Beijing opera is a national treasure of China with a history of 200 years. In the 55th year of the Qing Dynasty (1790), the four big Huiban opera entered the capital and combined with Kunqu opera, Yiyang opera, Hanju opera and Luantan in Beijing. Through a period of more than 50 years of combination and integration of various kinds of opera there evolved the present Beijing opera.
Beijing opera is a combination of stylized action, singing, dialogues, acrobatic fighting and dancing to represent a story or depict different characters and their feelings of anger, sorrow, happiness, surprise, fear and sadness. In Beijing opera there are four main types of roles: sheng (male) dan (young female), jing (painted face, male), and chou (clown, male or female).
Sheng has some sub-categories, including Senior, Junior, Acrobatic, Junior Acrobatic, Child, Red-face, Poor, Official, etc. These are classified according to the role’s characteristics. Male roles are either civil or military. The actors themselves are mainly trained for three main parts: Senior Male Role or Lao Sheng, a middle-aged or old man who wears a beard, Junior Male Role or Xiao Sheng (Hsiao sheng), a young man; and Acrobatic Male Role or Wu Sheng, a man of military tenor, especially skilled in acrobatics.
Lao Sheng actors are required to attain the dignity of bearing and gentle, polished manners of the middle-aged mandarin official or scholar; in military plays they may be a general or high-ranking officer of a gentler and more educated character than of the painted faces. Their apparel accordingly is of good quality but not too garish in its design or color. A Lao Sheng has a black or white beard, depending on his age, and wears a black hat with two fins on either side, which vary in shape according to his rank in a civil role. When a military role is played, the costume is quieter and of a more uniform color than those of the warriors in the painted-face roles, but the Kao or amour is also worn. A Lao Sheng’s voice is soft and pleasant to listen to, neither too harsh nor too high pitched, but gentle and firm. Minor officials or landowners who have attained a small degree of responsibility are also included in this role.
The junior male or Xiao Sheng requires of its actor the distinguishing feature of a swirl on his forehead and high-pitched voice to indicate his youth. The part is extremely difficult to sing, and when the actor is speaking his voice must suddenly drop from its high-pitched quality to indicate the voice-breaking period of adolescence. The Xiao Sheng is usually small and slight of stature, and his clothes are often quite elaborate if a young man of society or a young warrior is being represented, but can be subdued if they are those of an impoverished scholar. The young warrior can often be distinguished by his long pheasant feathers, which rise in sweeping curves from his hat. No beard is worn for this part.
Wu Sheng actors are mainly acrobats, although they sometimes have a part, which requires much acting. They play any part in military or civil plays, which requires a high standard of acrobats. The skill of these actors is demonstrated in the fighting scenes, which take on a stylized form in Beijing opera, and also in scenes from legendary stories when immortals and devils tumble and twist about the stage showing off feats of skill. In military plays swords and spears are wielded deftly and quickly without the attacker actually touching his opponent. These movements require great precision in timing, and the actor ducks and twists his body, often turning somersaults at same time. If he is a young military officer, the Wu Sheng will also have pheasant feathers in his hat, and four small flags or pennants strapped to his back and high-soled boots, all of which make his acrobatic feats even more spectacular. His costume is often bright in color, especially in the legendary plays. A Wu Sheng actor is not trained as highly in singing, for acting and acrobatics are his outstanding feature, but he has a pleasant voice, slightly stronger than Lao Sheng but rather quiet in pitch, and he sings with a natural voice.
The Dan or female role can be divided into six main parts which principally indicate character; Qing Yi, modest and virtuous usually rich and educated; Hua dan (Hua tan) flirtatious usually poor; Gui Men Dan, a young, married girl; Dao Ma Dan, a stronger, more forceful character, usually a woman general; Wu Dan, the female acrobat; and Lao Dan, an old woman.
A Qing Yi actress portrays a lady of good and sympathetic character Usually of a quiet, gentle disposition and graceful in her movements, she is the Chinese ideal of a beautiful woman. As a wife she is faithful, as a young girl a model of propriety. Her good breeding is shown by the graceful, flowing movements of her ‘water sleeves’. The Qing Yi’s costume is elegant, simple and of good quality, but not as vivid in color as that of the Hua Dan. Her singing is of a pure, high-pitched quality.
For a Hua Dan actress the happy, flirtatious personality of a young girl is required. Usually not of such a high social standing as the Qing Yi, the Hua Dan actress with her child like and generally quicker movements attracts the attention of the audience. This is a difficult part to play successfully. The Hua Dan’s facial expression is continually changing and her mischievous eye movements are particularly attractive. Because of her lower social status more hand movements are required, as in old times it was not considered polite for a well-bred Chinese lady to show her hands. Costume, usually vivid in design and color, consists of a jacket and trousers, and a red or other loud colored handkerchief is carried to flutter in the actress’s hand. Her character, needless to say, is not as virtuous as that of the Qing Yi and therefore her singing voice has a happier and slightly stronger quality. She also has to do more speaking than singing.
A Gui Men Dan is the young, unmarried girl, who in later life will develop into a Qing Yi or a Hua Dan; her immaturity is clearly shown in her reactions, for though naughty and slightly mischievous, she has not the confidence of the Hua Dan, although her schemes and plans are often just as successful.
A Dao Ma Dan plays the part of the female warrior. She is trained mainly for acting and singing and performs many skilful movements especially with the pheasant feathers in her headdress and her military weapons. She still retains feminine charm, however, and a very versatile actress is required for this role. A Dao Ma Dan’s clothes can be very elaborate, as she wears the four pennant strapped to her back and the Kao
. A Wu Dan is the female acrobatic role and the Wu Dan actress steps into or takes any female role that requires a high degree of acrobatics. She is purely an acrobat but her role demands a talented actress for a successful performance.
A Lao Dan is simply an old woman, but great skill is required for this specialized part. The Lao Dan actress cleverly portrays in her bent back and faltering but dignified movements her character’s advancing years. She is often seen carrying a staff. Unlike the other female roles, the Lao Dan wears no make-up and her costume is plainer in color and design. Her voice tends to be slightly deeper, because the natural voice is used, not the forced high-pitched one used on other Dan roles.
To see a Jing actor for the first time is a startling experience for the spectator. This part is more noted for courage and resourcefulness than for scholarly intelligence. Often playing the part of a high-ranking army general, the Jing actor with his painted face can also be seen as a warrior or official. His robust, gruff, bass voice and grotesquely painted face together with his swaggering self-assertive manner all combine to make him the most forceful personality in most scenes in which he appears. Jing actors are usually, in fact, extroverts. The general rule for the basic color is: red for good, white for deceitful, black for rough, and blue for wild, i.e. a bandit would have a blue face. All Jing actors wear a heavy, ornate costume and a head dress with a padded jacket underneath to enhance the effect, They can be divided into three main types: Hei Tou (black face), who is good at singing and usually a loyal general; Jia Zi (Chia Tze), who is good at acting, and generally a more complicated character; and Wu Jing, who is mainly proficient in fighting and acrobatics and seldom plays a very prominent role.
Lastly there is the Chou or comedy actor who generally plays the role of a dumb but likeable and amusing character with blinking eyes and all the appropriate gestures. Sometimes the Chou can be a rascal, with a slightly wicked nature. Alternatively a scholar or prince–an eccentric or representing the sort of scholar or prince who would not command much respect. Chou parts can be divided into two types: Wen Chou, who is usually a civilian, such as a jailer, servant, merchant or scholar; and Wu Chou, who performs minor military roles as a soldier and must be skilled in acrobatics. His costume is either elaborate or fussy if of high social standing, but simple if of a low standing.
The repertoire of Peking opera is mainly engaged in fairy tales of preceding dynasties, important historical events, emperors, ministers and generals, geniuses and great beauties, from the ancient times to Yao, Shun, Yu, the Spring and Autumn Period, the Warring States Period and the dynasties of Qin, Han, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, Qing.
The music of Peking opera is that of the “plate and cavity style?. Its melody with harmonious rhythms is graceful and pleasing to the ears. The melody may be classified into two groups: “Xipi” and “erhong”, guiding pattern, original pattern, slow pattern, quick pattern, desultory pattern being their chief patterns. The performance is accompanied by a tune played on wind instruments, percussion instruments and stringed instruments, the chief musical instruments being jinghu (a two-stringed bowed instrument with a high register), yueqin (a four-stringed plucked instrument with a full-moon-shaped sound box), Sanxian (a three-stringed plucked instrument), suona horn, flute drum, big-gong, cymbals, small-gong, etc.
The costumes in Peking opera are graceful, magnificent, elegant and brilliant, most of which are made in handicraft embroidery.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Beijing Opera suffered along with other kinds of theatrical arts in China. All the traditional pieces reflecting the Old Societies were banned from performance. Traditional Beijing Opera was allowed to be shown again in 1978. But due to the threat from other entertainments, Beijing Opera’s out-of-date styles and the lack of historical and theatrical knowledge of the young, this art had lost a lot of its audiences. Most of the audiences are old people, who were children when Beijing Opera was at its peak. The art is dying.
Chinese Opera Images and Stories by Wang-Ngai Siu Feb 1997 P45~50
Chln Cho Hang. Lecture at Fudan University, Shanghai. Retired opera performer. Aug 15, 1998
Zhu Zhi Fang Professor at Beijing University Aug 18, 2000 (Grandmother)