Introducing the Peking Opera (Jing Ju)
Peking opera or Beijing opera (Jingju) is a form of traditional Chinese theatre which combines music, vocal performance, mime, dance and acrobatics. With a history of over 200 years, it arose in the late 18thcentury and became fully developed and recognized by the mid-19thcentury. Originally, it was a form of local theatre, but now it has become the National Opera of China. Before Peking Opera, Kunqu Opera was a very popular opera in Beijing, especially in the Imperial Palace and among the upper class in Beijing. About 200years ago, Qing Emperor Qianlong toured to the south of China and developed an interest in the local operas. On his 80thbirthday, he had different local opera troupes come to Beijing to perform for him. After the birthday celebration, four famous troupes from Anhui Province stayed in Beijing. Because of its vigorous and clear tones, Anhui Opera gradually replaced Kunqu Opera, and also gradually had been very popular in the palace and among the upper class. Later in 1828, another troupe from Hubei Province came to Beijing. They often performed together with Anhui troupes. The two types of singing blended on the same stage. They naturally learnt from each other, taking in the strong points from others to enrich their own skill and then by integrating the Beijing accent into their singing. Gradually it gave birth to a new opera-Peking Opera, which assimilated the best elements from both operatic forms.
Peking opera features four main types of performers: Sheng, Dan, Jing and Chou. Performing troupes often have several of each variety, as well as numerous secondary and tertiary performers. With their elaborate and colorful costumes, performers are the only focal points on Peking opera’s characteristically sparse stage. They utilize the skills of speech, song, dance, and combat in movements that are symbolic and suggestive. Above all else, the skill of performers is evaluated according to the beauty of their movements. Performers also stick to a variety of stylistic conventions that help audiences navigate the plot of the production. The layers of meaning within each movement must be expressed in time with music. The music of Peking opera can be divided into the Xipi and Erhuang styles. Melodies include arias, fixed-tune melodies, and percussion patterns. The repertoire of Peking opera includes over 1,400 works, which are based on Chinese history, folk lore and contemporary life.
Performers and roles
The character roles of Peking Opera are distinguished on the basis of sex, age and personality. The four main character types are Sheng, Dan, Jing and Chou.
Shengis the main role in Peking Opera. According to the age and social status of the characters, Sheng has numerous subtypes: Laosheng, Xiaosheng, Wusheng, Hongsheng and Wawasheng (children).
Laosheng: also known as Xusheng, meaning bearded men, because the performers wear artificial beards, and they are middle-aged or elderly men. Most of them are upright and resolute characters. They sing in their natural voices, and their actions are serious ones.
Xiaosheng: refers to the young male character that often plays a dashing lover. They always sing in their natural voices, high and shrill with occasional breaks to represent the voice changing period of adolescence. Depending on the character’s rank in society, the costume of the Xiaosheng may be either elaborate or simple. They are often involved with beautiful women by virtue of the handsome and young image they project.
Wusheng: stands for all of the male characters who appear in battle scenes. They always wear helmets and thick-soled boots, with embroidered banners tied to the back. The generals always carry long pikes. Wusheng roles call for sturdy and vigorous actions, with resounding declamations. The movements of the waist and legs are powerful, and a high level of martial arts skills is demanded in these roles.
Dan (Female role)
Dan refers to any female roles in Peking Opera. It is divided into Laodan, Zhengdan, Huadan and Wudan.In the early years of Peking opera, all Dan roles were played by men. The ban on female performers also led to a controversial form of brothel, known as the Xianggong Tangzi, in which men paid to have sex with young boys dressed as females. Ironically, the performing skills taught to the youths employed in these brothels led many of them to become professional Dan later in life.
Laodan: refers to old ladies or dignified ladies, such as mothers, aunts or widows, usually with a loud voice and wearing light facial makeup. They are the counterpart of the Laosheng. They sing in their natural voices, in a style similar to that of Laosheng but in milder tones.
Zhengdan: is the most important of all female roles. They are young or middle aged ladies in elegant costumes, dignified and urbane in disposition as well as knowledgeable. They play able and virtuous ladies. Most of Zhengdan’s lines are delivered in song, and even the spoken parts are recited in rhythmic style. Because they always dressed in a blue gown, they also called Qingyi (blue clothes).
Huadan: could be the vivacious maidens serving well-bred ladies. They are unmarried girls of humble beginning or young-married women seductive in appearance but rude in words.
Wudan: refers to female characters skilled in martial arts and can be subdivided into Daomadan and Wudan, according to the social positions and skills represented. Daomadan is a cross between the Huadan and Wudan. She is a female general good at using pikes and spears as well as riding horses, bold, outgoing and equally skilled in letters and military arts. Wudan wears short, tight robes and good at acrobatic combating, often plays a female sprite in myths.
Jing (Painted face male role)
Jing is a strong-willed male character, either straightforward or scheming. His facial make-up is greatly exaggerated, so his role could be identified at a glance. Depending on the repertoire of the particular troupe, he will play either primary or secondary role. The Jing role could be further divided into several groups, according to the different social positions and characters of the roles.
Zheng Jing: has a fully painted face, also known as Da Hualian, representing men of high social standing and good behavior, often court ministers.Zheng Jing sings in vigorous and sturdy tones.
Fu Jing: is also called Er Huanlian with powerful bodily movements and sturdy singing voices. Some roles in this group represent rascally ministers, recognizable by their white faces.
Wu Jing: is more physical than most of the others, with little singing or reciting.
Peking opera boasts 15 basic facial patterns, but there are over 1000 specific variations. Each design is unique to a specific character. The patterns and coloring are thought to be derived from traditional Chinese color symbolism and divination on the lines of a person’s face, which is said to reveal personality. The designs and colors employed all have specific meanings.
Chou (Clown role)
The eyes and nose are surrounded by a white patch, so Chou is also known as Xiao Hualian (partly painted face). Although Chou is a supporting actor in a troupe, they are still very important. Chou means “ugly” in Chinese, which reflects the traditional belief that the clown’s combination of ugliness and laughter could drive away evil spirits. Chou roles can be divided into Wen Chou, civilian roles such as merchants and jailers; and Wu Chou, minor military roles. The Wu Chou is one of the most demanding roles in Peking opera, because of its combination of comic acting, acrobatics, and a strong voice.