Peking Opera make up
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 make up 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.

Addressing some misconceptions about Peking Opera in the above description and more accurately describing what it is, David Rolston of the University of Michigan writes: “Peking opera should be glossed as Jingju. A lot of folk, especially in China, hope that like kabuki this genre will become known by its romanized name (over time it has had lots of Chinese names, but Jingju has been dominant in the PRC for a long time and is getting there in Taiwan). "Dance drama" will give the impression that only dance is used to tell stories in the genre. Indigenous Chinese theater (xiqu) is sometimes translated as "music drama" or "music theater"; perhaps that is the source of "dance drama." Dance became particularly important in new plays in the 20th century starring Mei Lanfang, and Mei's main advisor, Qi Rushan said that in Chinese theater "there is no movement that is not danced" but that is an exaggerration. Masks are used, especially for deities; they are just outnumbered by face patterns (lianpu). The main purpose of the latter is to symbolically externalize elements of the personality and history of the characters who have them painted on their faces; the patterns for one particular character can be modified to fit the facial features of particular actors, but their purpose is not to highlight those features. Plays that feature singing and/or dialogue have long constituted an extremely important part of the repertoire; those plays can be entirely lacking in "spectacle and athleticism." Female actors were banned from performing onstage with male actors from the middle of the Qing dynasty to the end of that dynasty, and unevenly in major cities after that for a couple of decades. Females could all along perform for private performances and in the different foreign concessions under different regimes at different times. Female performers such as Liu Xikui outdrew the "king of Peking opera" Tan Xinpei when she moved from Tianjin to Beijing at the end of the Qing dynasty."

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."

Journalist Henry Chu wrote in the Los Angeles Times; "What turns off many Westerners and younger Chinese from Peking Opera delights its older fans: the high-pitched, almost whiny singing; the cacophony of cymbals and clappers; the heavily stylized movements; and the bountiful symbolism, by which the slightest gesture on the nearly naked stage conveys meaning and action.”

The love of opera is very deep among some. In one of the opening scenes of the film “Farewell My Concubine”, one the character's exclaims, "If you belong to the human race, you go to the opera. If you don't go to the opera, you're not a human being."

The Peking Opera that tourist groups witness today is virtually the same as opera viewed by Chinese 200 years ago during the Qing dynasty. For many Chinese over the age of 60, Peking Opera was the only form of entertainment they were exposed to when they were growing up. Old men can often be seen in parks singing their favorite parts of Peking Opera.

Books: “Drama Kings: Players and Publics in the Re-creation of Peking Opera, 1870-1937" by Goldstein, Joshua Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007); “Listening to Theater: The Aural Dimension of Beijing Opera” by Wichmann, Elizabeth (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991). Related article by Stefan Kuzay: “A Concise History of Theater in Imperial China.”

Creation of Peking Opera the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911)

Peking opera was formally created in 1790 through the merging of several regional styles in China---namely two southern forms known collectively as pihuang---that have their roots in the 13th century. It incorporated regional forms of dance, mime, music and acrobatics and was more melodramatic. and even vulgar compared the older, more lyrical styles that preceded it.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: During the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) China was again ruled by foreigners, this time by the Manchus. They, however, greatly appreciated many aspects of Chinese culture and thus the Qing dynasty was, in fact, a fruitful period for the arts. The beginning of the dynasty was overshadowed by riots and revolts but a long period of peace began during the reign of the art-loving Emperor Kangxi (K’ang-hsi) (who ruled 1662–1722). [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

The popularity of the sophisticated southern kunqu or kun opera was already declining. It was still admired by the educated elite, but its southern dialect and complicated lyrics made it difficult to be appreciated in North China. There, audiences preferred their own regional styles with familiar dialects, stories and melodies. Many regional opera styles from different parts of the country gained popularity in Peking at the beginning of the new dynasty. **

The opera-loving Emperor Qianlong (Ch’ien-lung) (who ruled 1736–1795) invited troupes from the province of Anhui to the capital to perform their local style, the bangzi opera or the clapper opera, which has already been discussed above. They performed at the Emperor’s eightieth-birthday celebrations, but their performances proved so successful that the troupes stayed on, becoming increasingly popular. **

Over a period of time they began to adapt the technical characteristics of other local styles. One very important person in this process was the bangzi actor Cheng Changgeng (Ch’eng Ch’ang-keng), who, in his performances, combined elements from, among others, the kunqu and the clapper opera. After an evolution spanning decades the fusion process led to a new form of opera, called jingju (ching-chü) or “theater of the capital”. In the West it is known as the Peking Opera. **

In the beginning this new style was known only in the capital, where it gained great favour in the reign of the Empress Dowager Cixi (Tz’û-hsi) (1835–1908). In the 1860s mobile troupes of performers also started to perform Peking Opera outside the capital area. It spread around the country and thus gained its status as a “national style”. In 1919 Peking Opera was performed for the first time outside China, in Japan. Soon Peking Opera troupes were also visiting the United States and Russia, taking this art form to within reach of western audiences and theater reformers, such as Brecht, Stanislavsky, Craig etc. Peking Opera is still today the most widely studied and performed traditional form of theater in China. **

History of Peking Opera

In its early years Peking Opera was looked down upon by the scholar class but was popular among the general population. Peking Opera actors were considered the dregs of society, equal in status to prostitutes and pimps. Many actors were rumored to be homosexuals, which didn't them overcome their low social position. Laws prohibited woman from performing in Peking Opera and young boys were sold under contract and trained for the women’s roles. For a while the children of actors were once barred by government decree from taking the court civil service exams.

From the late 19th to mid 20th century, it was northern China most popular theatrical entertainment and regarded as the highest artistic expression of Chinese culture. Opera were usually performed in teahouses, private parties in restaurant-theaters, guild halls and wealthy people’s homes. Performances were often held at New Year's celebrations, weddings, and sometimes even at funerals and ancestor worshiping ceremonies. By the late 19th century Peking Opera began emphasizing heroic drama and was embraced by the royal court.

Chu wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Through enthusiastic imperial patronage and popular acclaim, the genre reached its zenith in the first half of the 20th century, when opera houses played to raucous houses of the young and old, rich and poor, powerful and humble, across the nation...Abroad, Peking Opera inspired playwrights and performers from Bertolt Brecht to Charlie Chaplin. Actors such as Mei Lanfang, arguably the biggest Peking Opera star of in modern history, enjoyed a world wide following. During his only U.S. tour in 1930, Mei's shows sold out on Broadway and earned raves in Hollywood. USC and Pomona College awarded him honorary degrees for his unrivaled skill in playing dan, or female, opera roles."

Despite being singled out during the Cultural Revolution for particularly vicious attacks Peking Opera managed to survive the Mao era. During the Cultural Revolution it was deemed feudalistic and reactionary. Afterwards it did less well bouncing back than other art forms such as Western music and modern dance, both of which have since made vigorous recoveries.

Peking Opera Theater Spaces

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: Chinese opera has been performed on several kinds of stages, from simple tea houses to temporary stage structures put up in market places or country fairs, and to court theaters, to private chamber theaters, and from the beginning of the 20th century, most often in the western kind of large theater houses. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

There exist good examples of old stages and theater houses around China. Several small pavilion-like stages belonging to a temple or a private palace still exist, and imperial, three-storied stage structures with stage machinery can be seen in Beijing, both in the Forbidden City and at the Summer Palace. The most famous of the Qing-dynasty private tea-house theaters is at the 18th century residence of Prince Gong, in Beijing. The so-called tanghui (t’ang-hui) or performances at private parties, in spaces not designed for performances, have also been popular. **

A theater space typical of the early phase of Peking Opera was the so-called xiyuan (hsi-yüan) or “opera courtyard”. There, a square stage was surrounded by the audience on three sides. The performances could last the whole day. Later, in a type of theater called the “old style theater”, the wooden stage floor was covered with a thick woollen carpet to make the acrobatic scenes safer for the performers. At the rear of the stage hung an embroidered curtain, which was the private property of the leading actor of the day. Seeing the curtain, audiences knew who was going to play the lead. **

During the heyday of Peking Opera, at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, the opera activities were centred on the Qianmen Gate Tower area, in the old commercial centre of Peking. There were some ten theater houses and hundreds of important Peking Opera artists lived and practised their art there. **

From the 1950s onward Chinese opera has increasingly been staged in huge theater houses and cultural palaces constructed during the Communist regime. This has affected Chinese opera in many ways. Some performance practices have been altered, curtains are used between acts or even scenes, and modern lighting technologies are employed. The most disastrous effect created by the huge performance spaces, completely alien to the intimate scale of Chinese operas, is the use of microphones and amplifiers. It not only destroys original sounds and the balance of the operas, but also restricts some of the dance-like movements of the actors. **

Peking Opera Actors

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Famous actor Zhang Jun

Peking Opera actors are as much dancers and acrobats as they are actors. They do not deliver lines like Western actors but act them out in every sense of the word using exaggerated movements and facial expressions and even elaborate physical stunts. Realism has never been a concern. More importance is often given to the actions of the actors than their roles.

Few props are used in a Peking Opera. All the attention is focused on the actors, who play roles that everyone familiar with Peking Opera recognizes. The roles usually fall into one of four categories: 1) “sheng” (male roles such as scholars, soldiers and officials); 2) “dan” (female roles such as mothers, maids and female warriors); 3) “jing” (painted face characters such as demons, adventurers and heroes); and 4) “fujing” (clowns).

Male roles are divided into four categories: 1) “laosheng” (old men with beards); 2) “xiaosheng” (young men); 3) “wensheng” (scholars and bureaucrats); and 4) “wusheng” (fighters, who often do the acrobatic roles). The five most important female roles are: 1) “laodan” (respected elderly mothers or aunts); 2) “qinyi” (aristocratic ladies, in elaborate costumes); 3) “huadan” (female servants, in bright costumes); 4) “daomdan” (female warriors); and 5) “caidan” (female comedians).

Many actors come from families that have produced actors for five or six generations. The Los Angeles Times describe on young actor who came from a family of actors that was forced to carry the tradition by his mother who named him “Jirong,” which means “to continue.”

Training for Peking Opera Actors


A typical performer begins training around the age of eight, nine or ten and practices for six years to master the stylized falsetto and stylized movements. Students often practice from morning to night under the tutelage of a master who has traditionally whipped or beaten boys for making mistakes.

The training for Peking Opera including doing handstands for 40 minutes while their legs are tied to a rod and staying a crouching position for more than an hour. The raining is so rigorous that some trainees develop blood in their urine. The depictions of training hardship in film “Farewell My Concubine” are very graphic. Set at the Peking Opera School, it shows children being "literally tortured into becoming performers.”

The actor Jackie Chan entered the China Drama Academy, a training school of the Peking Opera, at the age of seven. He spent over a decade enduring torturous instruction in acrobatics, gymnastics, mime, singing, dance, and martial arts under the taskmaster Ju Yu-Yim-yuen.

At the school, Chan slept only five hours a night in a dormitory with 50 boys and girls. The children were given little to eat and on often beaten. Describing his first beating, "I remember dropping a piece of rice on the floor, and the teacher caned me." He added, "I was beaten almost every day. I never forgot how it felt. It made me never want to hit anyone. I don’t want children to think it's okay to beat someone up."

Chan’s kung fu training included throwing 1,000 punches in a row and then launching 500 kicks. He often did handstands on chairs and did an average of 5,000 punches and kicks a day. His singing and acting lessons were equally rigorous.

Chan’s parents signed a contact with the academy which essentially made him the school's indentured servant. His master took nearly all the money from his early acting roles..

Peking Opera Actor’s Skills

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: In traditional Chinese theater the acting technique or, to be precise, “actor’s skills” are called xigong (hsi-kung). They refer to the acting tradition and methods formulated during the centuries. They are divided, for example, into the hand, the eye, the body, and the feet techniques, all of them related to physical expression, such as acting, mime, dancing, and acrobatics. Besides those skills, actors must also master very demanding singing and recitation skills. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

In addition to these main methods, the actor must have a command of several sub-techniques or “supporting techniques”. They include, for example, the skills related to the handling of certain parts of the costume, such as the long white silken extensions of the sleeves, the so-called “water sleeves” shuixiu (shui-hsiu). Though it seems very easy and natural, handling them is actually very demanding, and students practise it for years. These silken strips extend the actual movement of the actor. They can also indicate several things, such as talking sides or presenting gifts, or they can simply express powerful emotions. **

Other supporting techniques are the fan skills, related to the handling of the fan, which can be used in many ways, for example as a symbol of many things, such as a wine cup, a butterfly etc. Further skills with a beard refer to the many ways in which an artificial beard can be manipulated. Anger, thoughtfulness, hesitation and many other moods can be expressed by the handling of the beard. Further supporting skills are related, for example, to the manipulating of the hair and the handkerchief. **

In the non-naturalistic, symbolic acting style of the Chinese theater, many things can be told or illustrated by these supporting skills. A good example is the riding whip skills. Riding a horse is indicated by a riding whip the actor holds in his hand. The colour of the whip indicates the horse’s colour, and the horse’s movements, such as galloping, running for a long time, the horse’s tiredness etc., are indicated by the movements of the whip combined with the actor’s other body movements. **

Peking Opera professionals divide the acting skills into three realms. “being accurate” indicates a correct combination of the skills, while the second realm, “being beautiful”, focuses not only on the technical execution, but on the interpretation’s aesthetic values and the accuracy of the portrayal of the character. The highest of the three realms, “having a lingering charm”, is more difficult to put in words since the highest quality of artistic performance often seems to avoid exact definitions. For example, the singing of a certain star actor has been described as “being gentle as weeping and lingering as a thread”. **

Beijing Opera Training and Students

Young people are still being trained Beijing Opera. They generally start their training at age 11, going to one of the several Beijing opera academies around the country aimed at producing professional performers. “Children really like it,” teacher said. “Another reason is that some parents love it, and they want their children to learn it, even if they’re not thinking about having them become professionals.” [Source: Richard Bernstein, the International Herald Tribune, August 29, 2010]

Describing the scene at a rehearsal hall at a shabby theater in the backstreets of southwest Beijing, Richard Bernstein wrote in the International Herald Tribune: “Watch out for that sword, the rehearsal director shouted. I don’t want anybody head getting cut off because you don’t know what you’re doing. Lots of weapons were on stage at the Beijing Opera Academy of China here the other day. Teenage future opera stars were armed with lances, spears, swords and daggers as they carried out an elaborately choreographed, intricate, stylized and acrobatic fight scene, all to the clash of cymbals, drums, wooden clappers and a substantial orchestra of Chinese string and woodwind instruments.

The early training lasts for six demanding, rigorous years. Given that Beijing opera is fading in popularity, especially among the younger generations, it seems strange that so many young people would want to go through it. “It such good training that the students can go in almost any direction even if they don’t end up in the opera,” Liu said. “A lot of our students end up on television or in the movies, she added. There are a lot of martial arts movies, and our students are all good at martial arts. Some of them become popular singers or actors. They’re not worried about their future.

A teacher at the Peking Opera Vocational College today told the Asian Times. “In the old days less than one out every 100 students could hope to get a place. Today we choose one out of 10.” The school currently has about 300 students who train for five years. “No one has the patience for nine-year training any more,” said Wang.

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. **

Peking Opera Make-up and Costumes

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Peking Opera dressing room

Chinese actors decorate their face with paints made from oil and egg white. Some traditional Chinese actors have a cross-eyed face painted on their face with a mouth that lines up with the actor's eyes The face talks when the actor opens and closes his eyes. According to legend the tradition of face painting dates back to the 6th century B.C. when a famous warrior prince decided to paint his face to hide what he thought were his effeminate features. Among warriors face painting is supposed to imbue its wearer with strength and even magical powers.

In Peking Opera, clowns wear white patches of make-up around their eyes and nose. Warriors known as qing often have elaborate designs on their faces with symbolic value. Good guys generally had simple designs while the bad guys had more complex ones. Mask are only worn for animals such as a tiger, wolf or pig.

Costumes’such as ceremonial robes with dragon designs associated with high officials and ornament-covered padded armor associated with military heros---are deigned to highlight an actors movements. Actors playing noblemen were a silk robe embroidered with phoenix, lotus and Buddhist knot designs. Later the costumes began to reflect contemporary fashions.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: According to these “face maps”, all recorded in special pictorial manuals, the audience immediately gets information about the inner qualities of the characters portrayed. A red face, for example, indicates loyalty and uprightness, a black face a forthcoming character, a blue face pride and bravery while a white face indicates cunning and treachery. The most surprising of these types of make-up are those in which all the traces of the anatomy of the human face are faded away by a completely abstract facial painting reminiscent of a colourful tornado or of some kind of cosmic explosion. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

Both the old man and old woman types wear barely any make-up, only some lines around the eyes and the mouth. The young woman role types paint their faces first with matte white. Then deep red is added around the eyes, the nose and on the sides of the face. The deep red is graded with the white of the cheeks and the nose. This pinkish make-up, shaded with deep red and highlighted with white, indicates beauty and the glow of youth. The make-up of the youthful male character is also approximately similar. **

The most spectacular types of make-up belong, as the name “pained face” already indicates, to the jing characters. In China the types of facial make-up have a history of at least over a thousand years. The early types of make-up were simple; the face was painted red, black etc. Over the centuries the make-up became more complex and reached its culmination in the hundreds of intriguing make-up designs of the Peking Opera’s jing characters. **

Peking Opera Symbols

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Old man with white beard

The exaggerated facial expressions, gestures and simple props are often symbolic. A whip with tassels, for example, indicates that the actor is riding a horse. A gray beard shows someone in their 50s or 60s; a white beard shows someone in their 70s or 80; a red beard shows someone with a cruel, demented or fiery temperament and is often worn by ghosts. A beard divided into three parts indicates a man of integrity. Short mustaches indicates a person that is rough and crude. A long curled mustaches is found on characters that are sly and devious.

Lifting a foot means entering a house, pointing to the temple means bashfulness and walking in a circle means a long journey has been taken. Chairs and tables are often put together to represent things like mountains or beds. Even acrobatic moves have symbolic value. A sudden backward “vat-turn’somersault, for example, expresses the despair a person feels upon losing a loved one.

On some costumes specific animals denote military rank and specific birds denoted civil service rank Colors symbolize character and personality traits. Black indicates honesty. Blue symbolizes courage. Red indicates loyalty. White can be a tip off for a traitor. Green is associated with virtue. Black sometimes indicates vulgarity. Yellow is reserved for the emperor and the royal court.

Peking Opera Music and Dance


Peking Opera performances are accompanied by repetitive music and percussion often reminiscent of a galloping horse. The musicians often sit on the same stage as the actors, wearing normal street clothes. Traditional Chinese musical instruments used in Peking Opera include the “erhu” (a two-stringed fiddle with a low soft sound), “huqin” (two-stringed viola which often playing the equivalent of the melody), and “yueqin” (a four-stringed banjo-like instrument with a soft sound). Other instruments include “sheng” (reed pipes), “pipa” (four stringed lute), and assorted drums, bells and gongs. The time-keeping, galloping horse sounds come from the ban, a clapper that directs the music and provides actors with cues.

“Chinese theatrical dance,” Sophia Delta wrote in the “International Encyclopedia of Dance”, “is quite varied, owing to the wide range of dramatic stories...There are dances of courage, defeat, triumph, despair, love, intrigue, sadness, satire, and madness...Form and structure [are] within the contents of the play’s plot and roles...In addition to the emotions of the moment, the character’s dominate trait becomes the subject of dance. Whether the character is heroic, regal, modest, uncouth, sly, arrogant, or evil can determine the manner in the dance os executed.”

The combat scenes are derived from the wu shu and play a part in expressing the story and plot. Delta wrote: “A hero’s sword dance is not simply a technical interlude but a display of prowess and proof of his ability to overcome an adversary. A general fleeing from his camp performs elaborate dance. all the while singing the story of his plight.” Ballet has also bee incorporated, especially in the dance and movements of the women’s roles.

Peking Opera Movement


“The choreographic nature of acting on the Chinese stage,” A.C. Scott wrote in the “International Encyclopedia of Dance”, “is apparent in the formalized treatment of movement and gesture, integrated with passages of song and music, in which words are treated as time-movement units. Hand gestures symbolizing emotional reactions create a continuous visible element with the tonal movement of the actors’ singing and declamation. Graceful passages of pointing with the fingers of one or both hands move through spatial sequences attended by the following glances of the performer, whose foot movements timed to the music carry forward the motifs of the dance.”

Delta wrote: “Always the manner of moving used to define the specific individual being portrayed. Roles fall into genres---human beings, animals and birds, and supernatural beings...Ghost are conceived of as being stiff, devils as curvaceous; they dance grotesquely and humorously...The intrinsic quality of each animal or bird is fancifully and fully exploited---the powerful tiger, the brazen leopard, the sly fox, or the wily eagle.”

“Because classical opera uses no scenery, the actor-dancer sets the stage by incorporating the idea of physical environment onto gesture and movement...Action expands the stage when, from atop three stacked tables, the dancer does a double somersault to indicate he is running down a mountain. Many actor-dancers turn the stage into a sea with spread-eagle leaps, diving falls and spiraling turns...A general on a symbolic horse uses slipping, sliding and collapsing movements to portray efforts to advance on icy ground.”

Social Status of Peking Opera Actors

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: As in many other cultures in older times, the social status of actors in China was very low, too. Whether they belonged to the private troupes of educated men, traders or officials or to the wandering troupes, the actors were regarded merely as prostitutes. Their social status is reflected in the fact that for a long time the actors were excluded from the official examinations. It was generally accepted that the actors did not choose their profession, but were forced to do so because of poverty or, for example, because the head of the family has received a criminal sentence. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

There were periods when famous actresses who were courtesans were widely admired and some high-class admirers even married them. However, these kinds of marriages were not common, because of the actor’s reputation of having low morals. Mixed companies, with both men and women, were popular in the 13th and 14th centuries, but after that they were, due the strict moral codes of Neo-Confucianism, banned. **

During the Ming dynasty the tendency was already towards companies with performers of one sex only. The later world of the Peking Opera was completely a male domain. Until the 1920’s the actors, the playwrights and the musicians were all male, and so was the audience. As all the actors were men, they also performed the female roles. Boys and men excelling at impersonating female roles were a constant headache for officials, since attractive actors were popular sex objects among the homo- or bisexual male audience. Thus, many actors were obliged to serve high-ranking admirers with their sexual favours. **

There were also, of course, personalities among actors who were admired by all levels of society purely because of their artistry and innovations. The beginning of the Peking Opera was the golden age of jing actors, who often played the roles of elderly statesmen, emperors, rebels and ministers. For decades they overshadowed the dan or the female impersonators. One of the brightest stars of the Peking Opera stage was Mei Lanfang (1894–1961). He not only brought the dan roles into focus again, but in many ways he influenced the Peking Opera’s development in the Republic of China and even during the early periods of the People’s Republic. **

Mei Lanfang, the Legendary Peking Opera Female Impersonator

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: Mei Lanfang is without doubt the most celebrated Peking Opera actor, both at home and abroad. He was born in Peking into a famous dan, or female impersonator, family in 1894. He began learning acting at the age of eight and made his stage debut at the age of ten. He created a sensation in Shanghai, where he worked for a longer period absorbing the new trends of the international city’s theatrical life. As in many other cultures in older times, the social status of actors in China was very low, too. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

He was a specialist of the noble female type, but was able to expand his acting to some other female types as well. He admired the old kunqu and was instrumental in its revival. However, he also created completely new dances, which are still popular today. He also created “modern” operas with stage sets, contemporaneous costuming etc. He was the head of the first Peking Opera troupe ever to perform abroad. In 1919 he performed in Japan and in 1929 in the United States. **

His performances, especially those in the Soviet Union in 1935, had far-reaching consequences, since among the full houses there were several important pioneers of modern theater, such as Konstantin Stanislavski, Bertolt Brecht, and Gordon Craig. Brecht found many elements in Mei Lanfang’s art which inspired his theories of the Epic Theater. **

During the early period of the People’s Republic Mei Lanfang was instrumental in deciding the fate of the traditional Chinese theater. As a celebrated artist and an influential, cultural and political personality he was able to persuade Chairman Mao of Peking Opera’s value as the creation of the people of China, while at the same time the Communist party was banning all art forms related to religion and the imperial past. It is very much due to Mei Lanfang that the tradition of Chinese theater continued through the middle part of the 20th century. **

Peking Opera Singer Li Yuru

“Li Yuru, who has died in Shanghai aged 84, was one of the great Beijing Opera performers. She was born in Beijing in 1923 on the 12th day of the sixth month according to the lunar calendar. However, to make her seem younger, 1924 was put down on her registration papers at Beijing Theater school, and she retained this as her birth year in all her official papers. [Source: Delia Davin, The Guardian, July 21, 2008]

“Her family, descended from Manchu nobility, had fallen into poverty. She was 10 when her mother sent her to the school. It was lonely, but she would be fed while she learned a profession. She changed her surname from Jiao to Li, her mother's maiden name, in order not to affect her family's reputation. In the past, all female roles had been played by men, and Beijing Theater school was the first co-educational training institution. Her tutors for the dan (young female) roles she studied were male performers.”

‘she worked hard, learning plays by heart in the traditional way, and doing the arduous physical exercises that were part of the training. After six months, she was given a small role, but was booed by the audience when she failed to reach the high notes. For some years, she was given only walk-on parts. Then before a scheduled performance, both the leading student-actresses lost their voices. Still only 14, Li took the major role and received rapturous applause. From that moment on her success was assured.”

“When she graduated, Li organized her own troupe with some classmates and they enjoyed a successful run in Shanghai. However, the 17-year-old soon found the pressure unbearable and disbanded her troupe. She worked under the protection of various male stars and was a private disciple of Mei Lanfang and other male masters of the dan role who had responded positively to the arrival of women performers. She became a great star, particularly known for her roles in The Dragon and the Phoenix, The Courtyard of the Black Dragon, Two Phoenixes Flying Together, and Three Pretty Women. She gave birth to two daughters, Li Li in 1944 and Li Ruru in 1952.”

Peking Opera Singer Li Yuru in the Mao Era and the Cultural Revolution

“When the People's Republic was founded in 1949, Beijing Opera was seen as a popular art form but in need of reform. Plays were banned for reasons such as “too much violence”, ‘sexual suggestiveness”, “reactionary politics” and even “no ideological significance”. With a relatively “clean” personal history, Li was considered suitable material for a “people's artist”. She herself was hopeful about the new regime that had brought peace and stability and, like other actors, she was delighted that they would now be respected as equal citizens. In the course of “re-education”, she made self-criticisms of her “crimes” - the bourgeois thought and individualism demonstrated in striving for fame; the make-up and fashionable clothes reflecting her bourgeois life style; and the counter-revolutionary romances and ghost plays she had performed. Although much of the repertoire disappeared, she performed plays such as The Drunken Imperial Concubine, The Xin'an Inn, The Pavilion of Red Plum Blossom, and Imperial Concubine Mei. She toured the Soviet Union and Europe several times, and gave Beijing Opera performances in Britain in 1958 and 1979.”

“All this came to an end with the cultural revolution in 1966. Li was incarcerated in an “oxpen” (a room used as an and hoc prison) and separated from her daughters who were sent to work in the countryside. When she was released in the early 1970s the theater had become a duller place; only the model works produced under the supervision of Mao's wife Jiang Qing could be staged. Curiously however, as these were all mutations of Beijing Opera, Li and her colleagues were now needed again.”

“Mao's death in 1976 brought transformations. Li could once more perform the roles she had made famous. Her favorite play was The Drunken Imperial Concubine, which she first appeared in aged 11. She performed it for the last time when she was 70. She regarded passing on her art as important and was generous in her help to younger performers. She taught many students, offering master classes and giving seminars in various theater institutions.”

“Her marriage, in December 1979, to Cao Yu, one of China's greatest dramatists, led her to take up writing. She published a play in 1984, while a novel that appeared in 1993 was made into a 25-episode television serial and reprinted in 2008. Her research on the performing art of Beijing Opera has recently been published in Shanghai in a collection edited by her daughter.”

Beijing Opera was a living tradition. Not only the arias, but the techniques, movements, symbolism and make-up were all passed down from one player to another. Looking back on her life, Li lamented that so many plays with their specific acting skills had been lost in the hands of her generation. What, she asked, would she say to her predecessors when she saw them in the other world? The answer should surely be that through her teaching she was also able to pass on to future generations much that would otherwise have been lost.

Soul of Peking Opera in a Changing World

In a review of “Soul of Beijing Opera: Theatrical Creativity and Continuity in a Changing World” by Ruru Li, Siyuan Liu wrote: “As a performance-based theater, jingju (Beijing/Peking opera) has undergone tremendous changes over the past century in reaction to social and cultural transformations, including the modernist attacks in the Republican era, PRC dramatic reform campaign in the 1950s, formal and thematic strictures of the model plays both leading up to and during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), challenges by the market economy in the post-Mao era, and political whims under martial law (1949-1987) and after in Taiwan. In The Soul of Beijing Opera: Theatrical Creativity and Continuity in the Changing World, Li Ruru argues that through these tumultuous times, it is the genre's performers and "[t]heir response to the diverse and continuously changing demands of theater and society [that] make jingju what it is and maintain it in a state of constant mutation" The book focuses on six artists who represent jingju's four role types (hangdang)--sheng (male), dan (female), jing (painted face), and chou (clown); whose works span the early twentieth century to the present; and who were or still are active in three major centers of jingju: Beijing, Shanghai, and Taiwan. The artists under discussion are Cheng Yanqiu (1904-1958, male actor of dan roles, Republican era, Beijing), Li Yuru (1924-2008, dan actress, pre-Cultural Revolution PRC, Shanghai), Ma Yongan (1942-2007, jing actor, Cultural Revolution model plays, Beijing), Yan Qinggu (1970-, chou actor, post-Mao, Shanghai), Kuo Hsiao-chuang (1951-, dan actress, 1970s to early 1990s, Taiwan), and Wu Hsing-kuo (1953-, sheng actor, 1980s to present, Taiwan). [Source: “Soul of Beijing Opera: Theatrical Creativity and Continuity in a Changing World” by Ruru Li, Reviewed by Siyuan Liu, University of British Columbia MCLC Resource Center Publication, September 2012)

Li is the daughter of Li Yuru, one of the leading jingju actresses, a student of Cheng Yanqiu in his Beijing Theater School (1930-1941), and a top star of Shanghai Jingju Theater where Yang Qinggu is the principal chou actor. At the core of Li's project is an attempt to understand jingju's evolution from the actor's perspective, both externally, how they adapted their art to meet the challenges of their times, and internally, how they reconciled their adaptation with their training, specifically in relation to the teachings of their masters, the specificities of their role types and performance styles (liupai), and their borrowing from other theatrical forms.

Li devotes two chapters to delineating the external transformation (Chapter 1: "Jingju: Formation, Growth and the First Reform") and the performance and training basics that define a jingju actor (Chapter 2: "Training of a Total Performer: Four Skills and Five Canons"). The final part of each case study is usually full of insightful revelations. In the case of Cheng Yanqiu in chapter 3, for example, Li Ruru starts with useful contextual information that includes debates on the male dan system, the Qing dynasty xianggong system in which male apprentices acted as courtesans, Cheng's masculine personality in contradiction to his feminine roles, and his complicated relationship with his master and rival Mei Lanfang. The chapter then dives into the specifics of Cheng's balance of yin and yang through a detailed analysis of one of Cheng's arias and his complicated dance and "water sleeve" movements in the play Tears in the Barren Mountain (Huangshan lei). Here, Li Ruru draws attention to how Cheng's masculinity is revealed through contrasting high and low notes that are slightly out of the normal range for dan singing; this singing technique allows the male actor to powerful embody the role of a heroine who suffers acutely under and oppressive taxation system.

Chapter 3 focuses on Li Yuru's frustrations, in the first two decades of the PRC, with her genuine yet increasingly futile attempts to reconcile her artistic creativity with the ideological demands of the time. Li Yuru was criticized in the l960s for applying jingju stepping patterns to the role of a communist cadre and for asking for a Chinese-style jacket to use as a prop for another character, because both devices were deemed inappropriate for communist heroines. Chapter 5 moves to the Cultural Revolution years, in which we find the Beijing jing actor Ma Yongan, who grew up and trained after 1949 and played the peasant bandit leader Lei Gang in the revolutionary model play Azalea Mountain (Dujuan shan, 1973), embraced the play's realistic staging and many Western-oriented innovations--including the elimination of role types in favor of characters, the disruption of stylized acting conventions, and the removal of heightened speech patterns--while still managing to integrate jingju conventions or even unconsciously incorporating them into a more naturalistic acting style.

For example, Ma Yongan secretly adopted the movement pattern from a traditional play Li Qi in the Pavilion (Li Qi changting) for the entrance of his character in shackles during the strictly prescriptive and committee-based process of creating the revolutionary model play Azalea Mountain. Moving to the post-Mao decades, when jingju has to compete with new forms of contemporary entertainment, chapter 6 features the contemporary Shanghai chou actor Yan Qinggu. Li Ruru highlights Yan's efforts to both acquire and showcase the buried treasures of aging chou masters and to find new inspiration from world theater.

The final two chapters move to Taiwan, where jingju evolved on a separate path after 1949. Chapter 7 focuses on Kuo Hsiao-chuang, an actress who greatly modernized jingju performance and brought it to a young generation between the late 1970s and early 1990s, when she abruptly left the stage just as theatrical exchange with the mainland had recommenced. The final chapter brings us the current international sensation Wu Hsing-kuo, who broke both with his master and with the theatrical conventions of jingju performance in staging intercultural productions that mesh jingju with classical Western plays, including works of Shakespeare and Beckett. Li highlights the poignant moment when Wu severed ties with his master, who disapproved of Wu's forays into contemporary dance. This severing eventually paved the way for Wu's intercultural productions, but it also left deep psychological scars that Wu would tap into in his one-person adaptation of King Lear, known as Li Er is Here (2001).

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 June 2019

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