With its fascinating and artistic accompanying music, singing and
costumes, the Peking 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 Peking Opera enjoys a higher reputation than
other local operas, almost every province in China has more than one Peking
Opera troupes. Opera is so popular among Chinese people, especially seniors, that
even "Peking Opera Month" has been declared.
Peking Opera has a 200-year-long history.
Its main melodies originated from Xipi and Erhuang in Anhui and Hubei
respectively and, over time, techniques from many other local operas were
It is believed that Peking Opera gradually
came into being after 1790 when the famous four Anhui opera troupes came to
Beijing. Peking 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, Peking 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.
Peking Opera is a harmonious combination of the Grand Opera, ballet and
acrobatics, consisting of dance, dialogue, monologues, martial arts and
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.
is said that this special art derived from Chinese opera has different origins.
But no matter what its origin, facial painting is worth appreciating for its
artistic value. The paintings are representations of the characters' roles. For
example, a red face usually depicts heroic bravery, uprightness and loyalty; a
white face symbolizes a sinister, treacherous and guile character and a green
face connotes surly stubbornness, impetuosity and lack of self-restraint. In
addition, facial painting patterns reveal information about a character, as
well. Essentially, the unique makeup allows characters on stage to reveal them
Peking Opera performers mainly have two
types of facial decorations: masks and facial painting. The frequent on-stage
changing of masks or facial makeup (without the audience noticing) is a special
technique known as changing faces.
Changing faces is a difficult technique in
operatic performance. It is considered to be a stunt that can only be mastered
after extensive training. Face changing is also a special technique used to
exaggerate inner feelings of characters, portray their dispositions, set off the
atmosphere and improve effects. Facial changes expressing sudden changes in a
character's feelings are done in four ways:
Blowing dust: The actor blows black dust
hidden in his palm or close to his eyes, nose or beard, so that it blows back
into his face.
Manipulating beard: Beard colors can be
changed while the beard is being manipulated -- from black to gray and finally
to white -- expressing anger or excitement.
Pulling-down masks: The actor can pull down a mask that has
previously been hidden on top of his head, leaving his face red, green, blue or
black to communicate happiness, hate, anger or sadness respectively.
Mop: The actor mops out the greasepaint
hidden in his sideburns or eyebrows, around his eyes and nose, to change his
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 to experiment with
large, ornate articles of clothing.
Since each dynasty in Chinese history had
its own unique operatic costume, the number of costumes was too great for
performers to master. Hence, artists and costume designers worked together to
create costumes that would be unwieldy on stage and acceptable no matter when or
where the action was supposed to take place. The stage image of some well-known
historical figures, such as Guan Yu, Zhang Fei and Zhang Liang, were already
fixed in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
or opera headdress: crown, helmet, hat and
Costume (about 20 kinds): the ceremonial robe, or
Mang; the informal robe, or Pei; and the armor, or Kao, for soldiers
Opera shoes and boots, or Xue in Chinese
Audiences can distinguish a character's sex
and status at the first glance by the type of headdress, robes, shoes and
baldrics associated with the role.
Main Roles in Peking
Roles fall into four categories: Sheng, Dan, Jing and Chou. The roles have the natural
features of age and sex, as well as social status, and are artificially
exaggerated by makeup, costume and gestures.
1. Male Role (Sheng): civil, military; Lao Sheng (old man with a beard:
dignified, polished, official, scholar); Xiao Sheng (young man, shrill voice,
young warrior, young man of society, stature, elaborate dress), Wu Sheng (acrobatic male, extremely
agile and physically skilled).
2. Female Role (Dan): Qing Yi (modest, virtuous), Hua Dan (flirtatious, playful), Gui Men Dan (young, married girl), Dao Ma Dan (strong woman, female
general), Wu Dan (female acrobat), Lao Dan (old
3. Painted Face Male (Jing): Spectators are usually startled
by the appearance of the Jing. His
facial colors symbolize the type of character: red = good, white = treacherous,
4. Comedy Actor or Clown (Chou): dim-witted, amusing, rascal,
occasionally slightly wicked.