China’s national art form is a mysterious blend of shrill sounds and painted faces, but the journey is its own reward. Follow Time Out Beijing as we take you step by step inside the world of Peking (or Beijing) opera.
The roots of Chinese local opera stretch back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), which makes Peking Opera’s two centuries comparatively brief. In 1790,
four troupes from Anhui province performed for opera fan Emperor Qianlong’s 80th
birthday, and decided they liked the view from the capital. Over the years, this
Anhui opera (huiju) absorbed northern
dialects and music from Shaanxi Province’s shadow puppetry, becoming what we
now call jingju, or Peking opera.
Today, jingju is
China’s national art form, luxuriating in government subsidies and embarking on
international tours. But historically, this was entertainment for – and by – the
great unwashed. Actors were seen as homosexuals, prostitutes or both, and audiences
assumed – often correctly – that performers were trapped by poverty or by a
father’s criminal conviction. For years, the law forbade Peking opera actors to
sit the prestigious imperial exam that you needed to become a civil servant.
Gradually, things changed. At first, jingju troupes used teahouses as rehearsal spaces; audiences
chatted, ate seeds and enjoyed the background noise. Eventually, patrons began
coming for the shows, not the tea, and troupes took their acts into established
theatres. They also began playing festivals, funerals and private parties of
the rich and famous. As their repertoire began honing in on the heroic, they
booked more time at the palace.
By the 1920s, Peking opera troupes were playing to sold-out
crowds in Russia, Japan and America. Legendary performer Mei Lanfang influenced
artists such as Berthold Brecht, Constantin Stanislavski and Charlie Chaplin, and
also received honorary degrees from US universities. Although opera elitists then
and now still see southern kunqu as
the elegant, sophisticated option, the fast-paced, martial arts-heavy storytelling
has made jingju China’s most
universal local opera.
Mei Lanfang in 1929. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
But while foreign audiences thrill to jingju's extraordinary stunts, its complexities may escape us. For
example, the stylised delivery and exaggerated movements, vocalisation and
facial expressions are more important than the individual characters. Colours,
simple staging and subtle gestures can tell entire stories. Sure, you can appreciate
Peking opera as an intricate art form, but it’s even better when you know what
to look for. Here are some of the basics.
Actors usually train for one role category; crossover
artists are exceptionally talented and exceptionally rare. The four basic role
types are sheng (male), dan (female), jing (male, painted-face characters) and chou (male, clowns). But divisions go further than this.
Sheng roles can be laosheng
(old or middle-aged men with beards), xiaosheng
(young men), wensheng (scholars and
bureaucrats) wusheng (warriors and
acrobats), and the occasional wawasheng
Laosheng role. Image: shutterstock.com.
Traditionally, young men played dan roles, even after
the ban on women was lifted. Dan
characters include laodan (elderly
mothers or aunts), the idealised qinyi,
(elaborately costumed aristocrats), huadan
(clever, independent female servants), daomadan
(female warriors) and caidan (female
The elaborately painted jing are either primary or secondary
roles, depending on the troupe’s repertoire; either way, these are forceful
characters with strong voices.
The chou clown’s secondary role can be rich or poor, good or bad,
but always foolish. Chou roles are either wenchou
(civilians) or wuchou (soldiers).
Shakespeare says “there’s no art to find the mind’s
construction in the face.” Jing performers disagree. Those in the know can glance at these garish visages and
instantly tell hero from villain; friend from foe. Lian Pu
refers to jing and chou characters’ face painting, but
while chou’s markings are limited to
skin tones and a white patch, jing’s
facial designs are literally works of art.
use 15 basic patterns, with around 1,000 variations. The myriad of shapes and
shades all indicate personality (there are 26 styles of eyebrows alone).
But don’t worry – learning the colours is a good start.
Main hues include red (loyal and courageous), white (sinister and plotting), blue (proud, brave, and possibly cruel),
black (forthright and rough, or
impartial and selfless) purple (like
red, but with higher levels of sophistication and respect), green (impulsive, violent and stubborn),
and yellow (fierce, ambitious, sly, and
sometimes treacherous). Gold and silver indicate gods and ghosts.
Sinister, rough, with a touch of courage? Image: shutterstock.com.
designs keep the basic face patterns, some divide faces into sections or even
fragments, and a mix represents a multi-layered personality – man is a complex
animal. Make-up is a personal thing; even top jing stars still paint their own faces.
Colours were also linked to the five elements and the five
directions (China includes the compass centre): red (south, fire), black
(north, water), white (west, metal), blue and green (east, wood), and yellow
But even jingju’s
simple makeup is elaborate. Young male and female roles use a white matte base with
black eyebrows and red or pink accents to emphasise a youthful glow.
Hailing originally from Sichuan opera, bian lian refers to the mystifying 'mood make-up', where one
character wears multiple layers of gauze or silk masks, each painted to
indicate his changing moods. Then, astoundingly, he flicks his fan or shakes
his head, and the mask disappears, revealing another, and another. Modern
performers have recorded up to 18 changes at one time, even putting faces on
the backs of their heads.
Like most magic, bian
lian is a closely guarded – even national – secret; even other troupe
members don’t know how it’s done. But it’s worth watching.
Troupes travelling by caravan had to limit their sets, so they
saved the detail for the elaborate costumes. Audiences could tell a player’s
gender, role, occupation, social status, and even personality by the colour of
his robe (mang) or the wings on his
hat. Embroidered dragons facing up, or with open mouths, meant an emperor;
facing down could mean a nobleman. Lower-level officials sported orchids or
Buddhist knots. Colours corresponded with jing facial make-up – but only the
emperor could wear the royal yellow.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Hats Check out
the black gauze headgear to assess the officials’ characters – wearing rectangle
wings shows loyalty, while sporting oval or diamond-shaped wings indicate corruption.
If only real life were this easy. Hats with two long wings are for
Shoes Particularly for larger-than-life jing
characters, shoe soles can be 20cm thick. A higher sole means a
Hair The qingyi’s elaborate datou hairstyle is complicated and probably painful. Actors use
cloth strips to pull their foreheads tight – ah, youth – then they use hairpins
to attach curls around their faces. Finally they add a wig, padding, hair ornaments,
jewellery and flowers.
characters wear stiff costumes as partial amour. Attaching four flags to the
back indicates wearing full armour.
Warrior in full armour. Image: shutterstock.com.
Beards The now
iconic Peking opera beard is also a character indicator. Colours include grey
(ages 50-60), white (ages 70-80) and black (ages 30-40). Red beards mean a hot-tempered
personality, especially for ghosts, while beards divided in three sections show
integrity. Only rough, unlettered types wear short moustaches, while villains
sport the curly kind. Long thick beards symbolise wealth and power, narrow
beards show learning, and short beards indicate selfishness.
Beards are tied to an actor’s ears, and attached to a wire
laid across his upper lip; this makes speaking and singing even more
Executing even the simplest gestures can take years of
training to fit Peking opera’s rigid codification. Water sleeves, or sleeve extensions, can emphasise moods, and a fan can transform into a butterfly or a
wine cup, provided the movement niceties are observed.
The whip is
particularly versatile. This represents not only the actor riding a horse, but
also the animal’s colour, movements, speed and level of fatigue.
Even acrobatics can be symbolic. A sudden backwards somersault means the
character is mourning the loss of a loved one.
style features a shrill upper register, supposedly to ensure the story was
heard over the orchestra and noisy teahouse audience. Laosheng (older men) sing in a natural style, while xiaosheng (young men) combine their
natural voices with falsetto. Jing
use loud, clear voices and exaggerated movements, and qingyi always use falsetto.
Much like a celebrated tenor, having a strong upper register
is Peking opera virtue; regardless of the composition, singers will choose the
pitch that best shows off their voices. Different artists in the same
performance sing in different keys, which requires musicians to be flexible.
Most Peking opera stories fall into the civilian (wen) and the martial-arts heavy military
(wu) categories, which weave in
elements from history, mythology, literature and legends. Today’s audiences see
self-contained acts or episodes instead of entire shows; this is a good thing,
since traditional tales can last up to seven hours. Emperor Qianlong once
commissioned a play called Sheng Ping Bao
Fa (The Precious Raft of Exalted Peace), adapted from the literary classic Journey to the West. It is 240 acts
Peking opera stages are almost bare, which means performers
– and audiences – have to use their imaginations. But again, this follows
strict rules and traditions.
Actors push open invisible ‘windows’ and close ‘doors’; they
lift their feet to enter a house, they point at temples to show shyness, or
they walk in circles to take long journeys. If two characters holding flags are
flanking another, we know the middle one is riding in a sedan chair; if the
flags are waving, he’s been caught in a storm.
More active characters show
running down mountains by turning somersaults off three stacked tables; others
whirl, leap and dive across the floor to indicate the ocean. And if someone
steps off a chair and exits the stage, he has just thrown himself down a
Jingju also gets a lot of mileage out
of tables and chairs. Cover a table with a dragon tablecloth, and the scene is
in a palace; orchids mean a scholar’s study. A chair in front of a table indicates
a local home; move it behind the table and now you’re in a palace or courtroom.
Better still, tables can represent beds, bridges, mountains, or even clouds.
A dragon tablecloth denotes a palace scene. Image: shutterstock.com.
Onstage musicians play traditional instruments such as the erhu (two-stringed fiddle), huqin (two-stringed viola, often plays
the melody), yueqin (type of Chinese
lute shaped like a banjo), sheng
(reed pipes), and pipa (four-stringed
lute) as well as drums, bells, and gongs. The ban, or clapper player, is also the conductor; this instrument
represents a galloping horse, but also gives actors their cues. Much like using
Wagnerian motifs, there are 48 different percussion patterns to accompany stage
entries and identify the characters’ rank and personalities.
One of China's great instruments: the Sheng.
A serious theatre for serious fans; expect the
shows to be longer, and the white noise of chatter and cracking sunflower seeds
to be maddening. Still, this is where true opera lovers go for their
entertainment – and the most genuine experience to be had.
7 Jianguomen Nei Dajie, Dongcheng district (6510 1308). Performances begin 7.30pm most days. 50-380RMB.
These are excellent performers, but the atmosphere is geared towards Western tour groups – ideal for jingju neophytes. Theatregoers can see short, English-subtitled pieces rich with martial arts while drinking complimentary tea or eating dinner. The theatre itself is nothing special, but come early and watch the performers make themselves up.
Inside the Qianmen Jiangguo Hotel, 175 Young’an Lu (135 5252 7373). Performances begin 7pm daily. 90-480RMB.
Beijing’s oldest surviving wooden theatre, Zhengyici (or Temple Theatre) was originally a temple built in 1688 by Qing Emperor Kangxi, but has a strong jingju pedigree; legendary performer Mei Lanfang once trod these boards. Renovated in 1995 by a visionary local businessman, the theatre has Peking opera performances – and even hosted comedian Louis CK on his Beijing visit.
220 Xiheyan Dajie, Xicheng district (138 0106 7568). Performances begin 7.30pm Fri-Sun. 240-450RMB.
A theatre in the Zhengyici vein, Hugang Huiguan was built in 1807 and for a time was one of Beijing's four great theatres. In fact, in 1912 this 'assembly hall saw the election of Sun Yat-sen to lead the Nationalist Party. Today, this richly adorned wooden theatre sports a dusty museum and presents 90-minute tourist-friendly performances complete with English plot synopses.
3 Hu Fangqiao Dajie, Xicheng district (6352 9140). Performances begin 6.30pm daily. 180-680RMB.