Peking Opera is a national treasure with a history of 200 years. It is the most significant of all operas in China. Beijing Opera is a synthesis of stylized action, singing, dialogue and mime, acrobatic fighting and dancing to represent a story or depict different characters and their feelings of gladness, anger, sorrow, happiness, surprise, fear, and sadness.
Introduction of Peking Opera
As the story goes, Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty fell interested in the local drama during his inspection of Southern China in disguise. To celebrate his 80th birthday in 1790, he summoned opera troupes from different areas around China to perform for him in Beijing. After the celebration, four famous troupes from Anhui Provinces were asked to stay, for audiences were particularly satisfied with their beautiful melodies, colorful costumes and interesting facial patterns.
Gradually it replaced Kunqu Opera which had been popular in the palace and among the upper ranks in Beijing. Later, some troupes from Hubei Province came to Beijing and often performed together with the Anhui troupes. The two types of singing blended on the same stage and gradually gave birth to a new genre that was known as Beijing Opera.
Peking opera around the world
In addition to its presence in mainland China, Peking opera has spread to many other places. It can be found in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and overseas Chinese communities elsewhere.
Mei Lanfang, one of the most famous Dan performers of all time, was also one of the greatest popularizers of Peking opera abroad. During the 1920s, he performed Peking opera in Japan. This inspired an American tour in February 1930. Although some, such as the actor Otis Skinner, believed that Peking opera could never be a success in the United States, the favorable reception of Mei and his troupe in New York City disproved this notion. The performances had to be relocated from the 49th Street Theater to the larger National Theater, and the duration of the tour extended from two weeks to five. Mei traveled across the United States, receiving honorary degrees from the University of California and Pomona College. He followed this tour with a tour in the Soviet Union in 1935.
The theatre department at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa has been home to English language Jingju for more than twenty-five years. The school offers Asian Theatre as a major and has regular Jingju performances, the most recent being Lady Mu and the Yang Family Generals in 2014.
Main Types of Performers
Beijing Opera features four main types of performers named Sheng, Dan, Jing and Chou. Performing troupes often have several main actors for each type, as well as numerous secondary and tertiary performers. With their elaborate and colorful costumes, performers are the only focal points on Beijing opera’s characteristically sparse stage. The Sheng is the main male role in Beijing opera. All the male roles that do not belong to the Jing and the Chou can be called “Sheng”. It generally can be divided into three types: old man (Chinese pinyin: laosheng), young man(Chinese pinyin: xiaosheng) and martial man(Chinese pinyin: wusheng). Mei Lanfang, a well-known Chinese Beijing opera performer, is famous for his professional and unique style for Dan role acting. Dan can be divided into several types: Qingyi(also named Zhengdan, it’s a role for elegant young or middle-aged lady), Huadan(it’s a role for vivid young lady), Daomadan(a role refers to female heroines), Huashan( a role possess the characters of Qingyi and Zhengdan and Huadan) ect..
Hualian(the painted face), in Chinese called “Jing”, is a name for the male role that has some special characteristic or appearance. It characterized by the painted face. The role must have a strong voice and be able to exaggerate gestures, and the Jing’s face should be made up in strong colors such as red, white and black to express their characters.
Facial Make-Up and Costumes
Elaborate and gorgeous facial make-up and costumes are two distinguishing characteristics of Beijing Opera. The audience can know what kind of character the role is from the colors and patterns.
Generally speaking, red faces have a positive meaning symbolizing the brave, lofty, upright and wise men. Another positive color is purple. Black faces usually have neutral meaning, representative the just men and uprightness. Blue and green also have neutral meanings that symbolize the hero from the bushes or some kind of rebellionence leader. Meanwhile, the yellow and white represent the crafty men with negative meaning such as treachery and firece hearts. Performers have gold or silver facial make-up standing for the monsters or Gods and supernatural power. Good-nature people are usually painted with relatively simple colors while make-up of hostile and doubtful characters, such as bandits, robbers, rebels and alike, bear complex marks.
The costuming of Beijing is based mainly on the court and civil costumes of the Ming Dynasty style, with frequent uses of deep red, green, yellow, white black and blue. Strong contrasting colors are freely used, and embroidered in gold, silver and colored threads. The rules for costumes are strictly based on rank, occupation and lifestyle, and there are special costume with different colors and designs for each role.
Tunes of Beijing Opera
The tunes of Beijing Opera are mainly composed of two styles, Erhuang and Xipi. The former originated in Hui tune in Anhui Province while the latter resulting from Han tune in Hubei Province.
They are used according to the actions in different scenes. Generally speaking, Xipi tune is employed in lighter scenes while Erhuang for dramatic actions. Surely, some other tunes are also employed for different purpose. The singing in Beijing Opera is highly stylized but its variation of rhythm and pitch enable the actors and actresses to express the thoughts and emotions of different characters in different situations. There are two forms of recitatives in dialogue and monologue. Yunbai is the rhythmic vernacular and Jingbai is the capital vernacular, which is used to better characterize the personalities.
Useful Travel Tips
- Location: Beijing, North China
- Where to watch the Beijing Opera: Li Yuan Theater, Mei Lanfang Theatre, National Grand Theatre
- Recommended Theaters in Beijing
1. Chang’an Daxiyuan Theater
Address: Chang’an mansion, Chang’an Street
How to get: take No.120, No.126, No.1, No.457, and No.52 to the north station of Beijing bus stop.
2. MeiLanfang Theater
Address: Beidajie Street, Xicheng District.
How to get: take No. 107, No.701 to Gongzhuandong bus stop
3. Liyuan Theater
Address: Yong’an Road, Xuanwu District
How to get: No.06, No.15, and No.622 to Yong’an Lu bus stop.
Traditional Chinese Performance
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