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Cantonese Opera
Styles of Chinese theater and opera include Peking Opera, other kinds of regional opera, “xiangsheng” (comic opera-like dialogues), storytelling, shadow plays, puppetry, glove puppetry, and puppet opera. Because music is such an important element of Chinese drama and story is such an integral part of Chinese Opera, Chinese opera and drama are considered one in the same. Examples of China theater performed at the Kennedy Center, Washington D.C. in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture of the People’s Republic of China in autumn 2011 including the Tangshan Shadow Puppet Theatre; the improv comedy of the National Theatre of China’s “Two Dogs: Opinions on Life”; the Kennedy Center debut of the Beijing Dance Theater performing their imaginative work, Haze; a celebration of Chinese symphony and opera.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote:“In a giant country like China with its cultural continuity of several Millennia, there have understandably been and still are countless different forms of the performing arts. Many of the basic elements of Chinese theater, i.e. poetry, music, dance, and martial arts, are known to have flourished already during the first Millennium B.C. By approximately A.D. 1000 these early genres intermingled with each other and evolved towards a sung theater form with fixed role categories. It was characterised by a tendency to combine dance-like movements and also sometimes movements from the martial arts with sung text. So in the West it is usually called Chinese “opera”. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

Traditional drama, often called "Chinese opera," grew out of the zaju (variety plays) of the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) and continues to exist in 368 different forms, the best known of which is Beijing Opera, which assumed its present form in the midnineteenth century and was extremely popular in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) court. In Beijing Opera, traditional Chinese string and percussion instruments provide a strong rhythmic accompaniment to the acting. The acting is based on allusion: gestures, footwork, and other body movements express such actions as riding a horse, rowing a boat, or opening a door. Spoken dialogue is divided into recitative and Beijing colloquial speech, the former employed by serious characters and the latter by young females and clowns. Character roles are strictly defined. The traditional repertoire of Beijing Opera includes more than 1,000 works, mostly taken from historical novels about political and military struggles. [Source: Library of Congress]

Drama was the first literature to be written in the vernacular. Famous early dramatists include Wang Shihfu, author of The West Chamber, and Kuang Han-ch'ing. Both men lived during the 13th century. Kunqu has been selected as a UNESCO intangible cultural asset. Peking Opera is a candidate for such status. "Regarded as the essence of Chinese traditional culture, Peking Opera is already our intangible cultural heritage. Inclusion in the UNESCO list will definitely help its international promotion," said Wu Zuolai, a scholar with Chinese National Academy of Arts.

Many popular stories were performed as Chinese opera. One of China’s most famous stories, “ The Peony Pavillion “, written more than 400 years ago by the Ming dynasty playwright Tang Xiazu, 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. 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.

See Separate Article on Peking Opera.

Good Websites and Sources: China Opera Experience ; Chinese Traditional Opera ; Wikipedia article on Chinese Opera Wikipedia ; Peking Opera film ; Beijing Opera Masks ; China Page on Beijing Opera and ; Huangmei Opera China Vista ; Di Opera China Vista ; Exorcizing Ghost Opera China Vista ; Fodors Fodors Puppets China Vista and China Vista , Book: “Acting the Right Part: Political Theater and Popular Drama in Contemporary China” by Chen Xiaomei (University of Hawai'i Press, 2002).


Short History of Theater and Opera in China

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote:“In a giant country like China with its cultural continuity of several Millennia, there have understandably been and still are countless different forms of the performing arts. Many of the basic elements of Chinese theater, i.e. poetry, music, dance, and martial arts, are known to have flourished already during the first Millennium B.C. By approximately A.D. 1000 these early genres intermingled with each other and evolved towards a sung theater form with fixed role categories. It was characterised by a tendency to combine dance-like movements and also sometimes movements from the martial arts with sung text. So in the West it is usually called Chinese “opera”. In the A.D. early centuries play scripts were written. In the beginning they were based on an oral story-telling tradition and didactic Buddhist stories (bianwen). These archaic “dramas” heralded the rich tradition of Chinese drama literature with its heydays in the Yuan (Yüan) dynasty (1279–1368) and the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

By the A.D. 6th century pantomime dances were being performed in dynastic courts. Regarded as the precursors of Chinese theater, they blended stories, songs and dances. The performers wore masks or painted their faces. Early pieces from this genre include a performance based on the legend of Prince Lan Ling and a dance hall-style farce about a drunken wastrel called The Swinging Wife. One of the oldest forms of Chinese opera, Ping tang (literally "words and song"), comes from the ancient city of Suzhou. It features men playing mandolin-like instruments and women singing and reciting ancient stories of love and betrayal "with much wringing of hands, shrill exchanges and appeals to heaven."

Evolving out of comic and balladic tradition from the Song Dynasty, Chinese Opera has a continuous history of at least 900 years. The colorful make-up and costumes, loud percussion and ear-slitting shriek singing of Chinese opera all date to a time when the art was performed outside at open-air markets and temple courtyards and the performers had be able to project themselves above the crowd noises. In the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) the formal four-act structure and the standardized role system of Chinese drama was developed. In the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) wealthy families supported their own theatrical troupe for their entertainment of themselves and their extended families.

“In different parts of China local opera forms evolved with their own characteristic dialects and types of melody. A division into two major cultural regions, the northern and the southern, occurred around 1000 AD, which led to a kind of competition between the northern and the southern operatic styles. It was the southern kunqu or Kun Opera (K’un-ch’ü) which regained the status of a “national” style among the educated elite during the 16th and 17th centuries. The status was inherited in the middle of the Qing dynasty (Ch’ing) (1644–1911) by a new, more popular form of opera, the Peking Opera. **

“The western impact started to be felt in theatrical life in the Republic of China (1912–1949). During the early periods of the People’s Republic (1949–) traditional opera was still performed, although the emphasis was on its didactic use and propaganda value. “In the early years of the People's Republic, the development of Beijing Opera was encouraged; many new operas on historical and modern themes were written, and earlier operas continued to be performed. As a popular art form, opera has usually been the first of the arts to reflect changes in Chinese policy. In the mid-1950s, for example, it was the first to benefit under the Hundred Flowers Campaign. Similarly, the attack in November 1965 on Beijing deputy mayor Wu Han and his historical play, "Hai Rui's Dismissal from Office," signaled the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) all traditional arts were banned and a new form of theater was created and propagated by the Communist Party. It was the Revolutionary Model Opera. During the Cultural Revolution, most opera troupes were disbanded, performers and scriptwriters were persecuted, and all operas except the eight "model operas" approved by Jiang Qing and her associates were banned. After the fall of the Gang of Four in 1976, Beijing Opera enjoyed a revival and continued to be a very popular form of entertainment both in theaters and on television. After the Cultural Revolution traditional theater forms were revived and now China has an abundance of theatrical forms, starting from Kun and Peking Operas to hundreds of local opera forms, to spoken theater and to western-style opera and ballet groups, as well as, more recently, to experimental theater and dance.” **

See Separate Article on the History of Chinese Theater and Opera.

Chinese Opera

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.

Westerners usually find that about an hour of Chinese Opera is enough. The costumes, the acrobatics and the atmosphere are interesting but the music and singing is often sheer torture. The Chinese in the audience often eat meals, breast feed their children, spit and hack, and listen the radio while observing the opera.

The younger generation in China has little interest in Chinese opera, which these days is performed mainly in a shortened form for old people and yawning tourists. Few young people are familiar with the symbols and stories that are essential to understanding operas and most young people don't like the strange falsetto singing style. One young man attending a Peking Opera told the New York Times, "That screaming stuff” I can't believe people like that."

Regional Chinese Operas

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 districts. Peking Opera is the most well known and generally regarded as the best. Also well-known is Shanghai-based Kunqu Opera. 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. **

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. **

See Separate Article on Peking Opera.

Yue Je, 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 Le are popular. Some people are enrolled in classes with hopes of becoming professional actors. Other do it to learn dance steps to keep fit.

Traveling folk opera troupes still travel from town to town in te 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.

Kunqu, The Oldest Form of Chinese Opera Still Performed

left 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 China's oldest opera and one of its most influential theatrical traditions, but 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,

Kunqu (kun-ch’ü) is a form of opera fashioned by the composer and singer Wei Liangfu during the Ming Dynasty. Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote” 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 **]

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. **

Kunqu Plays

15th century figure of an actor

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. **

In the play, a young lady falls asleep in a peony garden. In her dream she meets a young, handsome scholar and falls deeply in love with him. When she awakes and understands that everything was only a dream, she 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. **

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 (with their numerous sub-categories, to be discussed in connection with the Peking Opera). **

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. This is not always the case. 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. 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.

In 1946 Mei Lanfang played the aristocratic lady Du Liniang in the opera who, in a dream, falls in love with Liu Mengmei, a scholar. It was Mei's first appearance on the stage after World War II. While Mei was considered the most famous Peking Opera artist in China, he was also good at Kunqu opera. In 1930, Mei and his team visited the United States and dazzled audiences with the same work.

In 1998, Kunqu Opera was invited New York to perform the famous opera Peony Pavilion as the marque event of the Lincoln Center Festival. But the opera didn't happen because an ultra-conservative Communist bureaucratic named Ma Bomin refused to allow the opera to leave the country on the ground that the director's interpretation of the Peony Pavilion was "feudal," "pornographic," and "superstitious" and contained "unhealthy elements."

Ma had previously approved the opera but just as the actors were getting ready to leave for New York she blocked the shipment of six tons of important costumes, sets and props. After representatives from Lincoln Center flew to Shanghai to try to work out a compromise, she agreed to let the sets and costumes go. When someone asked her if the actors would be allowed to go, she answered no. The opera was well received in China and the director said his aim was to be true to original 1598 version of the play. But in the end he was unwilling to make changed demanded by Ma and the entire opera was scuttled. The whole episodes was covered in the New York Times and on 60 Minutes.

Some member of the Shanghai Opera have emigrated to New York. Unable to get enough work as performers, some work in video rental shops or take-out Chinese restaurants.

Peony in Chinese Literature

In a review of “From Bewitching Beauty to Effete King: Transgendering of King Peony in Medieval Chinese and Korean Literature” by Jeongsoo Shin, Sixiang Wang a PhD candidate at Columbia University wrote: “The peony has come to have a variety of associations in the East Asian literary tradition. Its luxurious petals have signaled wealth and beauty while its peculiar, seedless manner of reproduction has come to symbolize sterility and empty luxury. It has even come to represent political power as a symbol of China as a nation, arguably one of its dominant associations today. [Source: A review by Sixiang Wang PhD Candidate, East Asian Languages and Cultures; History-East Asia. Columbia of “From Bewitching Beauty to Effete King: Transgendering of King Peony in Medieval Chinese and Korean Literature” by Jeongsoo Shin +++]

“Jeongsoo Shin gives an overview of the peony flower’s origins as a medicinal plant. Despite its connection with female allure in later literature, the flower, from a traditional horticultural perspective, possessed characteristics of both “male” and “female” plants. Understanding the peony’s origin as an androgynous, medical plant is essential for appreciating its subsequent emergence as a literary trope. Although it is difficult to establish exactly when the peony became a garden flower, its emergence in Tang China (618–907) as a significant literary trope was undoubtedly connected to its popular cultivation. New methods of cultivation produced varieties never before seen, and the peony’s chameleon-like ability to appear in different colors made it a “prodigy” among flowers. By the High Tang, through the poetry of Li Bo (701–762), the peony flower came to be intertwined with the tragic figure of Consort Yang on whom later writers blame the decline of the Tang, due to emperor Xuanzong’s (r. 712–756) singular attention to her. The flower thus emerged as a rather negative symbol, representing exuberance, luxury, and desire. +++

“Though its association with the court made it also a symbol of secular power, the flower enjoyed cultivation beyond the confines of the palace: Buddhist monasteries, among the locations famous for their flowers, sometimes supplied the imperial palace with peonies. Peony poetry took off in the late Tang in step with the development of peony as a fashionable commodity, and it was during this frenzy that the idiom “Guo se tian xiang”, which Shin translates as “reigning beauty and heavenly fragrance,” first came to be attached to the flower in the poems of Li Zhengfeng. What is curious, however, is that despite its feminine allure the peony also acquired the epithet, “king of one hundred flowers”, a term that in all likelihood originally applied to other flowers than the peony. +++

Later Shin “turns attention away from the poetry of the capital Chang’an to that of Luoyang, which emerged not only as a center for peony cultivation but a political and cultural center supplanting Chang’an amid the decline of the Tang. Here, the flower lost its connection with the Tang court per se, emerging as a symbol for “Chinese civilization”. Shin gives one poignant anecdote: as northern China was coming under the hegemony of the Northern Song (960–1127), southern kingdoms such as the Southern Han (917–971) held on to their independence. The people of the Southern Han were disdainful of the “Central States”. Proud of the jasmine flowers they cultivated, the southerners called them their “small southern vigor”. When the Han was conquered by the Song, the Han ruler was taken to Luoyang, only to be “terrified” by the size of the peony blossoms there, where, he was told, they were called “great northern victory”. Though the size of the peony blossoms may symbolize the power and strength of the “Central States,” others interpreted the “barren seeds in the large blossoms” to be indicative of “empty, superficial brilliance”. +++

“The flower found its way into the court politics of the early Song. Shin discusses the development of connoisseurship in terms of the political conflict between two courtiers, Qian Weiyan (962–1034) and Li Di (971–1047). While the latter was lauded for resisting the regency of the empress Dowager Liu, Qian was seen as currying favor with the powerful. Criticism of Qian’s “peony cultivation” was an oblique criticism of Qian’s political position. Qian’s protégé, however, the well-known early Song statesman Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072) , not only refused to criticize his patron, he also celebrated the peony’s cultivation. His “Account of the Luoyang Peonies” elevated the peony above all other flowers, and the peonies of Luoyang above the flowers of all other regions. The way Ouyang explains the lusciousness of the peony’s blossoms, however, was in terms of a “disease of [its] original, vital energy”. He too saw the peony as a prodigy of nature, but one that was remarkable as a “concentration of beauty”. Its uncanny existence was for Ouyang not a vehicle for moral criticism; in Shin’s reading, Ouyang’s celebration of the aesthetics of peony cultivation was in fact a veiled political defense of his patron. +++

The horticultural dimension of the story helps reveals a separate set of concerns. Writing against what he believes to be the overemphasis of the peony as an embodiment or representation of “Chineseness,” which has “overshadowed other significant elements of the flower,” Shin has set out to give a more diverse reading of its valences within the Chinese literary tradition (p. 221). By bringing in the Korean literary context, he has pointed how the gendering of the peony as female cannot be taken for granted. Its “transgendering” was, then, a mechanism of “transculturation.” Elucidating the many ways in which the literary symbol of the peony has been deployed in politics. +++

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. **

Puppetry and Other Chinese Folk Arts

Folk and variety arts have a long history in China. One of the oldest forms of folk art is puppetry. Puppeteers use various kinds of puppets, including marionettes, rod puppets, cloth puppets, and wire puppets in performances incorporating folk songs and dances and some dialogues. The subject matter is derived mainly from children's stories and fables. The shadow play is a form of puppetry that is performed by moving figures made of animal skins or cardboard held behind a screen lit by lamplight. The subject matter and singing style in shadow plays are closely related to local opera. Another popular folk art is the quyi, which consists of various kinds of storytelling and comic monologues and dialogues, often to the accompaniment of clappers, drums, or stringed instruments. [Source: Library of Congress]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: Several forms of shadow and puppet theater have flourished in China during the centuries. The history of shadow theater in China may indeed be very long. A legend from the 1st century B.C. tells about an emperor who has lost his beloved and how a shaman brings her back to the emperor in the form of a shadow. On the other hand, it may be possible that shadow theater in China was born during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), when the Buddhist monks and missionaries visualised their didactic storytelling with shadow puppets. Textual evidence of the shadow theater is available from the Song Dynasty (960–1279). During that time, it is known that the shadow puppeteers formed their own guild. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

“Variety arts, including tightrope walking, acrobatics, animal acts, and sleight of hand date back at least as far as the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) and were very popular in the imperial court. Later, many of these feats were incorporated into the traditional theater, and they continued to be performed by itinerant troupes. As these troupes traveled around the countryside, they developed and enriched their repertoire. Since 1949 these art forms have gained new respectability. Troupes have been established in the provinces, autonomous regions, and special municipalities, and theaters specifically dedicated to the variety arts have been built in major cities. Some troupes have become world famous, playing to packed houses at home and on foreign tours.

Chinese Shadow Puppetry

Shadow puppetry (“piying”) uses puppets carved from cowhide and held up and moved with wooden sticks by puppet masters. Said to be more than 2000 years old, the art form incorporates vocal arts, music, fine art and craftsmanship. The puppets are illuminated and appear as silhouettes behind a translucent white cloth, sometimes performing among leather silhouette sets. Piying was dealt a severe blow in the Cultural Revolution and is kept alive by old-timers who have worked hard to collect old puppets and stories and are now trying to pass them on to the next generation.

‘shadow puppetry takes great skill,” Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “Performances are deceptively spartan: a thin white sheet for a screen, a light behind it to cast the shadows, and the puppets themselves, which are pressed against the screen and manipulated by rods attached at key points. The audience sees a sort of cartoon---colorful figures dancing across the sheet. The artistry behind them is invisible. But artistry it is. It can take weeks to make a puppet, stripping cow or donkey hide to a translucent layer, carving a figure with thousands of minuscule cuts and hand-painting the completed work. Skillfully manipulating one---and learning how to direct, act, sing and play instruments---takes years. Mr. Cui went even further, adapting folk tales into original scripts and, later, writing books on the art.” [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, December 10, 2010]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: Many regional variants of shadow theater evolved during the centuries. The style of Peking shadow theater, for example, developed into two major styles. The western, now completely vanished, style employed large archaic puppets, while the eastern school absorbed elements from live opera, particularly from the southern Kun Opera. In their costuming and gestures the delicate shadow puppets of the eastern school imitate actual kunqu actors. ** [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

Chinese shadow puppets vary in size from some 20 centimeters to one meter. They are cut from leather that is treated and coloured so that they became transparent. Their legs, waists, shoulders and elbows can be bent, and their arms are constructed from two parts. Thus the puppets can imitate human movements when they are operated with rods behind a paper or muslin screen. Their reflections on the screen are colourful and their finer details are chiselled in the leather as a kind of filigree ornamentation. **

The execution of the puppet’s faces (which are usually shown in profile) is normally most delicate. They follow the conventions of opera make-up. Thus the faces of beautiful ladies and handsome scholars are usually cut so that only a narrow outline of the face is left from the leather to reflect the shape of their faces on the screen. The faces of the painted-face characters and the clowns are done so that their reflections carefully imitate the colourful facial make-up of the opera actors. The heads of the puppets are usually movable so that the costuming of the characters can be changed according to the needs of the play. **

The puppets also include many fantasy figures and animals. Just as on the opera stage, so also in the shadow theater there are props, also cut of leather, such as chairs, tables, bushes, pens, mirrors, pipes etc. Special effects were created by pieces of coloured glass or mirrors. With a piece of red glass the spurting blood of a brave warrior can be projected while the cool moon with its rays can be projected onto the screen through a metal cylinder. **

Shadow Puppet Opera

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: The puppets move according to the accompanying music just as the opera actors do. The puppeteer, who often also sings and delivers the dialogue, sits with his assistants behind the screen. The instruments of the orchestra vary according to the regional traditions. Shadow theater has often been performed at temple fairs and on market places. It was also the entertainment of upper-class ladies, who often were not allowed to move around freely or even attend opera performances. The small size of the shadow theater stage was suitable for setting up in private spaces, too. The plots of shadow plays are more or less similar to opera plots. They are often based on well-known epic stories telling about great warriors, famous wars, crime stories, romantic love etc. A director of a shadow theater was usually acquainted with history, literature and theater so that he was able to create plays for the use of his own group. ** [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

During the China mania or the so-called chinoiserie of the Rococo period Chinese shadow theater also became known in Europe. In China, during the Cultural Revolution, shadow theater was also used to illustrate revolutionary plays. In the late 20th century television and movies have reduced shadow theater’s popularity, and real, traditional performances are now rare. Many groups have turned to modernised shadow figures inspired by popular children’s comics or animations. **

There have been and still are in China several traditions of the three-dimensional puppet theater. They can be divided, according to their manipulation techniques, into three major groups. 1) Marionettes, which are manipulated from above with strings. 2) Rod puppets, which are manipulated by means of wooden rods. 3) Glove or finger puppets, which operated by the hand and the fingers **

Similarly to the shadow puppets, the three-dimensional puppets also imitate live opera actors in their types, costumes and facial features, although their size and styles vary according to different regions. In Chinese history annals puppets are often mentioned which provided entertainment at religious festivals or funerary ceremonies. Among them are known to have been complicated mechanical puppets which were able to play musical instruments or swim in the water. Generally, the repertory of puppet theater has been similar to that of traditional opera. The most complicated were marionettes which were sometimes operated by means of as many as 30 strings. The largest of the puppets are certain rod puppets the size of a human being, which are operated by several puppeteers. **

Similarly to shadow theater, puppet theater was also originally performed in connection with different festivities. When these festivities were banned during the People’s Republic, the original context of this art form vanished. Since then puppet theater has been heavily modernised, although original kinds of performances can still be seen outside the People’s Republic, for example in Taiwan and in Southeast Asia. **

Lao Qiang Puppet Music: the Chinese Blues or Maybe Heavy Metal?

In July 2013, NPR reported: “To find a homegrown musical alternative to conventional musical tastes, just travel to the edge of northwest China's Shaanxi province, on the middle reaches of the Yellow River, on the southern edge of a vast plateau of dusty badlands. By the standards of wealthier southern China, the area is poor, dry and coarse. [Source: NPR, July 19, 2013 ]

“On a recent afternoon, local musician Zhang Junmin joins his fellow band members on a hill behind his village. They're there to perform a style of music called Lao Qiang, which is roughly translatable as "Old Tune." Zhang says it's been passed down in his family for centuries. If you didn't know better, you might think you were hearing the hard-knock life story of a Mississippi Delta bluesman.

“Zhang says his father was close to illiterate. Zhang himself was too poor to attend school. He farmed the land part of the time, and played music the rest. He says he learned his art the traditional way. "If I couldn't pick up a tune on my instrument, my papa would get mad," Zhang recalls in a raspy voice. "He'd come over and slap me upside the head. That slap would wake me up, and then I'd get it. If he didn't slap me, I wouldn't concentrate. And I wouldn't get it."

“Traditionally, Lao Qiang musicians would accompany a puppeteer, who would tell stories from behind a screen. It wasn't until a couple of decades ago that the musicians came out from behind that screen and performed on their own, in full view of the audience. The origin of Lao Qiang music is a matter of some dispute, but Zhang says the most plausible explanation he's heard is that it is descended from the chanteys of boatmen on the Yellow River (lots of "hey's" and "ho's") as they rowed barges laden with grain to the imperial capital at Chang'an during the Western Han dynasty, roughly 2,000 years ago.

“Zhang's band launches into a rip-roaring tune about combat among warlords during the third-century Three Kingdoms period. The string section saws away with such gusto that horsehairs come flying off their bows. A percussionist thrashes out a furious beat on a wooden bench. The musicians holler the song's lyrics in unison, as Zhang thrusts a banjo-like instrument called a sanxian into the air like a rock star. He says it's the stories that give the music its brash spirit. "Even in the coldest days of winter, we perform for five minutes and we're sweating," he says. "It's mostly the combat scenes. They just fire us up. It's not like we're trying to get fired up. We just can't help it!"

Beijing-based music critic Wang Xiaofeng says that when he heard Lao Qiang for the first time about 18 years ago, it reminded him of heavy metal: very physical and somewhat operatic. He adds that Lao Qiang is way outside the mainstream of Chinese popular musical taste. While many Chinese have gradually become aware of Lao Qiang music, the art form remains pretty obscure. Zhang Junmin says he's doing everything he can just to keep his family's tradition alive. "We don't want this music to be buried in the ground," Zhang says. "It belongs to society, and we should find a way to pass on our legacy. That's my dream."

Shadow Puppet Museum

“The Cui Yongping Shadow Play Art Museum exhibits shadow puppets” Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “Which is like saying the Louvre exhibits paintings. For here, one can see 15th-century Ming dynasty puppets; 18th-century puppets from the Qing dynasty; elaborately outfitted brides and grooms and warriors and courtiers and gods; dragons, birds, leopards, horses and demons. Clown puppets, and puppets being sawed in half or having a tongue ripped out in the 18 levels of Ming-era Hell. Ten thousand are on display. An additional 120,000 are stored in a warehouse. In all of China---in all of the world, really---there is nothing else like them. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, December 10, 2010]

“But almost nobody sees them. “You’re the first visitors this month,” Cui Yongping---the museum’s owner, curator and namesake---said sadly during a mid-November interview. “Eighty percent of our visitors are foreign,” said his wife and fellow curator, Wang Shuqin. The Cui Yongping museum gets no government or outside support so languishes in a dingy neighborhood in south Beijing, in seven musty rooms of two converted flats next to their first-floor apartment. Some puppets are shielded from the city’s sooty air with plastic wrap. Others adorn an exhaust hood over what was once a kitchen stove.”

“In 2010 Mr. Cui and his wife attained U.S. visas and the plan at that time was to take their puppets with them and build a museum there. “Culturally, this is not just China’s heritage. It’s a world heritage,” said Mr. Cui, at 65 a vibrant and voluble man despite a stroke that has withered his right arm and hobbled his speech. “I’m going to move the museum to America. My son is in America, and the Americans are smart. I want them to admire 2,000 years of history...I opened this museum because I wanted to encourage this art. I wanted it to become popular again,” Mr. Cui said. Instead, “people in China no longer learn about the things of our ancestors. What’s popular now is saying “O.K.,” and McDonald’s, and ballet and pop songs.”

Shadow Puppet Comrades Love Story

“Their story begins in 1961,” Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “Mr. Cui and Ms. Wang met in the workshop of the Beijing Shadow Play Troupe, two of about 30 employees in one of the city’s premier theaters. She was 18, a new apprentice. He was 16 and handsome, his skill apparent after only a year of work.”

The Cultural Revolution intervened. In 1967, Mao’s henchmen scattered the troupe across China. Mr. Cui and Ms. Wang married, and were sent to Beijing No. 1 Smelting Factory, a steel mill. He shoveled coal. She ran the water pumps. They had a baby boy, then a girl. Shadow puppets were among an array of icons deemed reactionary and ordered destroyed. The couple had 100 puppets, the seeds of a collection begun the year before. They pulled bricks from beneath their home’s foundation, and hid them there.

The terror ended in 1976. Three years later, Mr. Cui and his wife left the steel mill and exhumed the collection; the Beijing troupe’s survivors reassembled. And in 1983, they took a triumphal 45-city tour of Germany, Austria, France and Italy. The applause, Mr. Cui said wistfully, was thunderous. Then, at a Paris lecture, Mr. Cui sought to present his views on puppetry, only to be mocked for his supposed lack of expertise. “The professor turned around and said, “You can’t give the lecture. Do you have a museum?” Ms. Wang said. “We were so upset.”

Collecting Shadow Puppets

“But in fact, China had few if any puppet museums, while scores of exhibits existed elsewhere,” Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times. “Back in Beijing, Mr. Cui said, he offered to help officials prepare exhibits on the craft. They enthusiastically agreed. “I never heard from them again,” he said. “I said to myself, “I’m getting older by the day. Forget it. I’m going to do it myself.”

“For the next 15 years, Mr. Cui crisscrossed the nation, flattering local propaganda and culture officials, asking, “Where are the puppets in this town?” The couple’s collection mushroomed. From one village in Hebei Province came a Ming dynasty collection depicting the inventive tortures of the 18 levels of Diyu, a Taoist and Buddhist vision of Hell. From another village, salvaged from a trash heap, came a sheaf of puppets illustrating China’s resistance against Japan in World War II.”

In 2003, Chinese authorities consented to allow privately run museums. When the Cui Yongping Shadow Play Art Museum opened in 2004, Ms. Wang said, eight government experts pronounced themselves amazed at the collection. That was their last contact with officialdom. ‘since the opening, no one has come. The minister of culture, he has never come. They’ve never supported us in any way,” Ms. Wang said. They soldier on, supported by their pensions and the sales of handmade puppets.

Image Sources: 1,7) Nolls China website ; 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 January 2014

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