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Bejing Opera

Beijing Opera (or Peking Opera) has existed for over 200 years. It is widely regarded as the highest expression of the Chinese culture. It is known as one of the three main theatrical systems in the world. Artistically, Beijing Opera is perhaps the most refined form of opera in the world. It has deeply influenced the hearts of the Chinese people. Although it is called Beijing Opera, its origins are not in Beijing but in the Chinese provinces of Anhui and Hubei. Beijing Opera got its two main melodies, Xi_Pi and Er_Huang, from Anhui and Hubei operas. It then absorbed music and arias from other operas and musical arts in China.

Beijing opera which can best represent Chinese naTion and plays an important part in world art field. There’re beautiful and unique music for voice and dance in it, combined with Chinese kongfu. The refined tune pattern and traditional word pronunciation make the lines musical. The characters are divided into five categories-Sheng (male lead), Dan(female character type), Mo(middle-aged male actor), Jing(character with painted facial make-up) and Chou(clown character), according to the distinction between male and female, young and elder, pretty and ugly, just and evil. Besides, there’re astonishing patterns of make-up and splendid costumes and head wears. Often a costume is a rare art piece.


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 royal family and came into the public later. In 1828, some famous Hubei Troupe players came to Beijing. Hubei and Anhui troupes often jointly performed in the stage. The combination gradually formed the mainstream of Beijing Opera's melodies. One of the rare forms of entertainment, it was favored by people from all walks of the society, from the high-ranking government officials to the lower levels of society. There are thousands of pieces covering the entire history and literature of China, even including revised stories from the west.

There are as many kinds of Chinese Opera as there are dialects. It has been estimated that there are thousands branches of Chinese Opera. Most of them are local, dominating a region within a province and its surrounding area. However, Beijing Opera is the national standard, and has a higher reputation than any of the other branches of Chinese Opera. Almost every province of China has more than one Beijing Opera troupe. Beijing and Tianjin are respected as the key base cities in the north while Shanghai is the base in the south.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Beijing Opera suffered along  with other kinds of theatrical arts in China. All the traditional pieces reflecting the Old Societies were banned from performance. The famous Eight Model Plays, featuring the communist activities during the anti-Japanese war and the civil war with the Nationalists, as well as the class struggles after the founding of the People's Republic, were then developed. Many outstanding Beijing Opera and Kunqu Opera actors and actresses performed in these operas. Although "Class Struggle" was the theme of most of these plays, these plays introduced some new forms of stage performances. Many people who grew up during the Cultural Revelution are still in favor of the music and singing from the Eight Model Plays.

Traditional Beijing Opera was allowed to be shown again in 1978. But due to the threat from other entertainments, Beijing Opera's out-of-date styles and the lack of historical and theatrical knowledge of the young, this art had lost a lot of its audiences. Most of the audiences are old people, who were children when Beijing Opera was at its peak. The art is dying.

There have been campaigns and efforts to rescue this and other theatrical arts. The Chinese Opera journal has sponsored the annual Plum Blossom Award for more than ten years. Each year, the journal invites dozens of opera and drama players to perform in a Beijing theater. The award goes to those who top the poll conducted by the journal. Winners, who must be younger than 45, include actors and actresses from all around China. A Plum Blossom Chinese painting was selected as the Award's offical logo. Other performance competitions among the young actors and actresses have been screened live and aired in China Central Television (CCTV), the largest TV network in China, and national radio stations. A so called Beijing Opera Month just finished lately in Beijing.

Peking opera of China is a national treasure, which dates back to the year 1790. That year four local opera troupes of Anhui Province came to Beijing on a performance tour on the order of the imperial court. The tour was a hit and the troupes stayed. The artists absorbed the tunes of the Hubei local opera and drew on the best of Kun Qu, Qin Qiang and Bang Zi and other local operas.



There is no lacking of social celebrities among Peking opera fans. Emperor Guang Xu of Qing Dynasty, for example, was not only a good amateur Peking opera singer, but was also a good drummer in the Peking opera orchestra (the drummer plays the role of the director of the orchestra). The Empress Dowager was an avid Peking opera fan, too. The huge three-storey theater in the Summer Palace is a proof of her love for Peking opera.

With a history of over 200 years, Beijing Opera, which originated in Beijing, is the operatic form commanding the biggest following. It combines acting, dialogue, singing, music, dancing and acrobatics, and its roles can be classified in four categories: sheng, dan, jing and chou. In acting and acrobatics, different roles follow different patterns, all rather exaggerated, suggestive and symbolic. The actions of opening a door, going up the stairs, rowing a boat or climbing a hill, for instance, are done purely through the mime-like movements of the actors without the help of props.

The costumes in Peking opera are graceful, magnificent, elegant and brilliant, most of which are made in handicraft embroidery. As the traditional Chinese pattern is adopted, the costumes are of a high aesthetic value.

The outstanding Beijing Opera actor Mei Lanfang (1894--1961) was a great artist who excelled in singing, recitation and dancing and had a fine understanding of music, costumes and make-up. This creative actor formed a school of his own which has been very influential in the Contemporary operatic field. His masterpieces include A Woman Feigning Madness, The Drunken Beauty and The King Bids Farewell to His Concubine. Among other well-known Beijing Opera actors are Cheng Yanqiu, Ma Lianliang, Zhou Xinfang and Zhang Junqiu.

Since Mei Lanfang, the grand master of Peking opera, visited Japan in 1919, Peking opera has become more and more popular with people all over the world, and it has made an excellent contribution to cultural exchange between China and the West, to friendly association and to improvement of solidarity.

Peking Opera house of Beijing has been invited to perform in U.S.A., England, France, Germany, Italy (three times), Australia, Japan (four times), Brazil, Turkey, Singapore, South Korea and Hongkong (five times). The performances have made an outstanding contribution to Sino-foreign cultural exchange and to the promotion of friendly association of peoples in the world, and were highly appreciated by foreign audiences.

Peking Opera house of Beijing is willing to participate in activities of international cultural exchange and of commercial performances and sincerely hopes that friends in various countries will make contacts with us about cultural exchange and performances.




Facial Makeup��s Represent Different Characters

For the painted role, the different colors of the faces represent different characters and personality. Yellow and white represent cunning, red stands for uprightness and loyalty, black means valor and wisdom, blue and green indicate the vigorous and enterprising character of rebellious heroes and gold and silver represent mystic or super-natural power.

A plastic art peculiar to the Chinese stage, the facial makeups are various designs of lines and colored patches painted on the faces of certain operatic characters. They follow traditionally fixed patterns for specific types to highlight the disposition and quality in the personages so that the audience may immediately know whether they are heroes or villains, whether they are kind or treacherous and wicked. The following describes briefly the major categories of facial makeups:
The red face shows bravery, uprightness and loyalty. A typical "red face" is Guan Yu, general of the period of the Three Kingdoms (220-280), famed for his faithfulness to his Emperor, Liu Bei.

The reddish purple face likewise shows a just and noble character, for instance, Lian Po in the well-known play Jiang Xiang He (The General Reconciled with the Chief Minister), in which General Lian was proud and impetuous and quarrelled with the chief minister to whom he was ultimately reconciled.

The black face indicates either a rough and bold character or an impartial and selfless personality. Typical of the former are General Zhang Fei (of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms) and Li Kui (of Water Margin), and of the latter is Bao Gong (alias Bao Zheng), the semi-legendary fearless and impartial judge of the Song Dynasty.

Commonly seen on the stage is the white face for the powerful villain. It highlights all that is bad in human nature: cunning, craftiness, and treachery. Typical characters are Cao Cao, powerful and cruel prime minister in the time of the Three Kingdoms, and Qin Hui, treacherous Song Dynasty prime minister who put the national hero Yue Fei to death.

All the above facial makeups belong to a category of characters collectively called Jing--all males with pronounced personal traits.

For the clowns of traditional drama, there is a special makeup called Xiaohualian (the petty painted face), i.e., a small patch of chalk on and around the nose to show a mean and secretive character, such as Jiang Gan of the Three Kingdoms who fawned upon Cao Cao. It is also occasionally painted on a young page or an ordinary workingman, often to enhance his wit, humor or jesting and to enliven up the performance.

Another type of players, called "acrobatic clowns" (wuchou), are also touched up with a tiny patch of white on the tip of the nose to show an astute mind, a keen and quick wit. Several of the stage heroes from the novel Water Margin are made up in this way.

The facial makeups date a long time back to the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties at least. Simple patterns of painted faces are found in tomb murals of that age. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), improvements were made in the skills of drawing and in preparing the paints, leading to the whole set of colorful facial patterns that we see in today's Peking Opera.

The repertoire of Peking opera is mainly engaged in fairy tales of preceding dynasties, important historical events, emperors, ministers and generals, geniuses and great beauties, from the ancient times to Yao, Shun, Yu, the Spring and Autumn Period, the Warring States Period and the dynasties of Qin, Han, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, Qing. The widely well-known repertoires are Drunken Beauty, The King Says Farewell to His Concubine, The Universe Summit, etc.

The music of Peking opera is that of the "plate and cavity style��. Its melody with harmonious rhythms is graceful and pleasing to the ears. The melody may be classified into two groups: "Xipi" and "erhong", guiding pattern, original pattern, slow pattern, quick pattern, desultory pattern being their chief patterns.

The performance is accompanied by a tune played on wind instruments, percussion instruments and stringed instruments, the chief musical instruments being jinghu (a two-stringed bowed instrument with a high register), yueqin (a four-stringed plucked instrument with a full-moon-shaped sound box), Sanxian (a three-stringed plucked instrument), suona horn, flute drum, big-gong, cymbals, small-gong, etc.


Actually, "piao you" means Peking opera fans, "piao fang" means the place where fans meet to amuse themselves and "xia hai" means turning professional. When you come across with a small group of Peking opera fans singing in a street corner, that corner can be considered a "street piao fang".

"Sheng, Dan, Jing, Chou," for instance, are just the terms for four different types of roles. Every type has its telltale facial makeup and decoration.

The ten Chinese characters shown on left probably says everything about the roles in Beijing Opera. The top five characters list the five role categories. The rest tells what roles appear in the plays, from the powerful supernatural beings to animals like tigers and dogs. There are currently four main role categories in Beijing Opera. They are:

Male Role (Sheng)
Female Role (Dan)
 Painted Face Male (Jing)
  Comedy Actor or Clown (Chou)


Any role in these categories or sub-categories can be the leading role in a play. Except the second category, the other three categories are for male characters.

As for why the role categories take the names of Sheng, Dan, Jing and Chou, here is an explanation. It is said that they were chosen to mean the opposite. Sheng in Chinese may mean "strange" or "rare", but the chief male is a character of most seen. Dan, which means "morning", "masculine", is in controversy with the feminine nature of the characters. Jing means "clean". In fact, the paintings on face make the characters look like unclean but colorful. And Chou in Chinese sometime represents the animal "Cow", which, in some aspects, is slow and tardy. In contrast, Chou characters are usually active and quick.

Sheng -- Male Role:

Sheng has some sub-categories, including Senior, Junior, Acrobatic, Junior Acrobatic, Child, Red-face, Poor, Official, etc. These are classified according to the role's characteristics. Male roles are either civil or military. The actors themselves are mainly trained for three main parts: Senior Male Role or Lao Sheng, a middle-aged or old man who wears a beard, Junior Male Role or Xiao Sheng, a young man; and Acrobatic Male Role or Wu Sheng, a man of military tenor, especially skilled in acrobatics.

Lao Sheng     actors are required to attain the dignity of bearing and gentle, polished manners of the middle-aged mandarin official or scholar; in military plays they may be a general or high-ranking officer of a gentler and more cultivated disposition than of the painted faces. Their apparel accordingly is of good quality but not too garish in its design or color. A Lao Sheng has a black or white beard, depending on his age, and wears a black hat with two fins on either side, which vary in shape according to his rank in a civil role. When a military role is played, the costume is quieter and of a more uniform color than those of the warriors in the painted-face roles, but the Armour is also worn. A Lao Sheng's voice is soft and pleasant to listen to, neither too harsh nor too high pitched, but gentle and firm. Minor officials or landowners who have attained a small degree of responsibility are also included in this role.

The red face Lao Sheng, or Hong Sheng has only two roles. One of such a role is Guan Gong who is regarded as the God of War. He is greatly revered and respected. Guan Gong is one of the heroes of the Chinese classical novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The other Hong Sheng role is Zhao Kuang-Yin, the first Song Dynasty Emperor.

The junior male or Xiao Sheng requires of its actor the distinguishing feature of a shrill and high-pitched voice to indicate his youth. The part is extremely difficult to sing, and when the actor is speaking his voice must suddenly drop from its high-pitched quality to indicate the voice-breaking period of adolescence. The Xiao Sheng is usually small and slight of stature, and his clothes are often quite elaborate if a young man of society or a young warrior is being represented, but can be subdued if they are those of an impoverished scholar. The young warrior can often be distinguished by his long pheasant feathers, which rise in sweeping curves from his hat. No beard is worn for this part.

Wu Sheng actors are mainly acrobats, although they sometimes have a part, which requires much acting. They play any part in military or civil plays, which requires high-level acrobats. The skill of these actors is demonstrated in the fighting scenes, which take on a stylized form in Beijing opera, and also in scenes from legendary stories when immortals and devils tumble and twist about the stage showing off feats of skill. In military plays, swords and spears are wielded deftly and quickly without the attacker actually touching his opponent. These movements require great precision in timing, and the actor ducks and twists his body, often turning somersaults at same time. If he is a young military officer, the Wu Sheng  will also have pheasant feathers in his hat, and four small flags or pennants strapped to his back and high-soled boots, all of which make his acrobatic feats even more spectacular. His costume is often bright in color, especially in the legendary plays. A Wu Sheng actor is not trained as highly in singing, for acting and acrobatics are his outstanding feature, but he has a pleasant voice, slightly stronger than Lao Sheng but rather quiet in pitch, and he sings with a natural voice.

Dan -- Female Role:

The Dan or female role can be divided into six main parts which principally indicate character; Qing Yi, modest and virtuous; Hua dan, flirtatious; Gui Men Dan, a young unmarried girl; Dao Ma Dan, a stronger, more forceful character, usually a woman general; Wu Dan, the female acrobat; and Lao Dan, an old woman.

A Qing Yi actress portrays a lady of good and sympathetic character. Usually of a quiet, gentle disposition and graceful in her movements, she is the Chinese ideal of a beautiful woman. As a wife she is faithful, as a young girl a model of propriety. Her good breeding is shown by the graceful, flowing movements of her 'water sleeves'. The Qing Yi's costume is elegant, simple and of good quality, but not as vivid in color as that of the Hua Dan. Her singing is in a pure, high-pitched voice.

For a Hua Dan actress, the flirtatious personality of a young girl is required. Usually not of such a high social standing as the Qing Yi, the Hua Dan actress with her coy, coquettish and generally quicker movements arrests the attention of the audience. This is a difficult part to play successfully. The Hua Dan's facial expression is continually changing and her mischievous eye movements are particularly attractive. Because of her lower social status, more hand movements are required, as in olden times it was not considered polite for a well-bred Chinese lady to show her hands. Costume, usually vivid in design and color, consists of a jacket and trousers, and a red or colored handkerchief is carried to flutter in the actress's hand. Her character, needless to say, is not as virtuous as that of the Qing Yi and therefore her singing voice has a gayer and slightly stronger quality. She also has to do more speaking than singing.

A Gui Men Dan is the young, unmarried girl, who in later life will develop into a Qing Yi or a Hua Dan; her immaturity is clearly shown in her naughty and slightly mischievous actions. She has not the confidence of the Hua Dan, although her schemes and plans are often just as successful.

A Dao Ma Dan plays the part of the female warrior. She is trained mainly for acting and singing and performs many skillful movements especially with the pheasant feathers in her headdress and her military weapons. She still retains feminine charm, however, and a very versatile actress is required for this role. Her parts, such as that of Mu Gui Ying, are of the heroines in Chinese history who were famed for their military prowess. A Dao Ma Dan's clothes can be very elaborate, as she wears the four pennants strapped to her back.

A Wu Dan is the female acrobatic role and the Wu Dan actress steps into or takes any female role that requires a high degree of acrobatics. She is not only a purely acrobat but demands a talented actress for a successful performance.

A Lao Dan is simply an old woman, but great skill is required for this specialized part. The Lao Dan actress cleverly portrays in her bent back and faltering but dignified movements. She is often seen carrying a staff. Unlike the other female roles, the Lao Dan wears no make-up and her costume is more subdued in color and design. Her voice tends to be slightly deeper, because the natural voice is used, not the forced high-pitched one used by other Dan roles.


Jing -- Painted Face Male:

To see a Jing actor for the first time is a startling experience for the spectator. This part is more noted for courage and resourcefulness than for scholarly intelligence. Often playing the part of a high-ranking army general, the Jing actor with his painted face can also be seen as a warrior or official. His robust, gruff, bass voice and grotesquely painted face together with his swaggering self-assertive manner all combine to make him the most forceful personality in most scenes in which he appears. Jing actors are usually, in fact, extroverts. The general rule for the basic color is: red for good, white for treacherous, black for brusque, and blue for wild, i.e. a bandit would have a blue face. All Jing actors wear a heavy, ornate costume and a head dress with a padded jacket underneath to enhance the effect, They can be divided into three main types: Dong-Chui, better known as Hei Tou (black face), who is good at singing and usually a loyal general; Jia Zi, who is good at acting, and generally a more complicated character; and Wu Jing, who is mainly proficient in fighting and acrobatics and seldom plays a very prominent role.

Chou -- The Comedy Role:

Lastly there is the Chou or comedy actor who generally plays the role of a dim but likeable and amusing character with blinking eyes and all the appropriate gestures. Sometimes the Chou can be a rascal, with a slightly wicked nature. Alternatively a scholar or prince--an eccentric or representing the sort of a scholar or prince who would not command much respect. Chou parts can be divided into two types: Wen Chou, who is usually a civilian, such as a jailer, servant, merchant or scholar; and Wu Chou, who performs minor military roles as a soldier and must be skilled in acrobatics. His costume is either elaborate or fussy if of high social standing, but simple if of a low standing.

Mention must be made of the Monkey King who has a special place in the hearts of all who are interested in Chinese opera. Played by an exceptionally talented Wu Sheng actor, the Monkey King holds every minute of the audience's attention with the quick, agile movements of his lithe body, and his blinking eyes.
He is traditionally supposed to have accompanied a Buddhist monk who went on a long journey across the mountains from China to India to collect the Buddhist scriptures and bring them back to China. The Monk's legendary companions on this journey are a pig (to provide the humor), a not so learned monk, supposed to represent a shark spirit, to mediate in quarrels, and the Monkey King, who possesses special supernatural powers to combat evil spirits encountered on the way. The Monkey King's costume is bright yellow in color and consists of a voluminous jacket and baggy trousers to enable him to perform his movements with ease and grace. He mimics a monkey the whole time, with his knees always bent and his hands held dangling in front of him, occasionally even scratching he. His eyes have a mischievous twinkle in them as they blink at the audience.


The Monkey King also has a troupe of monkeys who behave in the same manner, but all have their own characteristics--one is greedy, one naughty, one sleepy, etc.--and their skilful acrobatics and movements are a continual source of delight and object of affection for the audience.

Many foreign tourists like to see Beijing Opera, but most of them don't undertand the plot very well. Some of the stories are interesting and easy to understand while others are profound and involved. So they may get bored with lengthy vocal sections. Actually even for Beijingers, it can be hard to follow and they may have difficulty understanding the dialects during the play. Anyway, you may get help from the electronic subtitles. In Liyuan Opera House, they provide English electronic subtitles.

If you can see one of the following interesting plays, you will surely be pleased.

The Crossroads:Two itinerant heroes meet in an inn, misunderstand each other and fight in the dark. The action is funny and acrobatic.

Fight in the Dragon Palace: This story comes from a famous novel. The Monkey King is looking for a handy weapon and comes down into the sea. He finally gets an iron cudgel after making a mess of the Dragon Palace

Stealing Immortal Herbs :

 It is an episode of a Chinese tale "The Romance of the White Snake". Xuxian and Bai Suzhen (White Snake) fall in love. The major monk of Jinshan Temple tells Xuxian that Bai Suzhen is a snake. Xuxian takes his advice and lets Bai Suzhen drink wine in order to make her turn to a snake. She really becomes a snake. Xuxian is scared to the point of death. 

Bai Suzhen loves him so much that she makes her way to the mountains to get the immortal herb which can save Xuxian's life, but the guardians of the mountain refuse to give the herb to her. The guardians fight with Bai Suzhen and are impressed with her prowess, and she manages to steal the needed herbs.

Picking up the Jade Bracelet : This is a love story. A young scholar, Fu, meets a beautiful young lady and he loves her at first sight. He deliberately drops a jade bracelet on the ground and then leaves. If the lady picks it up, she is accepting his suit.

Eighteen warriors (arhats) fighting Wukong ޺: This is an adaptation of a chapter from a classical novel. Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, is making havoc in the heavenly palace with his mischievous tricks. He is captured and thrown into the Eight Trigram Furnace. Instead of being burnt to ashes, his body is tempered by the heat; and he develops a pair of fiery eyes with golden pupils. He breaks out of the furnace and fights his way out of the palace. The Jade Emperor asks the Buddha to conquer him. The Buddha leads his disciples, eighteen warriors to fight against Sun Wukong in a spectacular acrobatic battle. In the end, Sun Wukong kicks them all off Huaguo Mountain.

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