Many regions and cities have their own style of opera. According to one count there are 360 different operas forms still practiced. Some are known throughout China or across large regions. Many are known only in small localities. Kun Qu, which originated around Jiangsu Province, is an ancient style regarded as gentle and clear. Qinqiang opera from Shaanxi is more boisterous, loud and aggressive. Peking Opera, the best known form, combines many regional styles and has has been designated the national opera of China. Sichuan Opera has a 200 year history and famous for slapstick. Anhui opera is one of the oldest and most refined forms of opera. Kunju, the oldest extant form, has such a small following theaters that houses can't even tickets away.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: Around China there is a plenitude of different styles of regional operas. These regional or local operas are called difangxi (ti-fang-hsi). According to different estimations and ways of classification, their number varies from approximately 100 to 360. They differ mainly in their dialects and in music and in their accompanying orchestras. Differences can also be found in their repertoire, character categories, costuming and make-up conventions etc. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

Kunqu came first, and then the Peking opera attained the status of a “national style”. Although kunqu was originally a southern opera style and Peking opera at the beginning a predominantly northern style, they both gradually spread around the country. Local operas, however, bear characteristics of the dialects and melodies of certain provinces, and although they can occasionally be seen elsewhere as well, they are mainly performed in the areas where they were created and developed. In this connection only a handful of regional styles can be discussed. Traveling folk opera troupes still travel from town to town in the countryside. The head of one such group, that performed on flat bed of an old jury-rigged trucks with loudspeakers, told National Geographic that 80 percent of their business was at funerals. **

Websites and Sources: Chinese Opera Wikipedia article on Chinese Opera Wikipedia ; Beijing Opera Masks PaulNoll.com ; Literature: Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) mclc.osu.edu; Classics: Chinese Text Project ; Side by Side Translations zhongwen.com; Classic Novels: Journey to the West site vbtutor.net ; English Translation PDF File chine-informations.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Culture: China Culture.org chinaculture.org ; China Culture Online chinesecultureonline.com ;Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; Transnational China Culture Project ruf.rice.edu

Different Regional Operas

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote:The old forms of shamanistic mask theater performed in remote villages and rural areas compose their own archaic group among the styles of Chinese opera. One of them is called nuo opera (Nuoxi, No-hsi). It is still performed in faraway villages in the province of Anhui. During the Chinese New Year celebrations the villagers take their robust masks out of the trunks and perform mask plays in order to drive away evil spirits. Nuo performances combine singing, dialogue, dance, and a simple musical accompaniment. **

Yue, the traditionally Cantonese-style of opera, is similar to operas performed in northern China except that it draws on local folklore and history and is performed in Cantonese rather than Mandarin. These days classes in Yue are popular. Some people are enrolled in classes with hopes of becoming professional actors. Other do it to learn dance steps to keep fit.

Yueju opera was inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2009. According to UNESCO: The Chinese tradition of Yueju opera combines Mandarin operatic traditions and Cantonese dialect. Rooted in the Cantonese-speaking provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi in south-eastern China, Yueju opera is characterized by a combination of string and percussion instruments, with elaborate costumes and face painting. It also incorporates stunts and fights using real weapons and drawing on the Shaolin martial arts, as illustrated by the central Wenwusheng role that demands proficiency in both singing and fighting. It has developed a rich repertoire of stories ranging from historical epics to more realistic descriptions of daily life. An important form of recreation, the opera is also, in some rural communities, combined with ceremonial, religious and sacrificial elements into a spiritual amalgam of art and custom known as Shengongxi. Yueju opera is popular throughout China and provides a cultural bond among Cantonese speakers in the country and abroad. They view its success around the world as a point of pride, regarding the opera as an important means by which foreigners come to understand their culture. Today, the tradition is passed to new artists through both drama schools and apprenticeship programmes. [Source: UNESCO]

Henan, a province in central China, has its own opera and its own language-dialect. Yan Lianke, one China’s most acclaimed contemporary writers, loves it. Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: “After dinner, Yan said that he’d like to hear some Henanese opera; its tunes have captivated him since childhood, and the lyrics often find their way into his novels. Zhang proposed a theatre in Luoyang’s old town, which dates back three thousand years but is currently being redeveloped as yet another historical pastiche aimed at tourists. The theatre was full of businessmen and officials, well fed and tipsy. When we entered, Yan was immediately recognized, and people jumped up to offer him their seats. Yan told me later that he was disappointed with the performance; people aren’t that interested in real Henanese opera these days, and this was more like a variety show designed to pull in a crowd. In one act, three men put all their weight behind a sword that was thrust against a fourth man’s Adam’s apple — a feat that had the audience writhing in delighted disgust. [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, October 15, 2018]

Kunqu, The Oldest Form of Chinese Opera Still Performed

Kunqu (kun-ch’ü) is a form of opera fashioned by the composer and singer Wei Liangfu during the Ming Dynasty. The music has a strongly plaintive quality. With its flowing melodies and soft and supple note of the bamboo flute, it is a typically southern style of opera. Its singing is characterized by its long notes and elaborated ornamentation. It is said that the general effect of kunqu music is that of “undulating waves”. [Source:Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

Kunqu is regarded as the mother of Chinese opera and is the oldest form of Chinese opera still being performed. It has 600 years of history. By contrast Peking Opera has only been around 200 years or so. Kunqu is an art form governed by strict rules: The rehearsal of most plays takes at least six months, while some can take three years just to rehearse. Kunqu is considered one of the most influential theatrical traditions, yet it was once on the verge of extinction. The Shanghai-based Kunqu Opera returned in the late 1970s after the end of the Cultural Revolution. With donations from a Hong Kong billionaire, the Shanghai opera house was refurbished, and in 1996 the Kunqu opera gave 234 performances, 80 of which were to full houses.

In 2001, Kunqu Opera was designated by UNESCO as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. In 2008 it was inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. According to UNESCO: Kun Qu Opera developed under the Ming dynasty (fourteenth to seventeenth centuries) in the city of Kunshan, situated in the region of Suzhou in southeast China. With its roots in popular theatre, the repertory of songs evolved into a major theatrical form. Kun Qu is one of the oldest forms of Chinese opera still performed today. It is characterized by its dynamic structure and melody (kunqiang) and classic pieces such as the Peony Pavilion and the Hall of Longevity. It combines song and recital as well as a complex system of choreographic techniques, acrobatics and symbolic gestures. The opera features a young male lead, a female lead, an old man and various comic roles, all dressed in traditional costumes. [Source: UNESCO]

"Kun Qu songs are accompanied by a bamboo flute, a small drum, wooden clappers, gongs and cymbals, all used to punctuate actions and emotions on stage. Renowned for the virtuosity of its rhythmic patterns (changqiang), Kun Qu opera has had a considerable influence or more recent forms of Chinese opera, such as the Sichuan or Beijing opera. The opera has suffered a gradual decline since the eighteenth century because of the high-level technical knowledge it also requires from its audience. Of the 400 arias regularly sung in opera performances in the mid-twentieth century, only a few dozen continue to be performed. The Kun Qu opera survived through the efforts of dedicated connoisseurs and various supporters who seek to attract the interest of a new generation of performers. "

History of Kunqu

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote”During the Ming dynasty kunqu emerged as the most popular and most patronised of the many theatrical forms and it retained its national dominance until the 19th century. It was patronised particularly by the educated elite, the scholar-officials and the literati. The acting technique is most demanding, since the delicate singing is combined with constant dance-like movements. Because of the complexity of both its language and acting technique, the educated courtesan actresses, trained in several arts, dominated the kunqu stage for a long time. **

The complex imagery of classical poetry and the need for increasingly ornate language and music led to longer plays. The appreciation of this kind of art form naturally demanded a great deal from the audience, too. The dialect used was the Suzhou dialect, a local dialect of Chinese, which was not understood universally in China. The increasing sophistication and the use of local dialect were the factors that led to the gradual unpopularity of kunqu in the early 19th century, when a new and more popular form of opera, the Peking Opera, gained a wider audience in northern China. **

The so-called Taiping (T’ai-p’ing) Rebellion in the mid-19th century isolated the southern region, which had traditionally been the stronghold of kunqu. The kunqu, already in decline, never regained its former status while the northern Peking Opera replaced it in popularity. The pattern of dramatic construction and expression developed through the kunqu were carried over into the Peking Opera, although this new style was devised for different, less sophisticated audiences. **

In the 1920s and 1930s the famous Peking Opera actor Mei Lanfang, together with a kunqu scholar, established a society to revive the kunqu. Different attempts had been made in this direction for decades. In connection with this revival a northern kunqu troupe was founded, and its style was called beikun. At the time of writing this material, the beikun theater has declined to some kind of semi-kunqu, semi-Peking Opera style, struggling to survive among other theater forms in Beijing. **

The southern kunqu style was called nankun. South Chinese nankun groups can be found, for example, in Shanghai and in Nanking, the latter one probably representing the most authentic kunqu style at the moment. For generations many have been afraid that this unique opera form will completely decline and disappear. In 2001 it was, however, included in the UNESCO List of Outstanding Examples of the World’s Intangible Heritage, and a stylised kunqu scene was one of the highlights of the giant opening show of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, broadcast all over the world. **

Peking Opera

Peking Opera is a traditional form of entertainment in China that was quite popular in the old days and still has a following today. Most stories come from Chinese history and legends. Peking Opera is sometimes described as a dance drama genre in which actors often wear masks to highlight their facial features. It is said the focus of the art form is spectacle and athleticism and, like Japanese kabuki, all the actors, even those playing female roles, are male.

Beijing opera is an especially demanding form, both to perform and to witness. It takes a very long time to study, at least 8 to 10 years just to get in the door as a performer. To appreciate Peking Opera requires some background knowledge. “The more you know about Beijing opera, the more you love it,” said Liu Hua, a former performer and now a teacher. “The problem is that it takes a lot to know it, and fewer and fewer people have the time or the inclination.” [Source: Richard Bernstein, the International Herald Tribune, August 29, 2010]

Pallavi Aiyar wrote in the Asia Times,”Requiring years of training not only to perform but also to appreciate, Peking Opera is not an easily accessible art. Involving the mastery of a range of subtle facial expressions, enhanced by heavy layers of mask-like make up, the atonal clanging of gongs and cymbals and a series of elongated trills sung in falsettos."

Shaoxing Opera

Shaoxing Opera is very popular. Theaters in Shanghai that feature it often sell out. It has also had successful tours in Taiwan, Canada, Hong Kong and the United States. One thing that sets it apart from other operas is that all the performers are female.

Shaoxing Opera was founded in the early 1900s. It began as an all-male school. In 1923, it opened a training school for girls. The school was so successful that by the 1930s all the members of the opera were female. It was initially popular on its home turf in Zhejiang province. Later it expanded along the Yangtze to Shanghai. Today, there are about 300 Shaoxing opera companies around the world.

Most of the stories of the operas are based on famous novels and old legends and focus on mistreated lovers and unrequited love. There are acrobatic moves and super brightly-colored costumes as there are in other forms of opera. One of the most popular shows is Red Mansion, on an old story of which most Chinese are familiar. The story is about two cousin, who are lovers.

Fans follow some of the companies like Dead heads. One fan of the opera star Zheng Guifeng told the International Herald Tribune, "We're her groupies. We go to watch her wherever she performs." The director of the Shaoxing opera said, "Our fans are mostly housewives. The reason they like us is because our operas are about personal relationships---very romantic. We pay great attention to beauty---the costumes are pretty, the scenery is pretty, the music is pretty."

Theaters that host Shaoxing opera rack up high sales in merchandise, selling things like key chains, video discs, post cards. There have been near riots when supplies have ran low.

Bangzi Opera or the Clapper Opera of the Shaanxi Region

Bangzi opera (bangzi qiang, pang-tzû ch’iang) or the clapper opera was probably created in Central China, in the border area between the provinces of Shaanxi (Shen-shi) and Shanxi (Shan-shi). It is mentioned for the first time in literary sources in the 16th century. It seems possible that in the beginning it was a style performed only in a very small area, but it spread in the 17th century to North and South China as well. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

As has been discussed before, Chinese is a tonal language and thus, when it is sung, its relationship with the accompanying music is symbiotic. 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. In some Chinese operas, the text is usually written for stock melodies that already exist. In the clapper opera, however, the text is written first and then the music is composed to suit the text. This gave greater freedom for rhythmic patterns as well as to the verses employed. **

A dominant instrument in the orchestra accompanying the clapper opera is the bangzi (pang-tzû) clapper, a small, rectangular plate made of date palm, which is beaten with a wooden stick. The orchestra also includes string and plucked instruments. The most important melody instrument is a wooden banhu (pan-hu) violin. The vocal technique is regarded as more mellow and natural than the singing in the Peking opera. The costumes of the clapper opera, similarly as in the Peking opera, are based on Ming-period dresses. **

The clapper opera is still widely performed today, particularly in North China, where several local variants of it have evolved. The most famous clapper opera actor ever was Wei Changsheng (Wei Ch’ang-sheng), who became a star actor in Peking in the late 1770s and early 1780s, just before the Peking opera was born. He was a celebrated impersonator of female roles, and was later also able to include amazing acrobatics in his performances. **

Yue Opera (All-Female Opera) of Shaoxing

Yue opera (Yüeh-chü) or Shaoxing opera (Shao-hsing-chü) is the most recent form of the regional opera styles in China. In fact, because of its great popularity around China, it could almost be regarded as a kind of national style today. It originates from the indigenous music theater tradition of a small locality called Shaoxing (Shao-hsing), near Shanghai, in the early 20th century. Its local folk melodies were accompanied by a simple ban (pan) clapper. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

In 1916 a troupe led by an actor called Wang Jinshui (Wang Chin-shui) started to perform this type of theater for the many Shaoxing people living in Shanghai. Its orchestra was gradually expanded to include plucked instruments and later even other kinds of instruments, although the melodies performed still originated from the Shaoxing region. *The performances were successful, but it was only in 1923 that yue opera began to take on its dominant characteristics. It was then that female singer-actresses started to be trained. From 1929 onwards all-female troupes appeared in Shanghai, and the novelty that operas were performed by all-female casts was an instant and long-lasting success, and it is still the trademark of the yue opera. This practice is due to the fact that mixed groups, including both male and female actors, were forbidden during the Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty (1644–1911), and it was only in 1930 that actresses could finally appear on the Peking opera stage. **

The stories staged as yue operas are mostly romantic love stories. Acrobatics and fighting scenes were rarely included in them in older times. Today male actors may also play some of the roles of elderly men, while the young men’s roles are generally preformed by actresses. Fighting scenes and acrobatics are now also sometimes adopted from the Peking opera practices. On the modern yue stage sets with sugary-sweet painted backdrops are often used, and the costuming tends to represent a kind of semi-historical fantasy style in pastel colours. **

Well-known stories performed in the yue style include Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai (Liang Shan-po yü Chu Ying-t’ai) or The Butterfly Lovers. It is a kind of Romeo and Julia story about young love, which cannot find fulfilment. An early movie based on a yue version of this story was the first opera film produced in China. Other romances often seen on the yue stage include The Dream of the Red Chamber (Honglou meng, Hung-lou meng) and The Romance of the Western Chamber (Xixiang ji, Shi-hsiang chi). **

Book: “Women Playing Men: Yue Opera and Social Change in Twentieth-Century Shanghai” by Jiang Jin (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009)

Canton Opera

The western term “Canton opera” refers to an opera style typical of the region of the southern coastal city of Guangdong, also called Canton. The Chinese name of this style is, when written in Latin script, the same as the name of the all-female yue opera, i.e. yueju (Yüeh-chü). In Chinese, these names are, however, written differently. To avoid confusion, only the name “Canton opera” is used here. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

Canton opera was taking shape in the 17th century when the kunqu and an older form of the southern nanxi theater (Yiyang qiang, I-yang ch’iang) merged together, while some of the melodies were adapted from Cantonese folk music. A crucial impetus was received when an actor exiled from Peking, called Zhang Wu (Chang Wu), founded a guild for actors near Canton. It is still regarded as a kind of shrine of the Canton opera. Canton opera was further enriched by a musical style called pihuang. **

By the end of the Qing dynasty (1644–1944) the Canton opera, a style of a cosmopolitan commercial centre, received even more external influences. New plays were written and the costuming was partly modernised. One reason for these many innovations may be the fact that, in a big, international city like Canton, opera was forced to struggle for its survival with new forms of entertainment, including movies. In this competition Canton opera’s strategy was to assimilate the new trends. New stories, both Chinese and western, were adapted to the opera stage. Realistic stage sets, lighting effects and modern costumes were common, and the orchestra was expanded with western instruments, such as violins, guitars and even saxophones. **

Canton is the city in China that had the earliest contacts with the western world. It was also the place from where many Chinese immigrants moved to other parts of the world, to Hong Kong, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. Thus it is no wonder that Canton was also greatly influenced from outside China. According to one estimation, some one thousand new Canton operas were created during the early 20th century. Their stories were based on older plays, traditional Chinese literature, western literature, and on movies, both Chinese and western. **

Chuan Opera of Sichuan

The origins of the Sichuan Opera or Chuan Opera (Chuanju, Ch’uan-chü) can be traced to a Ming-period (1368–1644) combination of two different traditions. They were the Ming-period yiyang and the local musical tradition. Later, the pihuang musical system was also added to this style, which evolved into an independent opera style at the beginning of the 20th century. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

What is exceptional in the history of Chinese opera is that even at the beginning of the 20th century, when actors in China were regarded as low-class citizens, the training of the chuan actors also included general education and, furthermore, physical punishment of the students was forbidden. These early attitudes may be reflected even today in the sophisticated artistry of chuan acting. **

The vocal technique of chuan opera sounds more natural, compared, for example, with the singing in Peking Opera. The acting style is also less stylised. The role of the painted face characters is different than it is in Peking Opera and only a few, if any, acrobatic fighting scenes are included in the chuan operas. **

A unique speciality of the chuan opera is the use of thin silken masks, which can be changed in front of the audience in the blink of an eye with the aid of hidden threads and strings. When several layers of such masks are used one on top of the other, the actor can change his face and identity just by turning his head. The effect is indeed magical. This technique is often employed in the ghost operas, so popular in the chuan tradition. How exactly this intricate mask technique functions is still a well-guarded secret of the chuan professionals today. **

Mulian Opera — China’s 'Ghost Opera'

Mulian Opera, China's oldest theatric genre, dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), was staged in Shaoxing in Zhejiang in June 2014. Recognized as the 'living fossil of Chinese theater,' the genre has been rarely performed since the 1950s. Mulian Opera originated in Yiyang county in south China's Jiangxi province and is known as one of the most famous religious dramas with a broad repertoire. Mulian Opera got its name from the play “Mulian Rescues His Mother”, a story that is rooted in Buddhist scriptures. [Source:Chinaculture.org, June 10, 2014]

According to Chinaculture.org: Mulian Opera is one of the oldest Chinese operas noted in historical documents. It is closely related to ancient society life. The opera refers to a series of plays about how the lead character Mulian rescues his mother from Hell. Legend has it that Fu Xiang's family was Buddhist. After Fu Xiang died, his wife broke religious taboos by killing animals and eating meat. After his wife died, she was sent to Hell for her sins. Fu Xiang's son Fu Luobo, or Mulian, his Buddhist name, went West to ask Buddha for help. The Buddha gave him a copy of a sutra and an iron club. Mulian traveled to Hell, experiencing countless hardships, and persuaded his mother to abandon her evil ways. She did, and the whole family was reunited.

“The opera became popular in Anhui, Jiangxi, Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). For hundreds of years, Mulian Opera has enjoyed great popularity mainly due to its special features. It is said that in the past a play could be staged all night for nine consecutive days.

Chinese Opera in Thailand

Chinese opera has a small but dedicated following in Thailand.Malin Fezehai wrote in the New York Times: Like so much of Chinese opera throughout the world, the performances are a product of a large Chinese diaspora. Sai Yong Hong is one of about 20 Chinese opera troupes in Thailand. The audience consists mostly of older Thai-Chinese adults, some of whom take their grandchildren to connect with a cultural memory that has been passed down for generations.[Source: Malin Fezehai, New York Times, April 24, 2018]

“Sai Yong Hong is one of the best-known troupes in Thailand. It has 34 actors, five of whom are from China and the rest from Thailand, and, on that night, about 60 people attended the performance. “Performances are free — they are commissioned by shrines in Bangkok and sometimes around the country. “We don’t perform for people, we perform for the gods,” Tatchai Obthong, the group’s manager, said. They transport the stage with a six-wheel truck and assemble it at each location where they perform. The whole troupe gets paid 20,000 baht (about $640) per night.

“As the community ages and audiences dwindle, there is a fear that the art will die out. Performers face uncertain futures. Mr. Somsak said that he wanted to continue performing as long as he could. “In this industry when you retire you just simply say to the gods, ‘You know I’m getting old now, please protect me until the end,’” he said. Mr. Tatchai has seen the changes as well, and he said he thought the industry would continue to get smaller but would not go away. “As long as Chinese shrines exist and people continue praying,” he said, “the Chinese opera will be here.”

Image Sources: 1,7) Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; 2) Chinese Hisorical Society ; 3, 9) Beijing government ; 4) Henan historical Museum; 5,8) Peking Opera home page; 6,9, 10) Trisha Shadwood travel blog; 11) Kunqu opera, UNESCO

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2021

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