Cantonese Opera



Cantonese opera (Chinese: 粵劇; Pinyin: Yuj, or 大戲; Pinyin: dx, or 神功戲; Pinyin: shngōngx) is one of the major Chinese opera categories, originating in southern China's Cantonese culture. It is popular in Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and Malaysia. Like all versions of Chinese opera, it is a traditional Chinese art form, involving music, singing, martial arts, acrobatics, and acting. 粵劇 (Yuj) should not be confused with 越劇 (Yuj), the theatre of Zhejiang.


There is a debate about the origins of Cantonese opera, but it is universally accepted that Cantonese opera was imported from the northern part of China and slowly migrated to the southern province of Guangdong in late 13th century, during the late Southern Song Dynasty. In the 12th century, there was a theatrical form called "Southern opera" (Chinese: 南戲; Pinyin: Nnx), which was performed in public theaters of Hangzhou, then capital of the Southern Song Dynasty. With the invasion of the Mongol army, Emperor Gong of Song dynasty, Zho Xiǎn (趙顯), fled with hundreds of thousands of Song people into the province of Guangdong in 1276. Among these people were some Narm hei artists from the north. Thus narm hei was brought into Guangdong by these artists and developed into the earliest kind of Cantonese opera.

Many well-known operas performed today, such as The Purple Hairpin and Rejuvenation of the Red Plum Flower, originated in the Yuan Dynasty, with the lyrics and scripts in Cantonese. Like Beijing opera, until the 20th century all of the roles in a performance were performed by males, even the female roles.


Cantonese opera has much in common with other Chinese opera genres. Commentators often take pride in the idea that all Chinese opera styles are but minor variations on a pan-Chinese music-theater tradition, and that the basic features or principles are consistent from one local opera form to another. Thus, music, singing, martial arts, acrobatics and acting are all featured. Most of the plots are based on Chinese history and famous Chinese classics and myths. The culture and philosophies of the Chinese people can be seen in the plays. Virtues like loyalty, moral, love, patriotism and faithfulness are often reflected by the operas.

Particular Features

Some particular features of Cantonese opera are:

The "four skills" and "five methods" are a simple codification of the areas of special training for opera performers, and also stand as something of a metaphor for the most well-rounded and thoroughly trained performers. The "four skills" apply to the whole spectrum of vocal and dramatic training: singing, acting and movement, delivery of the "speech-types" and martial and "gymnastic skills," while the five methods are categories of techniques associated with specific body parts: hands, eyes, body, hair, feet or walking techniques.


Other than being simply a form of entertainment, it can carry messages or lessons, which was particularly important before widespread formal education. The government often used opera to promote the idea of 'be loyal to the emperor and love the kingdom' (忠君愛國). Because of this, the opera was often examined by the government. If the underlying message was not considered beneficial, the opera would be banned.

Types of Play

There are two types of Cantonese opera play: Mou and Man (wen in Mandarin Chinese). Mou means martial arts. Mou plays emphasize war, the characters usually being generals or warriors. These works contain action scenes and involve a lot of weaponry and armor. Man means "highly educated", with connotations of poetry and culture. Scholars are the main characters in these plays. Man plays tend to be gentler and more elegant. Water sleeves are used extensively in Man plays to produce movements reflecting the elegance and tenderness of the characters; all female characters wear them. In Man plays, characters put a lot of effort into creating distinctive facial expressions and gestures to express their underlying emotions.

Musical Instruments

Cantonese instrumental music was called ching yam prior to the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949. Cantonese instrumental tunes have been used in Cantonese opera, either as incidental instrumental music or as fixed tunes to which new texts were composed, since the 1930s.

The use of instruments in Cantonese opera is influenced by both western and eastern cultures. The reason for this is that Canton was one of the earliest places in China to establish trade relationships with the western civilizations. In addition, Hong Kong was under heavy western influence when it was a British colony. These factors contributed to the observed western elements in Cantonese Opera.

For instance, the use of erhu (two string bowed fiddle), saxophones, guitars and the congas have demonstrated how diversified the musical instruments in Cantonese operas are.

The musical instruments are mainly divided into melodic and percussive types.

Traditional musical instruments used in Cantonese opera include wind, strings and percussion. The winds and strings encompass gaohu, erhu,yehu, yangqin, pipa and dizi, while the percussion comprises many different drums and cymbals. The percussion controls the overall rhythm and pace of the music, while the erhu leads the orchestra.

The instrumental ensemble of Cantonese opera is comprised of two sections: the melody section and the percussion section. The percussion section has its own vast body of musical materials, generally called loh gu dim or simply loh gu. These 'percussion patterns' serve a variety of specific functions.


Cantonese opera pieces are classified either as "theatrical" or gor tarn ("singing stage"). The theatrical style of music is further classified into "Saih Ngok" (Western Music) and "Jung Ngok" (Chinese Music). Gor Tarn is always saih ngok, while theatrical music can be saih ngok or jung ngok (Chinese music). The "four great male vocals" (四大平喉) were notable exponents of gor tarn in the early 20th century.

Saih ngok is accompanied by strings, woodwinds, brass plus electrified instruments, and jung ngok by traditional Chinese percussion.

Lyrics are written to fit the play's melodies, although one song can contain multiple melodies, performers being able to add their own elements. Whether a song is well performed depends on the performers' own emotional involvement and ability.


There are six set roles:

1. mun mo sung (文武生) martial man of letters; the clean-shaven scholar-warrior

2. siu sung (小生) 'young gentleman'; young scholar

3. fa dan (花旦) 'flower' of the ball; young belle

4. yee fa (二花) transliteration: 'second flower'; supporting female

5. chou sung (丑生) clown

6. mo sung (武生) bearded male warrior


Costumes correspond to the theme of the play and indicate the character of each role.

As mentioned above, each type of play is associated with particular costumes. The water sleeves of Mun plays can be attached to the waist or the sides of the breast areas. Costumes can be single or double breasted.

Costumes also indicate the status of the character. Lower-status characters, such as females, wear less elaborate dress, which those of higher rank have more decorative costumes.


Applying makeup for Cantonese opera is a long and specialized process.

One of the most common styles is the "white and red face": an application of white foundation, with red around the eyes and on the cheeks. The eyebrows are sometimes elongated. Lipstick is usually bright red.

Actors are given temporary facelifts by holding the skin up with a ribbon on the back of the head. This lifts the corners of the eyes, producing an authoritative look.

Each role has its own style of make-up: the clown has a large white spot in the middle of his face, for example. A sick character has a thin red line pointing upwards in between his eyebrows. Aggressive and frustrated character roles often have a "ying hong jee" (an arrow shape fading into the forehead) in between the eyebrows.

Strong male characters wear "hoy meen" (開面; "open face") makeup. Each character's makeup has its own distinct characteristics, with symbolic patterns and coloration.

Hairstyle, Hats and Helmets

Hats and helmets signify social status, age and capability: scholars and officials wear black hats with wings on either side; generals wear helmets with pheasant feathers; soldiers wear ordinary hats, and kings wear crowns. Queens or princesses have jeweled helmets.

Hairstyles can express a character's emotions: warriors express their sadness at losing a battle by swinging their ponytails. For the female roles, buns indicated a maiden, while a married woman has a Dai tow.

Frequently Used Terms

Pheasant feathers/Antennae: These are attached to the helmet in Mo plays, and are used to express the character's skills and expressions. They are worn by both male and female characters.

Water Sleeves: These are used for expressive effect by both males and females in Mun plays.

Hand Movements: Hand and finger movements reflect the music as well as the action of the play. Females hold their hands in the elegant "lotus" form.

Round Table/Walking: A basic feature of Cantonese opera, the walking movement is one of the most difficult to master. Females take very small steps and lift the body to give a detached feel. Male actors take larger steps, which implies traveling great distances.

Go Hur: These are black boots with high white soles worn by males, which can impede walking.

Gwou Wai: This is a movement in which two performers move in a cross-over fashion to opposite sides of the stage.

Tuir Mok: In this movement, two performers walk in a circle facing each other and then go back to their original positions.

Lai saan and Wun Sou: These are the basic movements of the hands and arms.

Jurt Bo/Choot Bo: This is a gliding effect used in walking.

Siu Tiu: Most common in Mo plays, the actor stamps before walking.

A Fay Tuir

Fay Tuir: A crescent kick.

Hair-flinging/"Headbanging": A circular swinging of the ponytail, expressing sadness and frustration.

Chestbuckle/ Flower: A flower-shaped decoration worn on the chest. A red flower on the male signifies that he is engaged.

Horsewhip: Performers swing a whip and walk to imitate riding a horse.

Sifu: Literally, master, this is a term for experienced performers and teachers.

Major Artists

Development in Hong Kong

To intensify education in Cantonese opera, the Cantonese Artists Association of Hong Kong started to run an evening part-time certificate course in Cantonese opera training with assistance from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts in 1998. In 1999, the Association and the Academy further conducted a two-year daytime diploma program in performing arts in Cantonese opera in order to train professional actors and actresses. Aiming at further raising the students' level, the Association and the Academy have launched an advanced course in Cantonese opera in the next academic year.

In recent years, the Hong Kong Arts Development Council has given grants to Love and Faith Cantonese Opera Laboratory to conduct Cantonese opera classes for children and youths. The Leisure and Cultural Services Department has also funded the International Association of Theatre Critics (Hong Kong Branch) to implement the "Cultural Envoy Scheme for Cantonese Opera" for promoting traditional Chinese operas in the community.

Speech Types

Commentators draw an essential distinction between sung and spoken text, although the boundary is a troublesome one. Speech-types are of a wide variety: one is nearly identical to standard conversational Cantonese, while another is a very smooth and refined delivery of a passage of poetry; some have one form or another of instrumental accompaniment while others have none; and some serve fairly specific functions, while others are more widely adaptable to variety of dramatic needs.


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






























Entertainment :: Chinese Opera

Introduction | Beijing Opera | Cantonese Opera




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