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Chinese Culture >> Chinese Society Traditions

Beijing Opera History and Characters


The Beijing Opera, with its distinctive Chinese opera masks, is one of China's most recognizable cultural icons. Combining Music, Dance, Theatre, and Martial Arts, it has existed for over 200 years portraying Historical Events and Literature with beauty, style, and dynamic performance. It is most prominent in Beijing, but almost every Province in China has some form of Opera theatre. With its elaborate costuming, complex musical orchestrations and seemingly limitless Make-up and Mask designs, the Beijing Opera is seeing revitalization in popularity with both young and mature audiences.

What is now called the Beijing Opera originally came from a combination of several sources. In about 1790, four great theatre troupes from Anhui came to perform for the Royal Family. They brought arias and melodies called Xi Pi. Around 1828, performers from Hubei came to the same area and staged combined shows adding their local pieces of music called Er Huang. These performances were for the Royals but soon were to become more mainstream during Emperor Qianlong's reign as well as support from the notorious Empress Dowager Ci Xi. During this time, thousands of pieces of repertoire were developed covering the historical events, classic novels and stories of China as well as revisions of Western stories.

There are four basic categories of characters in the Beijing Opera style.

SHENG- The main Male actors in a performance. Either civil or military, there are several different aspects of training for the various lead male parts.

i. LAO SHENG- Senior Male roles, middle aged man with beard of black, grey or white. A soft or pleasant voice with dignity. ii. XIAO SHENG- Junior male role or young man. No beard and a high sometimes shrill voice that may, on occasion, crack denoting immaturity and adolescence. iii. WU SHENG- Acrobatic male roles or roles that require much activity. Military plays or civil plays that demand high standards of acrobatics. Performs the stylized martial arts fight scenes with sword or spear. Not usually trained as opera singer.

iv. WAWA SHENG- Kids and children roles.

DAN- Female roles of several categories.

i. QING YI ( Ch'ing I)- Lady of good character. Quiet gentle disposition. Graceful flowing movements in "water sleeves" costume. Elegant but not vivid. Singing voice is high pitched.

ii. HUA DAN ( Hua Tan)- Flirtatious young girl role. Usually not as high a social standing as Qing Yi. Coy and quick movements. A very difficult part to play. Attractive eye movements and continually changing facial expression. Vivid costume featuring handkerchief to flutter in her hand. Strong voice but more speaking than singing.

iii. GUI MEN DAN (Kuei Men Tan) - Young unmarried girl. This role may turn into Qing Yi or Hua Dan. Mischievous but not as much as Hua Dan. Immature reactions and movements. iv. DAO MA DAN (Tao Ma Tan) - Female Warrior role. Trained for acting and singing but performs highly skillful martial movements often with feathered headdress. Still a very feminine role. The now famous role of Disney's "MULAN" was based on Hua Mulan who disguised herself as a man to prevent her father from being conscripted into the military. She served for 12 years during the SouthNorth Dynasty and was decorated as a national hero.

v. WU DAN (Wu Tan) - Female Acrobatic roles. Steps in on any role that requires high acrobatic ability. Purely an acrobat but role can demand a talented actress to make for a successful performance.

vi. CAI DAN (Cai Tan) - Female Comedians. Serves to add relief to stressful scenes in serious plays. See also CHOU roles. JING- Painted face male roles. These parts are known more for courage and resourcefulness than for scholarly intelligence. Often a high-ranking general or warrior/official. Jing actors are usually extroverts. A robust, sometimes gruff, bass voice. Full of swagger and self-assurance. There are many common color schemes associated with Jing roles but some of the more common are easily recognizable.

v Red- Good character and virtuous person.

v White- Treacherous and guile. v Green-Lack of self-control, rash, stubbornness.

v Black- Brusque character.

v Blue- Wild perhaps a Robber.

v Gold/Silver- Used only for Gods and Spirits.

The facial painting patterns also give information about a character. There are hundreds of patterns and designs for many situations and roles.

There are 3 main types of Jing roles:

i. DONG-CHUI- (T'ung Ch'uei) Also know as Hei Tou (Black Face) this role is a good singer and usually a loyal General.

ii. JIA ZI- (Chia Tze) - A very good actor for more complicated characters.

iii. WU JING- Fighting and acrobatics. Seldom plays a prominent role.

CHOU- Comedy Roles. Dim but likable and amusing characters. Sometimes slightly wicked perhaps a rascal or a scholar/Prince who would not command much respect. There are two basic types of Chou roles:

i. WEN CHOU- Civilian roles.( Jailer, servant, merchant, scholar)

ii. WU CHOU- Minor Military roles but skilled in acrobatics

Of special mention should be the popular role of SUN WU KONG -The Monkey King.

This is a famous story of a Monks journey from China to India to collect scriptures to bring back to China... He is usually accompanied by a Pig for comedic effect, a not-so-learned monk to mediate the many quarrels and the Monkey King. This is played by a Wu Sheng actor. Known for the bent knees and an arms forward stance that imitate monkey movements. He has mastered Longevity, the 72 transformations of his physical body and can do somersaults in the clouds. Sun Wu Kong is followed by a troupe of monkeys who behave in the same manner but have individual personalities (greedy, naughty, sleepy, etc.). The Monkey King continues to be one of the most popular story lines in all of
Chinese Opera Theatre.

The Opera Theatre form suffered during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when all traditional pieces were banned. New versions became stories concerning "Class Struggle". The "Eight Model Plays" were a very popular theme, as were stories concerning Communist Activities, Anti-Japan sentiment, and the Civil War against Nationalists. The traditional stories were allowed to be shown in 1978 but by then they seemed out of date and the productions lacked historical and theatrical knowledge. Audiences lost to more contemporary forms of entertainment were hard to replace with the exception of those who were children when the Beijing Opera was at its peak. Many who lived through the Cultural Revolution preferred the newer versions and still favor those melodies. Campaigns exist to bring back this lost art from as well as other Theatrical Arts. The Plum Blossom Award, sponsored by the
Chinese Opera Journal, gives awards, judged by the Journal, to new artists. The actors and actresses must be under 45 years of age and come from all over China. These and other competitions are seen on the CCTV, China's main television network and radio stations, particularly during the New Years special concerts. There has even been designated a Beijing Opera Month.

In recent years, performances worldwide of Beijing Opera theatre have brought this marvelous art form to broader audiences. It has served as ambassador to the West providing many new opportunities for people to enjoy a performance style that rivals any of the Grand Operas and Symphonies of Europe and North America. 

About the Author

Timothy Jordan was born in Detroit where he began a career in music and ended up in Boston, Mass. His skills took him to Japan where he studied with the drummers of KODO. Tim has studied Iaido, the Japanese Sword. He is currently the owner of an Asian art and cultural goods Internet retail business, LIVE COMPLETE and ZENSHO PRODUCTS.com