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-CHINESE OPERA-
 

Beijing Opera

Contents


Introduction

Beijing opera or Peking opera (Simplified Chinese: 京剧; Traditional Chinese: 京劇; Pinyin: Jīngj) is a kind of Chinese opera which arose in the mid-19th century and was extremely popular in the Qing Dynasty court. It is widely regarded as one of the cultural treasures of China. Beijing and Tianjin are respected as the base cities of Beijing opera in the north while Shanghai is the base in the south.

With its fascinating and artistic accompanying music, singing and costumes, the Beijing Opera is China's national opera. Full of Chinese cultural facts, the opera presents the audience with an encyclopedia of Chinese culture, as well as unfolding stories, beautiful paintings, exquisite costumes, graceful gestures and martial arts. Since Beijing Opera enjoys a higher reputation than other local operas, almost every province in China has more than one Beijing Opera troupe. Opera is so popular among Chinese people, especially seniors, that even "Beijing Opera Month" has been declared.

The Peking Opera band mainly consists of an orchestra and percussion band. The former frequently accompanies peaceful scenes while the latter provides the right atmosphere for battle scenes. The commonly used percussion instruments include castanets, drums, bells and cymbals. One person usually plays the castanets and drum simultaneously, which conduct the entire band. The orchestral instruments include the Erhu, Huqin, Yueqin, Sheng (reed pipe), Pipa (lute) and other instruments. The band usually sits on the left side of the stage.


Visual

Beijing Opera picture from the Huguang Guild Hall, 2001. Photographs by Ian Sewell

Beijing Opera production. See details below.

Lead performers - the general desires the princess as a bride Retinue looks on knowing the warrior princess loves another

 


History

Lead performer from the Huguang Guild Hall, 2001. Photograph by Ian Sewell

Beijing Opera has a 200-year-long history. Its main melodies originated from Xipi and Erhuang in Anhui and Hubei respectively and, over time, absorbed music and arias from other operas and musical arts such as the historic Qinqiang as well as being very strongly influenced by Kunqu, the form that preceded it as court art. Techniques from many other local operas were incorporated into Beijing Opera.

Dialogue is carried out in an archaic dialect originating partially from those regions.

It is believed that Beijing Opera gradually came into being after 1790 when the famous four Anhui opera troupes came to Beijing. Beijing Opera underwent fast development during the reign of Emperor Qianlong and the notorious Empress Dowager Cixi under the imperial patron, eventually becoming more accessible to the common people.

In ancient times, Beijing Opera was performed mostly on stage in the open air, teahouses or temple courtyards. Since the orchestra played loudly, the performers developed a piercing style of song that could be heard by everyone. The costumes were a garish collection of sharply contrasting colors to stand out on the dim stage illuminated only by oil lamps. Beijing Opera is a harmonious combination of the Grand Opera, ballet and acrobatics, consisting of dance, dialogue, monologues, martial arts and mime.

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.


Roles

There are four roles in Beijing Opera.

The roles in Beijing Opera fall into four categories- Sheng, Dan, Jing and Chou. These roles have the natural features of age and sex, as well as social status, and are artificially exaggerated by makeup, costume and gestures. All but the second portray a male or masculine character. Until recently, even that of the female or feminine character was played by a male actor.


Sheng (生, Male role)

Sheng, a male role, usually a leading one, dates back to Southern Drama of the Song and Yuan Dynasties (960- 1368). This role appears in operas in all historical periods. According to the age and social status of the characters, Sheng falls into five sub-groups: Laosheng, Xiaosheng, Wusheng, Hongsheng and Wawasheng (characters of children).

Laosheng is also known as Xusheng, meaning bearded men, because the actors wear artificial beards, and they are middle-aged or elderly men. Most are upright and resolute characters. They sing in their natural voices, and their actions are serious ones.

Xiaosheng is a sub-category of Sheng representing young male characters. They don't wear artificial beards. They always sing in their real voices, while in Kunqu and Pihuang operas the singing mixes natural and falsetto voices.

Wusheng stands for all of the male characters who appear in battle scenes. They are further subdivided into Changkao Wuheng, Duanda Wusheng, Goulian Wusheng and Houxi Wusheng. They always wear helmets and thick-soled boots. The generals always carry long pikes. Wusheng roles call for sturdy and vigorous actions, with resounding declamations. The movements of the waist and legs are powerful, and a high level of martial arts skills is demanded in these roles. Duanda Wusheng roles use short-handled weapons, and their movements are light and swift.


Dan (旦, Female role)

Dan is the general term in Peking Opera for female roles. As early as in the Song Dynasty (960- 1279), the Zhuangdan role appeared. Southern Drama and Northern Zaju, which developed during the Song and Yuan Dynasties (960- 1368), also had Dan roles. After Kunqu matured, it had Zhengdan, Xiaodan, Tidan and Laodan. Later, more Dan types were developed. Nowadays, the Dan roles are subdivided into Zhengdan (or Qingyi), Huadan, Wudan, Laodan and Caidan, in accordance with age, characteristics and social positions of the roles.

Zhengdan role was the main Dan role in the Northern Zaju. Zhengdan refers to young or middle-aged women with gentle and refined dispositions. Most of Zhengdan 's lines are delivered in song, and even the spoken parts are recited in rhythmic style. Always dressed in a blue gown, Zhengdan is also called Qingyi (blue clothes).

Huadan is a role for a vivacious maiden, a young woman with a frank and open personality, or a woman of questionable character.

Wudan refers to female characters skilled in the martial arts and can be subdivided into Daomadan and Wudan, according to the social positions and skills represented. Daomadan is good at using pikes and spears, and at riding horses. Wudan always wears short robes and the role emphasizes acrobatics. Wudan plays gods and ghosts and has excellent fighting skills.

Laodan usually represents aged women. He/She sings in their natural voices, in a style similar to that of Laosheng but in milder tones. In some types of opera, Laodan is called Fudan or Bodan.

Caidan, also called Choudan, represents clownish and cunning females. The performance of this part calls for exuberance.


Jing (净, Painted face male role)

Jing refers to painted-face roles, known popularly as Hualian. The different colors and designs on the faces represent males with different characteristics. Some are bold and vigorous and some are sinister, ruthless, crude and rash. The voice is loud and clear, and the movements are exaggerated.

The Jing role originates from the Fujing role of the Song Zaju. The Jing roles gradually increased in number, and became further divided into several groups, according to the different social positions and characters of the roles.

Dahualian with a fully painted face is known as Zheng Jing. The roles represent men of high social standing and good behavior, often court ministers. Zheng Jing sings in vigorous and sturdy tones.

Erhualian, also known as Fu Jing, has powerful bodily movements and sturdy singing voices. Some roles in this group represent rascally ministers, recognizable by their white faces.

Wu'er Hualian is also known as Wu Jing. This role is more physical than most of the others, with little singing or reciting.

You Hualian, also known as Mao Jing, is a clownish role. Some of You Hualian roles have special skills, such as spouting fire from the mouth or baring the teeth.


Chou (丑, Clown role)

The Chou is one of the main roles in Peking Opera. The eyes and nose are surrounded by a white patch, so Chou is also known as Xiao Hua Lian (partly painted face).

The Chou roles originated in Southern Drama of the Song and Yuan dynasties (960-1368) and appear in various kinds of operas. They portray various kinds of characters, some are warm-hearted, simple and sincere, and some are sinister and mean.

In modern operas, the performance of Chou roles has developed rapidly, and different operas have their own styles. In general, the Chou roles do not focus on singing, but the dialogue is clear and fluent. According to the social positions, characters and skills demanded, the Chou roles are divided into two categories: Wenchou (civilian) and Wuchou (martial). Both have their own special features.

Wuchou is also known as Kai Kou Tiao. It requires not only a good command of the martial arts or acrobatics, but also the ability to deliver the lines both clearly and fluently. The movements should be light and powerful.


Explanation of Roles

There is an explanation about why the roles take the names above. It is said that they were chosen to have opposite meanings. Sheng in Chinese may mean "strange" or "rare", but the chief male role is a well known character. Dan, which means "morning" or "masculine", is contrary to the feminine nature of the characters. Jing means "clean", but in fact the paintings on their faces make the characters look unclean but colorful. And Chou in Chinese sometimes represents the animal "ox", which, in some senses, is slow and silent- in contrast, the Chou characters are usually quick and talkative.


Costumes

Costumes are an integral part of the Beijing Opera performance. In the early days, opera costumes were mainly made of wool or coarse cloth; later, satin, crepe and silk were used, decorated with various meticulously embroidered patterns. The making of opera costumes is a special and unique stagecraft. The costume box first appeared in the Ming Dynasty, and was greatly improved in the Qing Dynasty.


Xingtou

Peking Opera costumes are called Xingtou or, more popularly, Xifu in Chinese. The origins of Peking Opera costumes can be traced back to the mid-14th century, when operatic precursors first began experimenting with large ornate articles of clothing.


Rules of Costume Tradition

(1) Anachronisms are allowable. A performer's costume primarily designates his or her role on the stage no matter when or where the action takes place. Characters, whether they are from ancient times or in pre-modern China, appear on the Chinese opera stage wearing costumes suitable to their roles.

(2) Regardless of which season is being depicted in performance, the opera costume is the same. Weather is described in every scene and must be made clear by the actor's movements, rather than his clothing.

(3) Peking Opera costumes must enable the audience to distinguish a character's sex and status at first glance. In terms of symbolism, Peking Opera costumes have its social hierarchy -- noble or humble, civilian or military, official or private citizens.

(4) By means of a subtle difference, opera costumes often give expression to sharp distinctions between good and evil or, preferably, loyal and wicked characters. Oblong Wings (chizi) attached to a gauze hat indicate a loyal official. In contrast, a corrupt official is made to wear a gauze hat with rhomboidal wings.

(5) Baldrics, though apparently of little or no account as compared with such principal items as crowns and robes, may nevertheless function to bring about more dramatic effects on the stage. For instance, the wings attached to a hat, the plumes (lingzi) pinned to a helmet and the cascading sleeves (shuixiu) sewn to a garment accentuate movement even if they have little practical use.


Lavish Costumes

(1) Headdress: Designated by the general term Toukui, opera headdress comprises such items as crown, helmet, hat and scarf. Crowns are for the emperor and nobles; military people wear marshals, helmets; ordinary folks wear soft scarves or straw hats. Some headgear, such as crowns, is rigid, while others are soft.

(2) Costume: There are 20 major kinds of costumes, including the ceremonial robe, or Mang; the informal robe, or Pei; and the armor, or Kao, for soldiers. Ten colors are used, half of which are the five primary colors (or shang wu se), namely, red, green, yellow, white and black, in contrast to the other group of pink, blue, purple, pale-brown and pale-blue, all of which are labeled secondary colors (xia wu se).

Many details should be paid attention to, for example, Mang is the general costume for the emperor and nobles, but there are differences between these costumes. There is a dragon, opening its mouth on the Mang for the emperor, while the dragon on the Mang for the ministers and generals having its mouth closed. The dragons on the costume of the civil officials are gentle and quiet, while the ones on the costume of the martial officials are bold and mighty. There are clear distinctions between the use of colors, for example, the red Mang stands for majestic and noble, the green Mang indicates mighty and bold, the white one fits the handsome young people, and the black one is for the upright and unconstrained people. Besides, there are simplified Mang and Mang specifically made for the female actress, the Laodan, and the palace eunuch.

(3) Opera shoes: A wide variety of shoes and boots are used in opera performance, mainly platform boots (hou di xue), tiger-headed boots (hu tou xue), thin-soled combat footwear made of black satin (kuai xue), fish-head pugilist's shoes, laced boxer's shoes, etc.


Facial Design

Performers have two main methods of makeup: masks and facial painting. The frequent on-stage change of masks, without the audience noticing, is a special technique, known as changing faces. Opera facial painting falls into four categories- personality makeup (facial designs, painted faces or Lian Pu), decorative makeup (decorated faces), mood makeup (changing facial designs), and pictographic makeup (animal-like facial designs).


Lian Pu

Personality makeup, or Lian Pu, refers to facial designs for Jing and Chou roles. It originated from daily life experience, describing such changes of expression as white for fear, red for shyness, dark for suntan, and sallow for illness. Most facial designs attach great importance to the eyes and eyebrows.

Red, yellow, white, black, purple, green and silver are the main colors used for facial designs to represent different characters. For instance, red stands for loyal, courageous and upright people; white for sinister and cunning officials; and golden and silvery colors for gods and ghosts.

The facial designs for the Jing roles are made by painting, powdering and coloring in the basic forms of Zheng Lian (keeping the basic face pattern), San Kuai Wa Lian (three-section face) and Sui Lian (fragmentary face). These types are widely used to represent generals, officials, heroes, gods and ghosts.

The Chou actors can be recognized by the patch of white in various shapes (cube-, date pit-or bat-shaped) painted around the eyes and nose. Sometimes these patches are outlined in black, hence the term Xiao Hua Lian (partly painted face). The Chou roles fall into the following two categories: Wen Chou (civil) and Wu Chou (martial).

These facial designs are considered an art form. Often, it is the performer who must apply his or her own make- up, at times, during the performance. An actor may cover all four roles in one performance, thus having to change faces as many times as their character within the opera changes.

Masks are usually made of ceramic, in blank face, which the performer then covers with the elaborate artwork which defines the character and sets the role. Some masks are made of simple paper and even tissue, while others have been known to use silk as a base.

The elaborate nature of the face design in Beijing Opera has borrowed greatly from Chinese Folk Art designs as well as from folklore and mythological characters. As in the Chinese language itself, the designs are visually based and are seen from the top to the bottom, gradually bringing the spectator into the role of the character.

Opera masks are truly excellent examples of the cultural background of the Chinese people.


Famous Artists

Four Great Dans:


Repertoire

The traditional repertoire of Beijing opera includes more than 1,000 works, mostly taken from historical novels or traditional stories about civil, political and military struggles.

Modern live productions for tourists include English language displays of the text, useful for those unfamiliar with the classic stories.


Venues

A stage for Chinese opera in the Summer Palace, Beijing.

In the image at left is a stage for the presentation of Beijing opera, built in the late 19th Century at the command of the Empress Dowager Cixi inside the Summer Palace in Beijing.

French architect Paul Andreu has designed a new opera house next to Tiananmen Square in central Beijing.
The building features a titanium and glass-dome set in the center of a lake and will contain a 2,500-seat opera hall, a concert hall with 2,000 seats, a theatre with 1,200 seats and a smaller theatre that will seat 520. Visitors will enter through a tunnel under the lake, which will be surrounded with grass and trees.

Located in Xuanwu District , at the center of Beijing, south and near to Tiananmen Square , Dashilan Street and not far from Hepingmen (Gate of Peace) and the colorful Liu Lichang market street, the Zheng YiCi Temple Beijing Opera Theatre is very close to Beijing's city life and home to Beijing Opera. The theatre, dating from the Year 1668, is housed in an ancient Ming era temple and is the oldest wooden theatre in China today. The Zheng Yici has the distinction of being the best place in the city to enjoy Beijing Opera and Kunqu Opera in it's most authentic shape, form, and most importantly, atmosphere. Placed beautifully, but somewhat inconspicuously in the Xuanwu Districts " Hutong ", the Zheng YiCi Theatre is home to some of the best Beijing Opera actors and opens its doors to Beijing Opera lovers, locals and tourists to share an interesting and unique opera experience.


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Copyright DateRichard R. Wertz Creative Commons License