Peking Opera

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Peking Opera 京剧

General Information

While they may differ only slightly in costume and makeup, all traditional opera forms, including Peking opera (京剧), are, strictly speaking, "regional," in that each is based on the music and dialect of a specific area. Since, however, Peking opera assumed its present form about two hundred years ago in Beijing, then the capital of the Qing Dynasty, it is usually regarded as a national art form. It was developed and improved by masters of the performing arts for many generations before it reached maturity and perfection. It is considered a superb art form, famous for its great artistic skill in singing, dancing and martial arts. Peking opera is the most representative of all Chinese traditional dramatic art forms.

The music of Peking opera is mainly orchestral music and percussion instruments that provide a strongly rhythmical accompaniment. The main percussion instruments are gongs and drums of various sizes and shapes. There are also clappers made of hardwood or bamboo. The main stringed instrument is jinghu (Beijing fiddle), supported by erhu (second fiddle). Plucked stringed instruments include yueqin (moonshaped mandolin), pipa (four-stringed lute) and xianzi (three-stringed lute). Occasionally, suona horn and Chinese flute are also used. The orchestra is led by a drummer, who uses bamboo sticks to create very powerful sounds — sometimes loud, sometimes soft, sometimes strong and exciting, sometimes faint and sentimental — and bring out the emotions of the characters in coordination with the acting of the performers.

The vocal part of Peking opera is both spoken and sung. Spoken dialogue is divided into yunbai (recitative) and jingbai (Beijing colloquial speech), the former employed by serious characters and the latter by young females and clowns. The vocal music consists mainly of erhuang (adapted from folk tunes of Anhui and Hubei) and xipi (from Shaanxi tunes). In addition, Peking opera assimilates the tunes of the much older kunqu opera of the south and some folk arias popular in the north.

The character roles in Peking opera are finely and strictly differentiated into fixed types. Female roles are generally known as dan and male roles as sheng, but male clowns are known as chou. A chou, depicted by a patch of white on the face, is a humorous character. Male characters who are frank and open-minded but rough or those who are crafty and dangerous are known as jing or hualian (painted faces). Peking opera roles are further classified according to the age and personality of the characters. Each different role type has a style and rules of its own.

The traditional repertoire of Peking opera includes more than a thousand items, two hundred of which are still performed, such as Kong cheng ji (The Empty City Ruse), which describes how Zhuge Liang, the Shu strategist, defeated the Wei general Sima Yi with clever devices; Qun ying hui (Gathering of Heroes), which tells how the Wu and Shu forces broke through the Wei force at Chibi on the Yangtze River; Da yu sha jia (The Fisherman's Revenge), in which the hero, Xiao En, kills the corrupt official; Shi zi po (At the Crossroads), depicting a young officer and an innkeeper mistakenly fighting each other in the dark in order to save Jiao Zan, a patriotic general, and Nao tian gong (Havoc in Heaven), in which the Monkey King eats the sacred peaches at the Imperial Palace, then defeats heavenly forces.

In the course of development of Peking opera a number of talented actors created highly distinctive singing and acting techniques, adapting the traditional skills learned from their masters. This gave rise to different schools. Well-known actors are Mei Lanfang, Shang Xiaoyun, Cheng Yanqiu, Xun Huisheng, Zhou Xinfang, Ma Lianliang, Tan Fuying, Gai Jiaotian, Xiao Changhua, Zhang Junqiu and ]]Yuan Shihai]].

To cater to contemporary audience, the Peking Opera Theater of China has made bold experiment by introducing Western symphony in the performance. Another trial is the video recording of 355 classic operas, pairing the sound records of 47 late artists between the 1940s and 1960s with the performance of today's outstanding young and middle-aged performers.

Formation of Peking Opera

Peking opera is regarded as China's national opera and is the most popular and widespread opera in the country. It is generally believed that Peking opera developed from several ancient local operas during the mid- and late 19th century. In 1790, the 55th year of the Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong's reign, the Sanqing Anhui Opera Troupe moved from Anhui Province to Beijing to perform in the celebrations to mark Emperor Qianlong's 80th birthday. Later, three more Anhui opera troupes -- the Sixi, Chuntai, Hechun troupes -- also came to perform in Beijing. Together with Sanqing, they were referred to as the Four Anhui Opera Troupes. Each troupe had its own characteristic way of performing. The troupes and the Han opera performers from Hubei with whom they were working had a mutual influence on one another. The performers also borrowed some plays, melodies and performing techniques from Kunqu and Shaanxi opera, drew on some folk tunes, and showed a greater and greater Beijing influence in terms of the lyrics, recitative and rhyme, gradually developing what is now Peking opera.

Peking opera is a comprehensive art that has singing, recitation, acting and acrobatics (dancing) at its core. Feelings and ideas are often expressed through symbolic motions, and the unique format has developed over long years of performance. Using its standardized yet flexible format, many Peking opera artists have created a lot of vivid, touching characters with distinct personalities, thus helping Peking opera develop and prosper.

Peking opera takes its name from the city of Beijing, where it developed. It was formerly called pihuang (after xipi and erhuang, the two main types of melody in Peking opera), Beiping opera (after an old name of Beijing) and National opera, among other names.

Types of Roles

Peking opera is a theatrical art that incorporates singing, dancing, acting and acrobatics. But what we see on the Peking opera stage does not imitate real life. For example, Peking opera uses special imagery in the creation of characters. All roles are classified according to sex, personality, age, profession and social status. Hangdang is the general term for role types in Peking opera. As we all know, there are four types of role in Peking opera today – namely, the sheng (male role), dan (female role), jing (painted face) and chou (clown). The sheng is the male protagonist, the dan the female protagonist, the jing a male supporting figure with distinct characteristics, and chou a comic or negative figure or foil for the protagonist. The four role types are a result of the large variety of roles from earlier stages in the history of Peking opera being combined and reduced.

The four basic role types have their subdivisions, each with its own specialties and techniques. For example, the sheng role is divided into elderly (laosheng), young (xiaosheng), military (wusheng), red-faced (hongsheng) and young boy (wawasheng) roles, and the elderly male role can be further divided into singing, acting and martial laosheng roles, and so on. The role types cover all the characters on stage, and every actor or actress specializes in a particular role type.

The role types in Peking opera have been artistically refined to categorize, systematize and standardize the myriad images in the complex life of society according to the practical requirements of opera performance. The role types distinguish the characters' inner traits, expressed through appearance. Thus came about Peking opera's unique system of imagery, which functions as a framework in this integrated theatrical art and distinguishes Peking opera from other types of opera.

Based on the role types, a complete set of standards has been formed for aspects such as costumes and facial makeup. These aspects and the classification of role types supplement each other, both being very important in the creation of characters and demonstrating the full beauty of Peking opera.


The costumes in Peking opera are based on Ming Dynasty fashions, also borrowing from the fashions of the Tang, Song, Yuan and Qing dynasties and modern times. They are as diverse as the roles: civil and military, male and female, and so on. Traditional Peking opera plays are mainly based on historical events, reflecting life in each dynasty, with characters ranging from emperors, generals and ministers to the common people. Characters from different dynasties and with different social statuses wear different costumes on stage, each having its own rules of dress.

As the role types came into being, the costumes were classified and standardized accordingly. Each role type has a relatively fixed form of costume. Different role types and different subtypes within the same role type are distinguished by their costumes. For example, there are various colorful costumes for female (dan) roles. Some roles of elderly women (laodan) with higher social status use ceremonial dress, such as a woman's mang (a robe with a python design), on formal occasions. The young women (huadan) roles use close-fitting, simpler dresses to show their liveliness and beauty. The roles of military women (wudan) use armor (kao), which shows their valiant bearing. The classification and standardization of Peking opera costumes, in line with the classification of role types, meet the need of stylized performance.

Facial Makeup

Facial makeup is another important means of character creation in Peking opera. A special Chinese form of makeup, it expresses the characters' personalities and traits, as well as the role type to which the characters belong, in two ways. One way is how the face is painted in certain colors. For example, a red-faced character is valiant, loyal and positive, while yellow-faced and white-faced characters are sinister, treacherous and negative. The other way is how lines and patterns are drawn on the face. For example, a distorted face, drawn with asymmetrical lines, generally represents a vicious villain or accomplice or someone whose face has been wounded.

The classification of role types makes it possible for actors and actresses to train according to the requirements of their own type of role, quickly mastering the special singing, acting and other techniques, ready to perform on stage. The role types, costumes and facial makeup enable the audience to perceive the different characters clearly and directly. When they are familiar with the role types and their corresponding costumes and facial makeup, the members of the audience are able to distinguish the characteristics of the different role types and understand the characters. This gives rise to strong theatrical effects in a performance, and the audience's interest is more easily aroused. For example, when a certain character appears on stage, the audience will recognize the role type by the costume, facial makeup and other information such as how the character moves and the melodies that he or she sings. Various styles and different traits were thus established for Peking opera characters, and the audience's attention is drawn to the plot and performance through the simplest and most economical means. This is one of the major artistic advantages of Peking opera.

Schools and Plays

Peking opera's more than two centuries of development have seen the appearance of many schools, which are named after actors, such as the Mei school and the Cheng school. This is because Peking opera is a theatrical system with the actors' performance at its core, and Peking opera's artistic achievements are mainly due to the actors. The development of the various schools of Peking opera is closely related to the classification of role types. We could even say that schools have emerged on the basis of this classification. Each role type has its representative artists, whose artistic traits predominate in each school. For example, the Tan school specializes in the role of the elderly man (laosheng) and is named after the actor Tan Xinpei, who was famous for this type of role; and the Mei school, specializing in the role of the woman (dan), was established by the actor Mei Lanfang, who was famous for this type of role.

In Peking opera's more than 200 years on stage, over 1,000 plays have been written, both traditional plays and new plays written by various schools as their representative plays. Many of the Peking opera plays have been popular with audiences for generations.

Musical Instruments and Orchestras

The many instruments used in Peking opera fall into two main categories. One kind includes wind instruments, such as the bamboo flute (di), reed pipe (sheng) and suona horn, and stringed instruments such as the Peking opera fiddle (jinghu), the erhu two-stringed fiddle, the four-stringed moon-shaped Chinese mandolin (yueqin), and the smaller sanxian, a three-stringed plucked instrument. The other kind comprises percussion instruments, such as the drum (gu), bamboo clappers (ban), gong (luo), cymbals (bo) and bell (zhong).

The Peking opera orchestra is generally called changmian, which originally means "facing the stage." In the early years, the stage was mostly square, and there were tables, chairs and musical instruments right in front of the curtain hanging over the rear half of the stage, where the musicians sat during the performance. This seating arrangement for the orchestra was called changmian, and this word later became the term for the orchestra itself.

There are orchestras for "gentle shows" (wenchang) and orchestras for shows with acrobatic fighting (wuchang). In the kind of shows which are mostly singing, the accompanying music is played with wind and stringed instruments, so such instruments are also called wenchang ("civilian stage"). The percussion instruments, which produce strong and rhythmic music, are often used to accompany acrobatic fighting and are known as wuchang ("military stage").

Vocal Music

Vocal music (changqiang) comprises the tunes and the types of meter for which they are pertinent. Chinese opera singing is divided into metrical and versified styles. The main singing style in Peking opera is metrical, with lyrics similar to lüshi poetry, each line consisting of seven, 10 or more characters, and the final characters of most lines rhyming with each other. The lines are in pairs, the first of which ends with an oblique-tone character, and the second with a level-tone character.

The main musical styles of Peking opera are xipi and erhuang. Xipi features high-pitched, lively tunes, while erhuang features steady, deep tunes. Each style has various kinds of meter, which are called banshi. Peking opera's different banshi express different feelings and meet the needs of the different plots of different plays.

Scenery and Props

The scenery on the Peking opera stage, usually in the xieyi style (a freehand expressionist style) or symbolic style, is mainly for enhancing and adding to the play. A commonly seen traditional setting consists of one table and two chairs, which are arranged in different positions to suggest different meanings.

Among the myriad props of Peking opera are military weapons, such as swords, spears and hammers, and everyday objects such as rows, horsewhips, writing brushes, ink, paper and inkstones. There are symbolic objects, such as a white square banner with ripple patterns to represent waves, and a pair of square yellow flags each with a painting of a wheel, which the actor holds in his hands while moving as if he was pulling a chariot.

Many modern methods are now used to enhance the atmosphere on stage and add to the play.

Theater Buildings

The Chinese word xilou is a name given to the place where a play is staged. After many years of development, theater construction entered its prime during the Qing Dynasty for various reasons, including the fondness of that dynasty's emperors of watching plays. As Peking opera emerged, theaters developed even more quickly, with imperial theaters being among the largest in scale.

Chinese theater buildings can be classified into three main types: modern European-style theaters, imperial theaters and folk theaters (minjian xilou). The first type is called juchang or juyuan. The last type is usually called xitai (stage) because this kind of theater is relatively small, sometimes being just a simple thatched shed. Imperial theaters are used only for large-scale performances. The theaters used for ordinary performances in imperial palaces are also called xitai. Most extant theaters are of the modern European style. Of the traditional Chinese-style theaters, imperial theaters have been well preserved, while most folk theaters have fallen into disrepair and disappeared. We can only see some of them in paintings from the past.

As a comprehensive theatrical art, Peking opera combines singing, speech, acting, acrobatics, makeup and stage scenery into a harmonious whole, with an entire set of standards and formats that has been developed during long years of theatrical practice. The aspects mentioned above are basic components of the standards and formats but can never cover the extensiveness and profundity of Peking opera.

With their superb performing skills, famous Peking opera actors have developed various schools and different styles. Peking opera deserves its reputation as the "national opera" in every respect. With a rich store of cultural heritage and a rich repertoire of plays, Peking opera is a treasure-house of Chinese operatic art and a shining pearl of Eastern art.