Chinese Traditional Opera - Beijing

Beijing opera

Beijing Opera

Among the hundreds of forms of opera throughout China, Beijing Opera has had the greatest influence, and is therefore regarded as the national form.

Beijing Opera is a comprehensive artistic performance that combines music, singing, dialogue, pantomime, acrobatics and martial arts. Therefore, an actor or actress in the Beijing Opera has to meet more requirements than those required in other forms of performance art. He or she has to be a performing artist, a singer, and a dancer at the same time. It usually takes the student more than ten years of training to learn singing and acrobatic skills. Thus, it is difficult to be a qualified performer in Beijing Opera.

Symbolism prevails in Beijing Opera. The Beijing Opera stage knows no limit of space or time; it can be the setting for any action. The performer's acting is mostly pantomime. Footwork, gestures, and various kinds of body movements can portray and symbolize the actions of opening a door, climbing a hill, going upstairs, or rowing a boat. When a girl is doing needle work, she has neither a needle nor thread in her hands. When a lady is riding in a carriage, the performer actually has to walk flanked on each side by a flag with colored tassels, which represents riding a horse. Four generals and four soldiers represent an army of thousands. In other words, each action of a Beijing Opera performer is highly symbolic.

The music of Beijing Opera combines the er huang tune from Anhui Opera, the xi pi tune from Hanju (Hubei Opera), and the tunesand musical accompaniment of Kunqu (Kunshan Opera). Typical Chinese musical instruments are used in a Beijing Opera orchestra. The two-stringed fiddles jing hu and er hu are two of the main instruments. Other instruments include sheng (reed pipes), yue qin (moonshaped mandolin), pi pa (the Chinese lute), suo na (the Chinese clarinet), drums, bells, gongs, and hardwood castanets.

Singing in Beijing Opera consists of a score of melodies based on the xi pi tune and sorrowful feelings. Spoken dialogue is done in two forms: yun bai, which sounds like the Hubei and Anhui dialects, and jing bai, which sounds like the Beijing dialect. The former is used by main and serious characters and the latter by minor and frivolous roles.

The character roles in Beijing Opera are divided into four main types according to the sex, age, social status, and profession of the character. The first type, Sheng, refers to male roles. Sheng is subdivided into lao sheng (middle-aged or old men), xiao sheng (young men) and wu sheng (men with martial skills). The second, Dan, refers to female roles. Like Sheng, Dan is also subdivided into various types. Qing yi is a woman with a strict moral code; hua dan is a vivacious young woman; wu dan is a woman with martial skills; and lao dan is an elderly woman. The third character type, Jing, refers to the roles with painted faces. They are usually warriors, heroes, statesmen, or even demons. Jing can be further divided into wen jing (civilian type) and wu jing (warrior type). The last type, Chou, or clown, is a comic character and can be recognized at first sight by his special make-up (a patch of white paint on his nose). Chou is subdivided into wen chou (civilian clown) and wu chou (clown with martial skills).

In Beijing Opera, facial painting—applied to Jing roles only—shows the character's age, profession, and personality by employing different colors. Each color symbolizes a certain characteristic: red for loyalty and uprightness, black for a rough, stern, or honest nature, yellow for rashness and fieriness, white for a cunning and deceitful character, and gold or silver for gods and demons. In Beijing Opera, over one thousand painted facial patterns are used. The success of each one lies in the actor’s ability to make subtle and interesting changes within the fixed facial pattern.

The costumes in Beijing Opera are dazzling with their bright colors and magnificent embroidery. Some of the costumes used in present-day performances have a resemblance to the fashion of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The use of colors indicates the character’s social status: yellow for the imperial family, red for high nobility, red or blue for upright men, white for old officials, and black for all other men. A student usually wears a blue gown; a general, padded armor; and an emperor, a dragon robe. Besides gorgeous clothes and headdresses, jeweled girdles for men and hair ornaments for women are also used in Beijing Opera.

Since China’s 1949 “Liberation,” much has been achieved in reforming this traditional opera. Efforts have been made to eliminate the feudal aspects, to improve stagecraft, and to widen the subject matter. A new generation of young actors and actresses has emerged and are making new achievements based on the foundational groundwork of the traditional schools.

Revised June 13, 2011