Brief introduction of Peking Opera to help you understand Chinese

Peking Opera

There are two spelling for “Peking Opera”

There are two spelling for “Peking Opera” , traditional Chinese 京劇 and simplified Chinese 京剧. Its literal meaning is Capital drama. Beijing opera arose in Beijing in the middle of the 19th century. It was based on the combination of Anhui opera and han opera, absorbing some merits of other local artistic forms. Peking opera is a performance art incorporating singing, reciting, acting, martial arts. The opera performances were mainly practiced in Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai.

Peking opera and its stylistic elements have appeared in many Chinese films. In 1993, there is a remarkable film “Farewell My Concubine” by Chen Kaige. It tells a love story of Peking opera actors, their romance on performance stage and sad truth behind the stage.

Peking Opera

Five main role types in Peking opera

There are five main role types in Peking opera, sheng (gentlemen), dan (women), jing (rough men), mo (middle-aged man)and chou (clowns). You can easily recognize them from their make-up and appearances if you like to watch the video.

The Sheng (生) is the main male role in Beijing opera. This role has several subtypes, the laosheng is a dignified older role. Young male characters are known as xiaosheng. The wusheng is a martial character for roles involving acrobatics.

The Dan (旦) refers to any female role in Beijing opera. Dan roles were originally divided into five subtypes. Old women were played by laodan, martial women were wudan, young female warriors were daomadan, virtuous and elite women were qingyi, and vivacious and unmarried women were huadan.

The Jing (净) is a painted face male role, a forceful character, a strong voice and exaggerating gestures.

The Chou (丑) is a male clown role. The Chou usually plays a minor role. The Chinese word chou, meaning “ugly” to reflect the clown’s combination of ugliness and laughter. Chou roles can be divided into Wen Chou (merchants and jailers), and Wu Chou (military roles).

You will see the performers in elaborate and colorful costumes on the stage. The impressive thick and heavy make-up is very exaggerating. Let me explain to you the basic symbolic meanings of colors. Red symbolizes steadiness and loyalty, white reflects the inside mind of wickedness and fraudulence, black suggests uprightness, and blue stands for braveness and steadfastness.

You might be surprised to the fact that Peking opera was initially an exclusive-male-actors. The actress are banned out, so the artistic form was mostly male performers catering to the tastes of male audience. So there are some gays among the fans. There is a Channel CCTV-11 in Mainland China currently focusing on broadcasting classic Chinese operas, including Peking opera. Besides its presence in mainland China, Peking opera has spread to many other places, such as, in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and overseas Chinese communities elsewhere.

Peking Opera

Harsh Training to become a role

Becoming a Peking opera performer requires a long and harsh training beginning from an early age. Performers are first trained in acrobatics, followed by singing and gestures. Peking opera follows other traditional Chinese arts in emphasizing meaning, rather than accuracy. So the audience often find many performances dealing with behaviors that occur in daily life are mostly stylized on stage. Peking opera does not aim to accurately represent reality at all. For example, an actor can act out the scene of galloping the horse simply by using a horsewhip without riding a real horse on stage. That is what we like to remind you if the audiences do not have Chinese background.

Costumes and accessories
It becomes easy to purchase the Peking opera costumes and accessories on at reasonable price now. There are some photos to show you the main costume styles. The costumes take on added importance. Costumes function first to distinguish the different roles the character.

In 2010, Beijing opera was inscribed on the representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO.