A beginner's guide to Peking Opera

Everything you need to know to understand Beijing's iconic opera

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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.

History


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.


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Image: shutterstock.com.


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.


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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.


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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.


Types of roles


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 (children).


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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 comedians).


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).



Make-up



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Image: shutterstock.com.


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.


Jing characters 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.


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Sinister, rough, with a touch of courage? Image: shutterstock.com.


Some 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 (centre, earth).


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.



Face changing (bian lian)


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.




Costumes


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.


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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 influential rulers.


Shoes Particularly for larger-than-life jing characters, shoe soles can be 20cm thick. A higher sole means a higher status.


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.


Armour Warrior characters wear stiff costumes as partial amour. Attaching four flags to the back indicates wearing full armour.


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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.


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Image: shutterstock.com.


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 challenging.


Technique



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.


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Image: shutterstock.com.


Even acrobatics can be symbolic. A sudden backwards somersault means the character is mourning the loss of a loved one.



Vocal styles



Jingju’s signature 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.



Stories


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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 long.



Staging



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 well.


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.


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A dragon tablecloth denotes a palace scene. Image: shutterstock.com.


Instruments


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.




Where to see jingju in Beijing


Chang’an Grand Theater (长安大戏院) (cháng ān dà xì yuàn)


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.


Liyuan Theatre (Líyuán jùchăng)


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.


Zhengyici Theatre


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.


Huguang Guild Hall Hall (Húguăng Huìguăn)

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.

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