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Chinese Opera and Beijing Opera
Chinese opera combines singing, dancing, music, stylised action, dialogue or mime, masks, make-up, costume and acrobatics to tell stories from Chinese history and legend. Beijing Opera is the best known variety of Chinese Opera, but it is by no means the only one. Most Chinese opera variants make use of traditional Chinese musical instruments like the erhu, the lute and the gong.
Chinese opera often comes across to many non-Chinese as a confusing, raucous din. In China, however, it is regarded as one of the highest expressions of culture, a refined art form of which the whole nation is proud.
Chinese Opera – Refined art or raucous din?
So why do Chinese people so adore an art form that seems so bizarre to most Westerners? There are a few things you have to bear in mind about Chinese opera.
First of all, until relatively recently, Chinese opera was played mostly in market places. Market places are noisy and chaotic places, so only something which could be heard over the racket could attract any attention at all. These days all it has to fight are the Chinese audiences – though these can be just as raucous. Similarly, costumes had to contrasting and eye-catching, even if this meant verging on garish.
Furthermore, Chinese Opera is not just about the music. The costume and make-up are not only extremely ornate, but are also unique for each character in each play. The same applies for the actresses movements and choreography in general, they might seem arbitrary, but in fact are stylised and determined by convention, right down to the curvature of the lead-female’s little finger at the end of the third sentence in the second scene.
A Chinese Opera buff can probably look at a photograph of a scene from an opera, and from the costume, make up and positions of the actors and actresses on the stage, tell you which play it is, and probably which scene.
Another element is the plot. In Chinese Opera the stories are generally military and political classics from Chinese history – things which hold great relevance for today. While you are sitting there wondering what she’s squawking about, the Chinese person next to you is probably thinking about what the story has to say about the political climate of today.
Chinese Opera – there’s more than just Beijing Opera!
There are hundreds of local forms of Chinese Opera in existence today, of which the most popular and best known abroad is Beijing Opera. Other regional varieties include Sichuan Opera and Cantonese opera. In the countryside of the south, opera is performed with masks. In other areas, puppets are used. Kunqu, a very traditional variant, is often more pleasing to the Western ear because it focuses more on the music, often using the sweet tones of the qudi flute.
Chinese opera can trace its roots back around 1400 years, to when the first Opera troupe was formed by Tang Dynasty Emperor Taizong.
Beijing Opera (Jīngjù – 京剧)
Beijing Opera (also known as Peking Opera in the West) is the best known and most popular variety of Chinese Opera. It combines singing, costume, make-up, music, acrobatics, stylised movement and dancing to tell stories from Chinese history and legend. (For a little on why Beijing Opera seems so strange to Westerners, see the main Chinese Opera page).
As Beijing is China’s capital, so Beijing Opera is not only the most dominant form, but it is also the most politicised.
During the Cultural Revolution, Jiang Qing (a very unpopular figure in today’s China), the wife of Mao Zedong, was responsible for numerous operas designed to push the cultural revolution onwards, as well as strengthening her own political position and attacking her enemies.
The film ‘Farewell My Concubine’ centres around two performers of Beijing Opera, and depicts not only the harsh lives and lowly position of Opera singers in traditional China, but also Beijing Opera’s traumatic role in China’s twentieth century history.
There are plenty of places to see Opera in Beijing. You will enjoy the experience more if you learn a little bit about the plot first, and go expecting to see extravagant costumes and acrobatics, not just music.
History of Beijing Opera
The history of Beijing Opera is generally traced back to about 1790, when four Anhui opera troupes came to Beijing. Opera was first of all only performed in the privacy of the Qing court, later publicly. In 1828, a group of Hubei troupes came to Beijing (on Imperial orders), and were a success. The two styles merged, and absorbed elements from other local traditions, like Bangzi, Qinqiang, and the previous court favourite, Kunqu.
This blend of musical styles became what is know today as Beijing Opera. The two main melodies of Beijing Opera, ‘Xipi’ and ‘Erhuang’, come from the Anhui and Hubei traditions respectively.
Roles in Beijing Opera
There are four main roles in Beijing Opera, three male and one female, although all can theoretically be played by either males or females.
The Shēng (生) are the leading male characters, the Dàn are the female characters, the Jìng are male characters with painted faces, and the Chǒu are clowns.
Each category is in turn subdivided into various type.
The Shēng roles include, among others, wǔshēng who play warriors and are trained in acrobatics. In Beijing Opera only one kind of Shēng, the Hóngshēng, uses heavy make-up. His face is painted red, and plays only two characters – either the God of War, or Zhao Kuangyin, the first emperor of the Song dynasty.
The Dàn roles include aristocratic women and commoners, young and old, and căidàn, a female equivalent of the clown.
The Jìng roles with their painted faces are generally heroic types like adventurers and demons. Jìng roles are generally extroverted and dominate any scene they appear. Costumes are heavy and ornate, voices gruff, actions assertive.
In Beijing Opera the Chǒu can be of any social standing, but are generally likeable buffoons with blinking eyes and exaggerated gestures.
Beijing Opera Make-up
The colour of the paint on the actors’ face gives you a clue to his or her character: Red stands for loyalty and general goodness (and hence is virtually the national colour of China). Black stands for wisdom and bravery, gold and silver represent the supernatural, yellow and white represent cunning and treachery, and green and blue a rebellious streak, pride, cruelty or lack of self control (the typical rebel against the Dynasty). The proportion of the face covered in that colour indicates the degree to which they embody that characteristic.
Like many other parts of Beijing Opera, make-up is determined by convention, a Beijing Opera buff can probably tell a character from their make-up.
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