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Beijing Opera 

Beijing Opera is considered as the national opera of China. It has a history of more than 200 years. Before its birth, there were already quite a few opera forms popular in Beijing, most notably Kunqu opera and Yiyangqiang opera. The elegance and refinement of the Kunqu opera especially appealed to the nobility at that time and gradually developed itself into a form satisfying a limited audience. The Yiyangqiang opera, with its simplicity and easiness to understand, was widely enjoyed by the populace. 

In the year 1790, an opera troupe from Anhui came to Beijing to give a touring performance. The leader of the troupe, Gao Langting, absorbed the strong points of other opera forms and incorporated much Beijing dialect vocabulary into his verse. This not only expanded the expressiveness of Anhui opera, but also quickly established it as the main opera form in Beijing. The position was further consolidated by three other Anhui opera troupes that came to Beijing in the subsequent years. Anhui opera thus became the prototype of Beijing opera. 

In the year of 1828, led by an array of performing stars, the Chuqiang opera that was popular in Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Jiangxi and Hubei began to conquer the Beijing stage. By first sharing the stage with, then complementing and finally combining with the existing Anhui opera, this Chuqiang opera became the other parent of the Beijing Opera. Beijing Opera was finally formally baptized in 1845. 

From 1845 to 1894, Beijing Opera underwent rapid development and technical refinement. Accompanied with it was the outburst of distinguished performing artists who helped to set the rules and standards of Beijing Opera. With the contribution of generations of performing artists, Beijing Opera finally became what we see today – a performing art that integrates singing, dialogue, acting and acrobatic combat. 

Classification of roles

Unlike the western grand opera in which the performing artist are different from on another according to their vocal range, Beijing Opera performing artists are rather differentiated according to the characters they play. The definition of soprano, mezzo-soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone and bass, which are essential to the western grand opera, does not apply to Beijing Opera. Rather, the performers of Beijing Opera fall into four major groups: Sheng, Dan, Jing and Chou.

Sheng (the male lead) includes Lao sheng (old male lead), Xiao sheng (young male lead) and Wu sheng (combating male lead). Lao sheng usually refers to a middle-aged or an old-aged character in the play, who normally wears an artificial beard. Xiao sheng refers to a young male character and most of the artists in this category sing in falsetto. Wu sheng stands for a combating male lead.

Dan (the female lead) is subdivided into Qingyi, Huadan, Wudan and Laodan. A qingyi (literally translated as “blue-dressed”) usually plays female roles with a heavy load of singing such as virtuous wives and good mothers. Huadan (literally translated as “colorfully dress”) can include a variety of roles – from empresses and princesses to maids and country girls. Wudan refers to a combating female lead while laodan an aged female lead who sings with natural voice.

Jing (the painted face) represents men with distinctly different looks and characters such as generals and outlaws. They are called painted face because of their colorful facial make-ups.

Chou (the clown) represents humorous or evil roles.


Facial make-ups

A foreigner who watches a Beijing Opera performance for the first time is very like to be stunned by the colorful facial make-ups of the performers, especially those playing the Jing roles. The colors applied, however, do more than merely odd an exotic atmosphere to the play. They actually carry different meanings. 

The commonly used colors for facial make-ups included red, pink, purple, reddish brown, black, grey, blue, yellow, green and white. Red stands for loyalty and justice; pink for directness and seniority; purple for prudence and staid; black for uprightness and honesty; white for resourcefulness and cunningness; yellow for keen-wittedness and ferocity; blue for bravery and arrogance; green for stubbornness and cruelty. The personality of a character is expressed by the combination of different colors employed in his facial make-up, so when he comes on stage the audience quickly know what kind of a person he is. The colors of gold and silver are often used for such roles as gods and ghosts. The clown usually have a characteristic white spot around his nostril. 

Classification of plays

Beijing Opera is classified into two categories: the singing plays and the military plays. The singing plays emphasize singing and acting while the military plays emphasize acrobatic feats. The performers are also confined by the special roles that they mainly play.

Most Beijing Opera plays draw on their themes from Chinese historical events, fictional tales from previous ages, folk stories and classical literary works. The famous Chinese classical novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” has been the source of more than 200 Beijing Opera plays.


Skills of performers

To become a good Beijing Opera performer, one has to master four basic skills: singing, dialogue, acting and combating.

Singing is the quintessence of the four skills. A performer is required to skillfully master the melodies and the articulation rule of the language. He is required to use different singing techniques to clearly and beautifully express the thoughts and emotions of different characters in different scenes. 

No less important is dialogue. The dialogues in Beijing Opera plays are very terse and, in a way, similar to blank verse. They are usually uttered with a pretentious and over-exaggerated tone. As dialoguing has no music accompaniment, its success of failure depends entirely on the skill of the performer. A good performer is required to have a good command of the four tones of the Chinese language, the rhythm and the cadence. The rhymed lines should be chanted. 

Acting in Beijing Opera calls for a set of stylized gestures and poses of the performer. There is a set of stylized precise patterns as to the movements of the hands, the body and the eyes. The limited staging demands the performer to express the plot with accurate acting. Such actions as climbing a ladder, mounting a horse and rowing a boat are all conveyed through the vivid acting of the performer without much staging and props. 

Combating is another important skill. A performer must learn how to handle the different ancient combating weapons and learn how to combine dance with acrobatic feats. Turning a somersault on stage is a basic requirement. 

Symbolism in Beijing Opera

In the production of a Beijing Opera, the stage setting is limited to the very essential, almost to the point of bareness on the stage. Yet, the state may encompass a time span of thousands of years and distance of thousands of miles. This achievement depends entirely on the superb acting of the performers as well as on the supposition and imagination of the audience. An oar can represent a boat and whip a horse. A mosquito-net-like tent means a sedan and a table with a few chairs can stand for a room. If these two are put together, they can represent a general’s office, a court room or a bridal chamber. Four soldiers can represent an army of thousands. If such and “army” walk a circle on the stage, it can mean they have traveled thousands of miles. Such combination of reality and supposition, exaggeration and symbolism completely breaks through the time and space limitation of the stage. 

Through the contributions of generations of performing artist, Beijing Opera has developed into a unique are form and has become an integral part of Chinese culture. 


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