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Chinese Traditional Opera

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The Development of Chinese Traditional Opera

Chinese traditional opera is a comprehensive form of performing art that combines singing, music, dialogue, acrobatics, martial arts, and pantomime. It represents the culmination and distillation of two thousand years of Chinese civilization.

Chinese traditional opera has a long history. From as far back as the third century, simple plays were performed as part of court entertainment. In the twelfth century, during the Southern Song Dynasty (1271-1368), Yuan zaju had become a landmark in the development of traditional drama. It took social life as its main subject matter and was very popular at that time. Guan Hanqing is considered the greatest Yuan dramatist. One of his plays, "The Wrongs Suffered by Dou E", is still appreciated by today’s audiences.

In the later years of the Yuan Dynasty, Yuan zaju was gradually replaced by Nanxi, a kind of southern opera. By the middle of the Ming Dynasty, a combination of Yuan zaju and Nanxi, known as poetic drama, appeared. The Romance of Drama was written by Tang Xianzu, who is considered to be the "Chinese Shakespeare".

During the late Qing Dynasty, a new type of traditional drama–Beijing Opera–came into being. In 1790, some troupes of Anhui Opera went to the Imperial Palace in Beijing to offer birthday congratulations to the emperor and other members of the royal family. At first these troupes performed exclusively for the royal family. After years some opera troupes remained in Beijing and performed for the ordinary citizens. Because of their efforts to learn artistic techniques from other local operas and to the taste of the local audience in Beijing, Anhui Opera started to include Beijing dialect and local singing techniques. Based on Anhui Opera, Beijing Opera took shape between 1840 and 1860 as an independent opera form. Having incorporated the merits of many other local dramas, Beijing Opera not only appeals to Chinese audiences but also is warmly received by people all over the world.

In the course of the development of Chinese traditional opera, mutual borrowing has taken place among various types of local opera and new forms have appeared continually. Recent surveys show there are 368 different forms of opera throughout the country. Each variety takes its name from the place where it originated and is popular. The use of local dialects and unique melodies distinguishes the different types of opera. Among the best known forms are: Beijing Opera (actually a national form), Pingju (popular in the North), Shaoxing opera (popular in Zhejing Province and Shanghai), Yuju (a kind of Henan Opera), Kunqu (Kunshan Opera, popular mainly in Jiangsu Province), Qinqiang (Shaanxi Opera), Chuanju (Sichuan Opera), Hanju (Hubei Opera), and Yueju (Guangzhou Opera).

Revised June 13, 2011