19th century Chinese opera.

Demonstration of an athletic jump, common in many forms of Chinese Opera.

Chinese opera is a popular form of drama in China. In general, it dates back to the Tang Dynasty with Emperor Xuanzong (712-755), who founded the "Pear Garden" (梨園), the first known opera troupe in China. The troupe mostly performed for the emperors' personal pleasure. To this day operatic professionals are still referred to as "Disciples of the Pear Garden" (梨園弟子). In the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), forms like the Zaju (雜劇, variety plays), which acts based on rhyming schemes plus the innovation of having specialized roles like "Dan" (旦, female), "Sheng" (生, male), "Hua" (花, painted-face) and "Chou" (丑, clown) were introduced into the opera. The dominant form of the Ming and early Qing dynasties was Kunqu, which came from the Wu cultural area, and evolved a longer form of play called chuanqi. Chinese operas continue to exist in 368 different forms now, the best known of which is Beijing opera, which assumed its present form in the mid-19th century and was extremely popular in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

In Beijing opera, traditional Chinese string and percussion instruments provide a strong rhythmic accompaniment to the acting. The acting is based on allusion: gestures, footwork, and other body movements express such actions as riding a horse, rowing a boat, or opening a door. Spoken dialogue is divided into recitative and Beijing colloquial speech, the former employed by serious characters and the latter by young females and clowns. Character roles are strictly defined. Elaborate make-up designs portray which character is acting. The traditional repertoire of Beijing opera includes more than 1,000 works, mostly taken from historical novels about political and military struggles.

Modern Developments

Opera Costumes.

In traditional Chinese theater, no plays were performed in the vernacular Chinese or without singing. But at the turn of the 20th century, Chinese students returning from abroad began to experiment with Western plays. Following the May Fourth Movement of 1919, a number of Western plays were staged in China, and Chinese playwrights began to imitate this form. The most notable of the new-style playwrights was Cao Yu (b. 1910). His major works- "Thunderstorm," "Sunrise," "Wilderness," and "Peking Man"- written between 1934 and 1940, have been widely read in China.

In the 1930s, theatrical productions performed by traveling Red Army cultural troupes in Communist- controlled areas were consciously used to promote party goals and political philosophy. By the 1940s theater was well established in the Communist controlled areas.

Opera in the People's Republic of China

A scene from The Red Detachment of Women. One of the many operas produced during the Cultural Revolution.

In the early years of the People's Republic of China, the development of Beijing opera was encouraged; many new operas on historical and modern themes were written, and earlier operas continued to be performed. As a popular art form, opera has usually been the first of the arts to reflect changes in Chinese policy. In the mid-1950s, for example, it was the first to benefit under the Hundred Flowers Campaign. Similarly, the attack in November 1965 on Beijing deputy mayor Wu Han and his historical play, "Hai Rui's Dismissal from Office," signaled the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. During the Cultural Revolution, most opera troupes were disbanded, performers and scriptwriters were persecuted, and all operas except the eight "model operas" approved by Jiang Qing and her associates were banned. Western-style plays were condemned as "dead drama" and "poisonous weeds" and were not performed. After the fall of the Gang of Four in 1976, Beijing Opera enjoyed a revival and continued to be a very popular form of entertainment both in theaters and on television.

Following the Cultural Revolution, Western-style theater experienced a revival. Many new works appeared, and revised and banned plays from China and abroad were reinstated in the national repertoire. Many of the new plays strained at the limits of creative freedom and were alternately commended and condemned, depending on the political atmosphere. One of the most outspoken of the new breed of playwrights was Sha Yexin. His controversial play "The Imposter," which dealt harshly with the favoritism and perquisites accorded party members, was first produced in 1979. In early 1980 the play was roundly criticized by Secretary General Hu Yaobang - the first public intervention in the arts since the Cultural Revolution. In the campaign against bourgeois liberalism in 1981 and the anti-spiritual pollution campaign in 1983, Sha and his works were again criticized. Through it all Sha continued to write for the stage and to defend himself and his works in the press. In late 1985 Sha Yexin was accepted into the Chinese Communist Party and appointed head of the Shanghai People's Art Theater, where he continued to produce controversial plays. Since then, he has again fallen into disfavor.

Different Branches

  • Northern Branches
    • Henan Opera (Henan)
    • Qinqiang- Qin Opera (Shaanxi)
    • Beijing Opera
  • Southern Branches
    • Wu Culture (Suzhou, Shanghai and surrounding area)
      • Kunqu
      • Suzhou Opera
      • Ballad-Sing
      • Yue Opera
    • Huaguxi
      • Hunanese Opera
    • QuanZhou
      • GaoJia Opera
      • Liyuan Opera
      • Puppet Opera.
    • PuTian
      • PuXian Opera
    • FuZhou
      • Min Opera
  • Others
    • Clapper Opera
    • Pingju
    • Cantonese Opera
    • Anhui Opera
    • Sichuan Opera
    • Huanglong Opera
    • Xincheng Opera
    • Jilin Opera
    • Errenzhuan (Bangzixi or Benbeng Opera)
    • Huangmei Opera
    • Qu Opera
    • Jiangxi Opera
    • Ritual Masked Opera
    • Huangmeixi


Entertainment :: Chinese Opera

Introduction | Beijing Opera | Cantonese Opera




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