing opera, costumes take on added importance. Costumes function first to distinguish the rank of the character being played. Emperors and their families wear yellow robes, and high ranking officials wear purple. The robe worn by these two classes is called a "mang", or python robe. It is a costume suitable for the high rank of the character, featuring brilliant colors and rich embroidery, often in the design of a dragon. Persons of high rank or virtue wear red, lower ranking officials wear blue, young characters wear white, the old wear white, brown, or olive, and all other men wear black. On formal occasions, lower officials may wear the "kuan yi", a simple gown with patches of embroidery on both the front and back. All other characters, and officials on informal occasions, wear the "chezi", a basic gown with varying levels of embroidery and no jade girdle to denote rank. All three types of gowns have water sleeves, long flowing sleeves that can be flicked and waved like water, attached to facilitate emotive gestures. Tertiary characters of no rank wear simple clothing without embroidery. Hats are intended to blend in with the rest of the costume and will usually have a matching level of embroidery. Shoes may be high or low soled, the former being worn by characters of high rank, and the latter by characters of low rank or acrobatic characters. [Halson, Elizabeth (1966) p.19–38]

Colors in Beijing Opera Masks

The Chinese culture is very fond of using color as a representation of an idea or personality. In the Beijing opera, the actors often paint their faces with various colors and patterns to portray a certain character or role in the opera. All of the different colors are a symbol for different personality traits. For example, white symbolizes slyness, black symbolizes justice, red symbolizes courage, and green symbolizes wildness. All of these colors identify the role of the character with minimal amount of words spoken. The meanings of the colors used in the Chinese culture differ from those used in the Western cultures.

The colors used in the decoration of Beijing Opera masks are also prominent in the portrayal of religious deities. One of the many prominent figures in the Chinese culture, Guan Yu, is often portrayed as a red-faced warrior. From the western point of view, using such a red color on a persons face often symbolizes danger and threat. In fact, the color is most associated with demons and the devil. However, in the Chinese culture, the figure represents loyalty and righteousness. Also, the color red alone, such as in the national flag, represents fortune and luck. Such different perspectives in interpretation and use of colors hint to the differing cultures of the East and the West.

The table below shows what the different colors in the Beijing Opera Masks symbolize. []


The accompaniment for a Beijing opera performance usually consists of a small ensemble of traditional melodic and percussion instruments. The lead melodic instrument is the "jinghu", a small high pitched two string spike fiddle. The second is the circular bodied plucked lute, the "ruan". Percussion instruments include the Daluo, Xiaoluo, and Naobo. The player of the Gu and Ban, a small high pitch drum and clapper, is the conductor of the entire ensemble. [Hsu, Dolores Menstell (1964) pp.451] The two main musical styles of Beijing opera, "Xipi" and "Erhuang", originally differed in subtle ways. In the "Xipi" style, the strings of the jinghu are tuned to the keys of A and D. The melodies in this style are very disjointed, possibly reflecting the style's derivation from the high and loud melodies of the Qinqiang opera of northwestern China. It is commonly used to tell joyous stories. In "Erhuang", on the other hand, the strings are tuned to the keys of C and G. This reflects the low, soft, and despondent folk tunes of south-central Hubei province, the style's place of origin. As a result, it is used for lyrical stories. Both musical styles have a standard meter of two beats per bar. The two musical styles share six different tempos, including "manban" (a slow tempo), "yuanban" (a standard, medium-fast tempo), "kuai sanyan" ("leading beat"), "daoban" ("leading beat"), "sanban" ("rubato beat"), and "yaoban" ("shaking beat"). The "xipi" style also utilizes several unique tempos, including "erliu" ("two-six"), and "kuaiban" (a fast tempo). Of these tempos, "yuanban", "manban", and "kuaiban" are most commonly seen. The tempo at any given time is controlled by a percussion player who acts as director. [ Huang, Jinpei (1989) pp.154–155 ] "Erhuang" has been seen as more improvisational, and "Xipi" as more tranquil. The lack of defined standards among performance troupes and the passage of time may have made the two styles more similar to each other today. [Hsu, Dolores Menstell (1964) pp.447]

The melodies played by the accompaniment mainly fall into three broad categories. The first is the aria. The arias of Beijing opera can be further divided into those of the "Erhuang" and "Xipi" varieties. An example of an aria is "wawa diao", an aria in the "Xipi" style that is sung by a young Sheng to indicate heightened emotion. [Guy, Nancy A. (1990) pp. 254–259] The second type of melody heard in Beijing opera is the fixed-tune melody, or "qupai". These are instrumental tunes that serve a wider range of purposes than arias. Examples include the "Water Dragon Tune" ("shui long yin"), which generally denotes the arrival of an important person, and "Triple Thrust"("ji san qiang"), which may signal a feast or banquet. [Guy, Nancy A. (1990) pp.256] The final type of musical accompaniment is the percussion pattern. Such patterns provide context to the music in ways similar to the fixed-tune melodies. For example, there are as many as 48 different percussion patterns that accompany stage entrances. Each one identifies the entering character by his or her individual rank and personality. [Guy, Nancy A. (1990) pp.256]


The repertoire of Beijing opera includes nearly 1,400 works. The plays are mostly taken from historical novels or traditional stories about civil, political and military struggles. Early plays were often adaptations from earlier Chinese theatre styles, such as "kunqu." Nearly half of 272 plays listed in 1824 were derived from earlier styles. [Wichmann, Elizabeth (1991) p.12] With such a large number of plays, it is not surprising that many different classification systems have been used over time to sort them. Two traditional methods have existed since Beijing opera first appeared in China. The oldest and most generally used system is to sort plays into civil and martial types. Civil plays focus on the relationships between characters, and feature personal, domestic, and romantic situations. The element of singing is frequently used to express emotion in this type of play. Martial plays feature a greater emphasis on action and combat skill. The two types of play also feature different arrays of performers. Martial plays predominantly feature young sheng, jing, and chou, while civil plays have a greater need for older roles and dan. In addition to being civil or martial, plays are also classified as either "daxi" (serious) or "xiaoxi" (light). The performance elements and performers used in serious and light plays greatly resemble those used in martial and civil plays, respectively. Of course, the aesthetic principle of synthesis frequently leads to the use of these contrasting elements in combination, yielding plays that defy such dichotomous classification. [Wichmann, Elizabeth (1991) p.15–16]

Since 1949, a more detailed classification system has been put into use based on thematic content and the historical period of a play's creation. The first category in this system is "chuantongxi", traditional plays that were in performance prior to 1949. The second category is "xinbian de lishixi", historical plays written after 1949. This type of play was not produced at all during the Cultural Revolution, but is a major focus today. The final category is "xiandaixi", contemporary plays. The subject matter of these plays is taken from the 20th century and beyond. Contemporary productions are also frequently experimental in nature, and may incorporate Western influences. [Wichmann, Elizabeth (1991) p.14–15] In the second half of the 20th century, Western works have increasingly been adapted for Beijing opera. The works of Shakespeare have been especially popular.cite journal | author=Fei, Chunfang Faye, William Huizhu Sun| title=Othello and Beijing Opera: Appropriation As a Two-Way Street| journal=The Drama Review| year=2006| volume=50| issue=1| doi= 10.1162/dram.2006.50.1.120| pages=120–133] The movement to adapt Shakespeare to the stage has encompassed all forms of Chinese theatre.cite journal | author=Zha Peide, Tian Jia| title=Shakespeare in Traditional Chinese Operas (in Shakespeare in China)| journal=Shakespeare Quarterly| year=1988| volume=39| issue=2| pages=204–211 | doi=10.2307/2870631] Beijing opera in particular has seen versions of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "King Lear", among others.cite journal | author=Brockbank, J. Philip| title=Shakespeare Renaissance in China (in Shakespeare in China)| journal=Shakespeare Quarterly| year=1988| volume=39| issue=2| pages=195–204 | doi=10.2307/2870630]


Beijing opera and its stylistic devices have appeared in many Chinese films. It often was used to signify a unique "Chineseness" in contrast to sense of culture being presented in Japanese films. Fei Mu, a director of the pre-Communist era, utilized Beijing opera in a number of plays, sometimes within "Westernized", realistic plots. King Hu, a later Chinese film director, utilized many of the formal norms of Beijing opera in his films, such as the parallelism between music, voice, and gesture. cite journal|title=Questions of Chinese Aesthetics: Film Form and Narrative Space in the Cinema of King Hu|journal=Cinema Journal|date=Autumn, 1998|first=Héctor|last=Rodríguez|coauthors=|volume=38|issue=1|pages=73–97|id= |url=|format=|accessdate=2007-11-10|month=Nov|year=1998|doi=10.2307/1225736 ] In the 1993 film "Farewell My Concubine", by Chen Kaige, Beijing opera serves as the object of pursuit for the protagonists and a backdrop for their romance. However, the film's portrayal of Beijing opera has been criticized as one-dimensional. cite journal|title="Farewell My Concubine": History, Melodrama, and Ideology in Contemporary Pan-Chinese Cinema|journal=Film Quarterly|date=Autumn, 1995|first=Jenny|last=Kwok Wah Lau|coauthors=|volume=49|issue=1|pages=22–23|id= |url=|format=|accessdate=2007-11-10 ] Beijing opera is also featured in "Peking Opera Blues" by Tsui Hark.

Beijing opera houses in Beijing

Fundamental to the performance and overall ambience of traditional Beijing opera is the venue. There are many restored venues in Beijing dating from the late 17th century onwards, the opera stage at Prince Gong Mansion, Zhengyici-xi-lou and Huguang Guild Hall, being among them. However, modern venues for the general operatic and theatre stage are also common, such as the National Centre for the Performing Arts, and the Chang'an Grand Theatre located on the East Chang'an Avenue is an example of modern Beijing opera theatre.

ee also

* Chinese opera
** Cantonese opera
** Huangmei opera
** Kunqu
** Min Opera
** Qinqiang
** Shaoxing opera
* Yunbai
* China National Peking Opera Company
* Zheng Yici Peking Opera Theatre


External links

* [ Video about the Beijing Opera]
* [ Peking Opera introduction on Beijing Municipal Government website]
* [ Beijing Opera introduction]
* [ Chinese Opera Mask]
* [ Gallery]
* [ Beijing Opera performance archives of the Beijing Opera Troupe]

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