right Peking Opera and other forms of Chinese opera merge singing, dialogue, acrobatics and pantomime into one art form performed by actors in garish make up or masks in a way that is not unlike Greek drama, which incorporated a chorus and also used masks extensively. Peking Opera also features acrobatics, martial arts, and poetic, stylized singing and dancing.

Drama was the first literature in China to be written in the vernacular. Famous early dramatists include Wang Shihfu, author of “Romance of the Western Chamber,” and Guan Hanqing (Kuang Han-ch'ing), author . Both men lived during the 13th century. Many popular stories were performed as Chinese opera. One of China’s most famous stories is “The Peony Pavillion “

Most story plots in traditional Chinese opera performances are based on famous Chinese classics and myths. Reflecting Chinese culture and philosophy, almost all opera performances highlight virtues such as loyalty, love and patriotism. Other than a form of entertainment, Chinese opera also plays an active role in dispensing important messages, especially those concerning patriotic values. [Source:, Singapore Tourism Board]

Actors usually fall into one of four types of roles: the leading male (usually a scholar or official), the leading female (usually played by a man), the painted-face roles (warriors, heroes, demons, adventurers, and other characters), and the clown.[Source: Eleanor Stanford, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Websites and Sources: Chinese Opera Wikipedia article on Chinese Opera Wikipedia ; Beijing Opera Masks ; Literature: Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC); Classics: Chinese Text Project ; Side by Side Translations; Classic Novels: Journey to the West site ; English Translation PDF File ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Culture: China ; China Culture Online ;Chinatown Connection ; Transnational China Culture Project

Early Chinese Plays

Early dramas combined mime, stylised movement and a chorus. The chorus described the action which was enacted by dancer-actors. A play called Daimian (tai-mien) or Mask tells about a prince whose features were so soft that he was obliged to wear a terrifying mask in battle in order to scare the enemy. Later, in the Tang (T’ang) (618–907) period the play also found its way to Japan. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

A play called Tayao niang (t’a-yao niang) or The Dancing, Singing Wife comes from the 6th century AD and is a story about domestic violence. The husband is a drunkard, who beats his poor wife. Finally, however, he is punished for his misbehaviour. From Central Asia or even from India originates a dance play called Botou (Po-t’ou) or Head for head. It is about a youth whose father was killed by a tiger. The youth, in a white mourning costume, wanders a long way over the hills and through the valleys in search for the killer tiger. During his wanderings he sings eight songs and is finally able to avenge his father’s fate. **

The play scripts of those early dance plays, which also seem to combine sung passages, are now known mainly through sources from the Tang period (618–907). Studying them is a kind of detective work where textual sources are used side by side with visual ones. Possibly some of the characteristics of later Chinese operas can be traced back to these early plays. **

The fighting scenes appear to originate in the early martial arts systems, whereas the female movement vocabulary of later operas has retained the use of the long sleeves which dominate the female dancing tomb figurines. Even some of the themes of the early plays have continued to be essential for countless later operas, such as filial piety and other themes related to the feudal, ethical codes. **

As has already been mentioned, speculation about how the early plays were actually performed is based on textual and visual sources. No archaic theatrical forms exist anymore in China, where the communist regime consistently destroyed forms of culture that were regarded as feudalistic. If one would like to get an idea of the early Chinese forms of performance, one should, perhaps, turn to the neighbouring cultures of Korea and Japan, which have preserved traditions from early periods when they had close contacts with imperial China and were profoundly influenced by it. **

“Adjutant Plays” and Early Story Material in the Tang Period (618-907)

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “At court a new form of entertainment gained popularity. It was the so-called canjun xi (ts’an-chün hsi) or the adjutant play, which probably evolved from earlier, more or less loose, clown and jester numbers. It consisted of short comic skits and featured two comic characters, a more or less dumb courtier, canjun (ts’an-chün), and a slightly cleverer character, canggu (ts’ang-ku). The “adjutant play” has been seen as a forerunner of the fixed role categories of later Chinese opera and particularly of its comic chou characters. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

The Tang period was also the golden age for literature and many romantic stories. Buddhist legends and miracle stories were also popular. The Indian influence was strongly present, which is clearly indicated by the fact that a manuscript of the famous Indian Sanskrit play Sakuntala has been found in China. **

The influence of the Indian epic Ramayana can be traced in the stories about the beloved (and yet anarchistic) Sun Wukong (Sun Wu-k’ung) or the Monkey King. He is a central character in originally orally transmitted stories centred on the Buddhist monk Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang), who travelled to India in order to obtain sacred Buddhist manuscripts. Later in the 16th century the stories were collected in a book called A Journey to the West, Xiyou ji (Hsi-yu chi), by Wu Chengen (Wu Ch’eng-en). The most colourful travelling companion of the monk Xuanzang is the Monkey King, who even today is the playful hero of many later operas, shadow and puppet plays, cartoons and animations. **

Famous Yuan Dynasty (1279–1369) Dramatists

The names of about a hundred Yuan dramatists have come down to us, and the titles of seven hundred plays are known. The flourish of Yuan drama centred mainly in North China and the then capital, Beijing. The Yuan plays were written to be sung and acted. The language used was mainly the vernacular of its day but the sung “arias” employed sophisticated lyrics. 171 complete Yuan dramas are known today. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

The northern zaju was the style in which these four-act dramas were performed. The music also presented the Yuan zaju style, which unfortunately is lost. At the beginning, one of the supporting characters explained the plot to the audience, after which the leading actors appeared. Only the leading actors sang. Singing, acting, mime and drama merged together, forming an operatic whole. **

The most famous of the Yuan dramatists were “The Four Yuan-Period Masters”, Guan Hanqing (Kuan Han-ch’ing), Ma Zhiyan (Ma Chih-yüan), Bai Pu (Pai P’u), and Zheng Guangzun (Cheng Kuan-tsun). The earliest of them, Guan Hanqing, is regarded as the “Father of Chinese Dramatic Literature”. Another important Yuan period dramatist was Wang Shifu (Wang Shih-fu), who wrote the famous Romance of the Western Chamber, Xixiang ji (Hsi-hsiang chi). **

Guang Hanqing or the “Father of Chinese Dramatic Literature” often portrayed in his crime stories, as did also other Yuan dramatists, mistreated prostitutes and beauties in distress. One of the most famous plays of this genre is Guan Hanqing’s Dou E yuan (Tou Eh yüan), The Injustice Experienced by Dou E or Snow in Midsummer. **

Most of the Yuan dramatists came, as mentioned, from the class of the scholar-officials. Bai Pu (1226–1306) was a son of an impoverished civil servant family. His best-known play is Wutong yu (Wu-t’ung yü) or Rain on the Pawlonia Tree. It tells the tragic story of the love of the Tang emperor Ming Huang and his concubine Yang Guifei amid the political intrigues and power play while the Tang dynasty was nearing its end. **

Famous Yuan Dynasty (1279–1369) Plays

“"Romance of the Western Chamber" tells the love story of Ts'ui Ying-ying and Chang Hung. Authored by Wang Shih-fu, it is one of the best-known plays (tsa chu) from the Yuan Dynasty (1260-1368). According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “ Passing by P'u-chiu Temple on his way to the imperial capital for the government examinations, Chang Hung had a chance encounter with Ying-ying, the only daughter of the former prime minister. The two fell in love at first sight, and Chang found a pretext to stay at the temple. At night and separated by the wall between them, Ying-ying burnt incense and they recited poems to each other in expression of their love. This idyllic time was ended by the rebel army of Sun Fei-hu, who besieged P'u-chiu Temple and demanded to take Ying-ying as his wife. In order to save the temple, Madam Ts'ui (Ying-ying's mother) promised Ying-ying's hand in marriage to anyone who could force the rebels to lift their siege. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei]

“Chang wrote urgently to his friend General White Horse for help and was able to save the temple. However, Madam Ts'ui refused to allow Ying-ying to marry Chang, giving the excuse that her daughter had been promised since childhood to another. Sorrow-stricken, Chang fell ill. Ying-ying's handmaiden Hung-niang, however, helped the lovers to meet secretly in the Western Chamber. Madam Ts'ui thereupon discovered the lovers' meeting and interrogated Hung-niang. Fortunately, with her eloquence and ingenuity, Hung-niang was able to persuade Madam Ts'ui to consent to the marriage of the two, on the condition that Chang successfully obtain a high official post. Ying-ying separated tearfully from Chang at the Ten Mile Pavilion and Chang proceeded to the imperial capital to take the examinations. Chang finally returned, having topped the imperial examinations, and the lovers were united in marriage at last.

The Yuan play "T'ang Emperor Ming-huang Listening to Rain on Firmiana Trees on an Autumn Night" is based on Po Chu-i's epic poem "Song of Everlasting Sorrow", which tells the story of the emperor and his beloved concubine Lady Yang. The play contains four acts, entitled respectively: "Double Seven Celebrations at the Palace of Immortality", "Dance at the Pavilion of Scents", "Death of Lady Yang at Ma-wei Hill", and "Emperor Ming-huang Mourns Lady Yang on a Rainy Late Autumn Night". A famous print — “Dance at the Pavilion of Scents” made sometime between 1573 to 1620 by Ku Ch'u-chai — depicts a scene from the second act, as the beautiful Lady Yang dances elegantly. Her movements are graceful and her sleeves fluttering gently, the viewer thus also sharing in the beauty of this occasion.

Besides historical stories and romances, stories about the supernatural also often served as the material on which the Yuan dramas were based. One example of an early Taoist-inspired ghost opera is Qiannü lihun (Ch’ian-nü li-hun) or Ciannun sielu irtoaa ruumiista (synopsis). It was written by Zheng Guangzun (1280–1330) and is based on a story from the Tang period. Yuan dramatis could explore several story genres. Ma Zhiyuan is famous for his Taoist themes, but his well-known play Hangong qiu (Han-kung ch’iu) or Autumn in Han Palace, is based on an ancient, tragic love story with patriotic overtones (synopsis). It has been one of the most beloved Yuan dramas. **

Tale of Pipa

An important early Ming-period dramatic script is Pipa ji (p’i-p’a chi) or The Story of the Lute by Gao Ming (Kao Ming) (1307–1370). It is about a youth who flees from his parents and his young wife to attend the imperial examination. After passing it successfully, he is forced to marry the daughter of a prominent minister. Back home the young scholar’s parents die during a famine. The wife dutifully takes care of their funeral rites, after which she heads for the capital in search of her husband. She carries with her the only possession she has, a lute. The minister’s daughter understands the love her husband feels for the girl and agrees to accept her into the household as a second wife. **

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: "Tale of the Pipa" was authored by Kao Ming in the Yuan dynasty. The lead character Ts'ai I was a scholar who, after only two months of marriage to his bride Chao Wu-niang, was compelled by his father to go to the imperial capital to take the government examinations. Ts'ai I managed to top the examinations, but was also chosen by Prime Minister Niu to be his son-in-law as a result. Ts'ai I's protests that he was already married and that his parents needed him in their old age were all ignored, and he was forced to marry into the Niu family. During this time a severe drought took place in Ts'ai I's hometown of Ch'en-liu, and although the government had sent supplies, they were seized by the scoundrel Li Chen. Wu-niang had no choice but to beg for rice to feed her parents-in-law while surviving on only the chaff herself. One by one the aged Ts'ai's passed away, unable to bear the suffering. Before their deaths they wished to write a letter to renounce Wu-niang as Ts'ai I's wife, as they did not want Wu-niang to be doomed to an empty marriage due to Ts'ai I's lack of filial piety. However, Wu-niang refused, wishing to remain loyal to her husband. Following their deaths, Wu-niang had to sell her lovely hair to pay for their funeral and dig the ground with her own hands to make a grave. Her filial piety so moved the gods that they built the grave for her. Afterwards, Wu-niang set off to the imperial capital in search of her husband, carrying a pipa on her back and taking with her the portraits of her husband's parents. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei]

“Following his remarriage, Ts'ai I still yearned desperately for home and was always melancholy. He had sought to have someone carry a message home, but unfortunately he was deceived. When his wife Lady Niu discovered this, she took initiative in asking her father to bring his parents and Chao Wu-niang to the capital. When Wu-niang arrived at the Niu's residence, Lady Niu even skillfully arranged for Wu-niang and Ts'ai I to meet. Finally Prime Minister Niu was persuaded by his daughter's kindness and reason to commend the Ts'ai family to the emperor, and the family of Ts'ai I and his two wives was reunited.

Kunqu Plays

The birth of kunqu was due to the close co-operation of musicians, such as Wei Liangfu, with talented play writers. Chinese is a tonal language, and thus when it is sung, its relationship with accompanying music is close and specific, an important phenomenon to be further discussed later. The tones, according to whether they are level, ascending, or first descending and then ascending, or descending in pitch, affect the actual meaning of the word and consequently create a kind of musical basis within the language itself. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

The first writer who was able to create dramatic scripts and language matching the fashionable kunqu melodies was Tang Xianzu (T’ang Hsien-tsu) (1550–1617). As he was contemporaneous with Shakespeare he is sometimes called the “Shakespeare of China”. His works are regarded as the epitome of the dramatic literature of the Ming period. His plays are still praised for their harmonious structure, deep emotions and sophisticated style. **

His style is often called the “dreaming” Ming style. This is because of the so-called dream scenes, which were both his innovation and his trademark. Through these dream scenes or sequences, in which the leading character falls asleep, it was possible to make a character’s secret or unconscious hopes or fears visible. The most famous of these kinds of dream sequences is in Tang Xianzu’s most popular opera, The Peony Pavilion. **

Kunqu dramas are of a high literary standard and their poetic language is complex and not easy to understand for modern audiences. They employ the full scale of role categories developed in the earlier theatrical styles. They include the sheng or the male roles, the dan or the female roles, the chou or the comic roles, and the jing or the painted-face categories. The themes tended to be romantic and concerned which such things as lovers’ sorrows. Thus the leading characters in kunqu plays are often a young lady and a young scholar.

Popular Kunqu Plays

A play that is renowned for its dream sequence, called Spilling the "Water in Front of a Horse" {Maqian po shui (Ma-ch’ien p’o shui) recounts the story of an elderly, less successful scholar and the tragic end of his selfish and over-ambitious wife, played by an actress who has specialised in the coquette female characters, called hua tan (synopsis). **

One landmark in the revival process of kunqu was the performance of a play called "Fifteen Strings of Cash" (Shiwu guan (Shih-wu kuan) in Suzhou in 1957. The play had been seen performed as Peking opera, but in Suzhou it was again produced in the original kunqu style. Kunqu plays were very commonly adapted to the Peking Opera style, which had inherited so many elements from the earlier kunqu. **

A kunqu play that is also popular as Peking opera is Longing for Worldly Pleasures, which, in fact, had been adapted to the kunqu repertory from an even older southern style. It is a kind of monodrama for a virtuoso huadan actress who interprets the romantic longing of a young Buddhist nun. Another play, very popular both as kunqu opera and Peking opera, is The White Snake, Baishe zhuan (Paishe chuan). In the play, the spirit of a white snake turns into a young woman and marries a young pharmacist. A monk is determined to destroy the snake and her marriage. The white snake goes through numerous hardships and ends up by being locked up in the dungeon of a pagoda. **

The White Snake is exceptional as a kunqu, since it includes fighting scenes that employ movements from the martial arts. That was not common in the southern kunqu tradition, whereas the later Peking Opera makes full use of them. Before turning to the birth of northern Peking Opera, which gained the status of the national style after the kunqu, it is time to look at what kinds of operas were and still are performed in other regions of China. The play was created from an old story by Tian Han in the beginning of the 20th century. **

Peony Pavilion

Kunqu opera’s most famous work and one of China’s most famous stories is “ The Peony Pavilion “. Written more than 400 years ago by the Ming dynasty playwright Tang Xiazu, it is a love story that takes place within a dream: a woman falls asleep by a peony pavilion and dreams of a handsome scholar she has never met. Unable to find him in the real world she dies of a broken heart and ends up in the Underworld, where the strength of her desire convince the Infernal Judge to release her ghost back into the land of the living to marry the man of her dreams.

In the Peony Pavilion the young lady understands that everything was only a dream and then mourns herself to death. The effect of Tang Xianzu’s dream scenes were so moving that young female spectators, it is said, went out of their minds, and even committed suicide. Later, Tang Xianzu’s dream-scene technique was imitated by several less talented playwrights, and some of them substituted Tang Xianzu’s magical poetry with simple stage effects. **

Fei Bo, a Chinese choreographer, told The Times: “The story “tells you universal emotions and passions. People can understand how strongly the heroine fights to find love. Drama and novels developed from the same story-telling tradition in which the use of vernacular language is a prominent feature. The Peach Blossom Fan and the popular short stories collected in Lasting Words to Awaken the World and Pounding the Table in Amazement are other works that grew from this tradition.

Peking Opera Stories

Opera has traditionally been important in passing on Chinese culture from one generation to another. Most stories fall into two categories: “wen” (“civilian”), based on lyrical love stories; and “wu” (“military”), based on heroic tales, and often featuring spectacular acrobatics. Most Peking Opera stories come from Chinese history, theology, cosmology and literature and legends. In a typical Peking Opera, four or five heavily-made-up singers stand under trees and act out a sad love story. There is generally some kind of moral message. Some traditional Peking Operas are over seven hours long.

The plot of “Hua Deng” ("Flower Lamp"), one of China's most famous operas, is similar to Romeo and Juliet. After the couple meets and has a few rendezvous, they come to the realization they can not marry. The women character commits suicide. After the man sings a sad song on her grave he too kills himself. Another famous Peking Opera story is about a ghost longing for his life on earth.

The plots of Peking Operas are often inspired by natural disasters, revolts and fairy tales. Popular operas include are "Havoc in Heaven" (about a clever Monkey King who foils attempts by the gods to capture him); "A Drunken Beauty" (about a Tang dynasty concubine who turns to drink when the emperor passes her for a rival); "The White Snake" (a tale of demons and the power of love); "A Fisherman's Revenge"; "The Water Margin"; “Huozhuo” (about a ghost that misses her mortal lover); and "Assassinating the Tiger General" (about a concubine who seeks revenge for the death of her emperor lover by seducing a general, and then killing him after getting drunk him and then committed suicide herself).

Peking Opera Plays

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: In the process of constructing the new Peking Opera, many elements were adopted from the former “national style”, the kunqu. There are, however, also clear differences between these two styles. As stated already, kun operas employ southern melodies as well as sophisticated and complex poetry. Because the poetic scripts were usually performed from the beginning to the end, the plays were often very long. To be fully appreciated kunqu required a deep knowledge of literature. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

In Peking Opera the written play is generally only a kind of working script, not a piece of literature. It consists of basic plots which have been abstracted from different sources, such as older kunqu plays, from popular stories, historical romances, and themes from storytellers’ repertory. Generally speaking, the authors remained anonymous and in many cases the scripts were compiled by actors. **

The scripts include only a very few, if any, stage directions. This is probably because they were written in the context of established theatrical conventions which were familiar to all the performers and the audience. The dialect used by the Peking actors is predominantly Mandarin Chinese, although it contains elements from other dialects as well. **

The Peking opera plays can be divided into two basic groups. They are the wenxi (wen-hsi), or the “civilian plays” and the wuxi (wu-hsi) or the “martial plays”. The wen plays deal with people’s everyday lives, and often include love stories. The wu plays are regularly based on the historical stories of heroic battles and they may have patriotic overtones. One popular source for this kind of plays is the famous Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Sanguo yanyi (San-kuo yen-I). **

The Manchu rulers were originally warriors, and thus the wu plays suited their taste better than emotional wen plays. The wu plays require vigorous, often violent action, such as fighting, acrobatics, sword display etc. Thus it was through the wu or the martial repertory, which dominates the Peking opera repertory, that the martial arts and acrobatics became an inseparable element of the Peking Opera. **

Peking Opera repertory can further be divided according to which skills or aspects are emphasised in the plays. Thus one can speak of, for example, “singing plays”, “recitation plays”, “plot plays”, “fighting plays” etc. In the Peking opera tradition it is very common that whole plays are not always shown from the beginning to the end. Instead, a performance can concentrate on one act of a whole opera. Kinds of multi-act performances, called zhexi (che-hsi), are also very common. They consist of famous highlights or single acts from popular operas. **

Peking Opera Methods of Storytelling

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: Peking Opera, like other traditional Chinese opera styles, employs non-naturalistic ways of conveying stories. The performances rely upon symbolic presentation, in which illusions are created by non-realistic acting rather than by illusionary stage sets. Chinese opera stage is an empty space, or a kind of a plastic space, which by means of acting technique and verbal hints can turn from a forest to a palace or from a poor hut to heavenly spheres. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

Traditionally, a raised platform which extends forward, with three sides facing the audience, has served as the opera stage. Behind the stage hangs a back curtain with two curtained doors leading backstage. The left door was used for the entrées and the right door for the exits. When making their entrances the characters usually introduce themselves by hinting at some of their main characteristics, such as “I am a selfish scholar called so and so” or “I am poor orphaned girl called so and so” etc. **

After the introduction, the characters jump into the drama and into the imaginary world of its story. By their words or, more often, movements and gestures, they create the spatial surroundings required. For example, gestures of pushing and pulling indicate opening or closing a door or a window. A certain kind of movement of the body and legs indicates “stepping over a threshold” etc. Stage props are used very economically. **

Sometimes necessary visual elements, such as stylised clouds, mountains or, for example, a city gate, painted on cloth or cardboard, are carried by the actors or stage assistants. Two pieces of cloth carried on both sides of an actor indicates that the person is travelling on a sedan chair, and waving flags informs the audience that there is a horrendous storm going on. **

Generally, however, all that is needed on a Peking Opera stage is a table and a couple of chairs. The space around them may be a courtroom, a study, a palace etc. This is indicated by the colours and patterns of the silken covers of the furniture. For example, if the silken chair covers and tablecloth have a dragon pattern, the scene is taking place in an imperial palace, but if the covers are greenish or blue with orchid patterns, the place is a scholar’s study etc. **

The placement of the furniture can also have different meanings. If a chair is placed in front of a table, the audience knows that the scene is set in an ordinary home, but if it is behind the table, it indicates that it is question of an official or a ceremonial occasion, possibly in a palace or in a courtroom. **

Thus, in a traditional performance the whole illusion of the space and different places and surroundings mainly depends on the hints given by actors employing their various acting skills. However, in the big, modern theater houses, stage sets, lighting technology etc. are now used. This process started in the international city of Shanghai, where the modern theater houses and the use of setting appeared from 1908 onwards. **

Peking Opera Characters

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: In the stylised and symbolic world of Chinese opera the roles represent abstractions of human attributes. Actors do not aim to create psychological portrayals of certain individuals. Instead, they rely on fixed personality types whose specific qualities are taken for granted by the audience. The way in which these qualities are then interpreted reveals the actor’s skills and the level of the actor’s artistry. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

The role categories of Chinese theater developed during a long period lasting, according to literary sources, over a thousand years. Starting from the Tang period onwards, different theatrical styles employed more and more role categories with their fixed characteristics, types of make-up and costuming. **

The Peking Opera inherited its four main role categories from kunqu and other earlier theatrical forms and yet enriched them, for example, by also adding among them martial role types with acrobatic skills. The four role categories are sheng or the male roles, dan or the female roles, jing or the “painted face” roles, and chou, the comic roles. Within these main categories there are further several subdivisions to define the type variations of the main character. **

Types of Peking Opera Characters

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: The main sub-categories of the sheng or the male roles are laosheng or the middle-aged or old men, usually with beards, and the xiaosheng or young, handsome men, most often scholars. The old man type sings with a rather low, natural voice, while the young man blends in his singing both natural voice and falsetto, which indicates his youth. Furthermore, the male roles, as is the case in all other role types as well, are divided into civilian and martial types. The martial men, or the wusheng, usually wear a pompous costume imitating ancient armour. Some of the higher military officers have pheasant plumes in their headgear, sometimes even two metres long. Their expressive handling is a special skill of its own. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

Other special skills, characteristic of martial types, whether belonging to the male, female, comic or painted face categories, are the martial arts, acrobatics and virtuoso displays of skills related to weaponry. The martial actors practise these skills year after year so that they can master short acrobatic and fighting sequences from which longer scenes are then constructed. The climax of a military scene often takes the form of a breathtaking display featuring dynamic tumbling and somersaults while swords and spears fly in the air. These thrillingly fast scenes are accompanied by feverish percussion music. **

Similarly to the male roles, the dan or the female roles are also divided into the civilian and wudan or martial role types. Otherwise, the three major sub-categories of the dan roles are the ginyi or the gentle and often noble young lady, the huadan or vivacious, often coquettish woman, and the laodan, or old woman. All of them have their own acting and singing techniques. **

The noble young woman, the ginyi, or the so-called “blue-robed woman” (she often wears a black robe with blue borders) sings in a high falsetto. This singing technique is due the fact that until the 1920s only male actors were allowed to perform on the Peking Opera stage and thus actresses must use the falsetto technique of female impersonators of older times. The ginyi actresses concentrate on singing, graceful dance-like movements and masterful handling of the water sleeves. Instead of singing, the huadan or vivacious female type concentrates on mime acting. These lively characters usually belong to the class of ordinary people. The laodan or old woman type is characterised by its natural voice range and body language which indicates old age. **

Similarly, as the other role types, the jing characters are also divided into martial and civilian characters. The wu jing characters concentrate on the martial arts while the wenjing concentrate on singing. Their voice range is natural, approximately equivalent to a western baritone voice. In the early period of the Peking Opera it was the jing actors who were the leading stars of this art form. Heroic generals, patriotic heroes, legendary rebels, gods and other mythological characters are included in this role category. They often wear thick-soled shoes, which add as much as 20 centimeters to the actors’ height, creating the impression of larger-than-life personalities. **

The fourth basic role category of the Peking Opera is the comic chou characters. The military clowns, wuchou, are trained in acrobatic and martial arts while the civilian clowns or the wenchou concentrate on mime. The white patch surrounding their noses and eyes makes the chou characters easy to recognise. The chou category is regarded as the oldest of the character types and has its origin in the adjutant play of the Tang dynasty. They include all kinds of personalities, such as farmers, traders, playboys, high-ranking officials and sometimes even emperors. They can be either good or bad characters. They do not often sing; instead, they use pure colloquial language so that their jokes are easy to understand. **

As mentioned, within these four basic role types, there are further several subdivisions to define the type variations of the main characters. The costuming of all the character types is based on Ming-period prototypes. In the same way as their facial make-up, their costumes also give the audience information about the personality, profession and social status of the characters. In the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City in Beijing, there is a Qing-dynasty manual which lists the costumes of the characters in some one thousand Peking Operas. **

Cao Cao and Romance of the Three Kingdoms

20111123-Wiki CCao_Cao_Portrait_ROTK.jpg
Cao Cao

“Romance of the Three Kingdoms” is one of China’s most famous stories and Cao Cao was the story’s most infamous villain. Both have have been tapped endlessly in Chinese and Peking Opera. Cao Cao (A.D. 155 - 220) was a Han Dynasty general and warlord. One of China's greatest and most reviled historical figures, renowned for his ruthlessness and cunning, he is known to most Chinese people as the villain of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and is a byword for treachery in Peking opera.

Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian, “Also known as the Emperor Wu of Wei, he was a politician, general and poet whose brilliance as a military strategist and wordsmith was tarnished forever by” “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” in which “he is portrayed as a scheming, merciless tyrant who is so suspicious of everyone he meets that he mistakes a plan to slaughter a pig in his honor as an assassination plot and responds by killing everyone involved, including women and children. In Peking opera he is almost unique as a emperor with a white face, which signifies betrayal. A common saying, ‘speak of Cao Cao and he appears’, is the equivalent of the English phrase ‘speak of the devil’.”[Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, December, 27, 2009 /~/]

Lauren Hilgers wrote in Archaeology magazine, “Cao Cao is more than just a historical figure — he's a cultural phenomenon. Though characterized as a villain, he has a place in the heart of every Chinese child, history buff, and book lover... In Romance, the self-styled emperor comes off as a ruthless and canny strategist, demonically intent on carving out a piece of the failing Han Dynasty for himself. With fine Machiavellian flair, he betrays friends and manipulates emperors---his military campaigns eventually unite most of northern China...Over the centuries, Cao Cao has been the subject of countless folktales and Chinese operas, where his characteristic mask is usually drawn with heavy brows and a sinister white face. He has also found a place in comic books, video games, and fan-written fiction for his strategic acumen and ambition. [Source: Lauren Hilgers, Archaeology magazine, September/October 2010 ]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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