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Beijing Opera

Beijing Opera or Peking Opera pinyin: Jīngjù  is regarded as the national opera in China for it has a long history and a complete system of stage performance, and it also quintessence of Chinese culture in Chinese minds. It developed from Kunqu opera, Anhui opera and Han opera. Beijng opera is also regarded as the top fifth operas in china.

Beijing opera has been declared World Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization on May 18th, 2001 in Paris.


As the story goes, Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty fell interested in the local drama during his inspection of the Southern China in disguise. To celebrate his 80th birthday in 1790, he summoned opera troupes from different areas around China to perform for him in Beijing. After the celebration, four famous troupes from Anhui Provinces were asked to stay, for audiences were particularly satisfied with their beautiful melodies, colorful costumes and interesting facial patterns.

Gradually it replaced Kunqu Opera which had been popular in the palace and among the upper ranks in Beijing. Later, some troupes from Hubei Province came to Beijing and often performed together with the Anhui troupes. The two types of singing blended on the same stage and gradually gave birth to a new genre that was known as Beijing Opera.

Beijing Opera absorbed various elements of its forerunners, such as singing, dancing, mimicry and acrobatics, and adapted itself in language and style of singing to Beijing audiences. As time goes by, its popularity spread all over the country, becoming the most popular drama in China. Furthermore, Beijing opera sing has influenced Chinese drama deeply.

Peking Opera

Main Types of Performers
Beijing Opera features four main types of performers named Sheng, Dan, Jing and Chou. Performing troupes often have several main actors for each type, as well as numerous secondary and tertiary performers. With their elaborate and colorful costumes, performers are the only focal points on Beijing opera's characteristically sparse stage. The Sheng is the main male role in Beijing opera. All the male roles that do not belong to the Jing and the Chou can be called “Sheng”. It generally can be divided into three types: old man (Chinese pinyin: laosheng), young man(Chinese pinyin: xiaosheng) and martial man(Chinese pinyin: wusheng). The Dan refers to all the female roles in Peking Opera. The role can be performed by both genders now. Initially, Beijing opera was an exclusive pursuit only belongs to male, and all Dan roles were being played by men. The Qianlong Emperor gave an order to ban female performers in Beijing in 1772. The ban was rised up in 1912; therefore, male Dan continued to be popular after this period. Mei Lanfang, a well-known Chinese Beijing opera performer, is a famous for his professional and unique style for Dan role acting. Dan can be divided into several types: Qingyi(also named Zhengdan, it’s a role for elegant young or middle-aged lady), Huadan(it’s a role for vivid young lady), Daomadan(a role refers to female heroines), Huashan( a role possess the characters of Qingyi and Zhengdan and Huadan) ect..

Hualian(the painted face), in Chinese called “Jing”, is a name for the male role that has some special characteristic or appearance. It characterized by the painted face. The role must have a strong voice and be able to exaggerate gestures, and the Jing’s face should be made up in strong colors such as red, white and black to express their characters. Jing has two main types called Wenjing and Wujing, the Wenjing is someone who pays more attention to his singing skills while the Wujing is more good at martial performance. Usually, Jing would be roles for important officials in the show.

The Chou is easily understood from the role’s name as a clown with an ugly appearance. The hallmark of the Chou is that there is a white paint at the top of the actor’s nose. The function of Chou in a performance is to provide light relief and comedy.

Peking Opera

Facial Make-Up and Costumes

Elaborate and gorgeous facial make-up and costumes are two distinguished characteristics of Beijing Opera. The audience can know what kind of character the role is from the colors and patterns.

Generally speaking, red faces have the positive meaning symbolizing the brave, laolty, upright and wise men. Another positive color is purple. Black faces usually have neutral meaning, representative the just men and uprightness. Blue and green also have neutral meanings that symbolize the hero from the bushes or some kind of rebellionence leaders.Meanwhile, the yellow and white represent the crafty men with negative meaning such as treachery and firece hearts.Performers have gold or silver facial make-up standing for the monsters or Gods and super naturel power. Good-nature people are usually painted with relatively simple colors while make-up of hostile and doubtful characters, such as bandits, robbers, rebels and alike, bear complex marks.

The costuming of Beijing is based mainly on the court and civil costumes of the Ming Dynasty style, with frequent uses of deep red, green, yellow, white black and blue. Strong contrasting colors are freely used, and embroidered in gold, silver and colored threads. The rules for costumes are strictly based on rank, occupation and life style, and there are special costume with different colors and designs for each role.

Peking Opera

Tunes of Beijing Opera

The tunes of Beijing Opera are mainly composed of two styles, Erhuang and Xipi. The former originated in Hui tune in Anhui Province while the latter resulting from Han tune in Hubei Province.
They are used according to the actions in different scenes. Generally speaking, Xipi tune is employed in lighter scenes while Erhuang for dramatic actions. Surely, some other tunes are also employed for different purpose. The singing in Beijing Opera is highly stylized but its variation of rhythm and pitch enable the actors and actresses to express the thoughts and emotions of different characters in different situations. There are two forms of recitatives in dialogue and monologue. Yunbai is the rhythmic vernacular and Jingbai is the capital vernacular, which is used to better characterize the personalities.

Acting in Beijing Opera includes a set of movements, gesture and expressions. Every movement or pose, such as stroking a beard, setting a hat straight, swinging a sleeve or lifting a foot, has its own formula or pattern.
Musical Instruments

The most important musical instrument used in Beijing Opera is Jinghu, a kind of two-stringed fiddle followed by Erhu, also a two-stringed fiddle but in a softer tune. Other instruments are Yueqin, Pipa and Suona, etc. The percussion instruments are Gongs and drums of different sizes, and castanets made of wood and bamboo.
The castanets play an important role in making the temper, they serve as the time-beater, and the whole band is virtually directed by them. With the aid of Gongs and drums, they beat the tempo for the actor, regulate his motions, and give him cues and so on.

Peking Opera

Beijing Opera's Important Features

Art of illusion and imagination is one of Beijing Opera's most important features, expressed through exaggeration and concentration. Background and props are kept to a minimum and remain simple, usually a table and two chairs in front of a big curtain. Performers use gesture and body language to represent actions such as opening or closing the door, going up or down a building or a mountain, and embarking, disembarking or traveling by boat. A decorated whip represents s horse, a paddle a boat and two pennants embroidered with wheels a carriage. When the actor walks in a circle, it means that he is in a long journey. Four generals and four soldiers represent an army. Two actors can portray groping and fighting dark through dance and acrobatics on a brightly lit stage. By such techniques, Beijing Opera has made it possible to transform a small stage into the whole universe.

Peking Opera

Master of Beijing Opera

Born in Beijing In 1894 into a family full of Chinese opera performers, Mei Lanfang was the best known Chinese Beijing opera master. In his 50-year stage career, his exclusive skills of females characters playing has won him a world wide acclaim. He was also one of the "Four Great Dan", along with Shang Xiaoyun, Cheng Yanqiu, and Xun Huisheng in Beijing opera history. Mei Lanfang was the first Beijing Opera master who participated in cultural exchanges with foreign countries in his contemporary time in China . During 1919 to 1935, he paid visit to Japan , United States and other regions, spread Beijing Opera to foreign countries. Forming friendships with western artists ,showing the harmony and beauty in Chinese performance had played a important role to eliminate the bias between China and  West in that era.

Recommended Works

The repertoire of Peking opera are mainly based on Chinese history, folklore, and contemporary life, among which many have gained a great success that has left a deep impression in people’s hearts. Here are some classic works of Beijing Opera.
•Ode to Pear Blossom
•The Fourth Son Visits His Mother
•Charge infidelity against the emperor's son-in-law
 •Farewell My Concubine
•A midsummer night's dream

Recommended Theaters in Beijing

1. Chang’an Daxiyuan Theater
Address: Chang’an mansion, Chang’an Street
How to get: take No.120, No.126, No.1, No.457, and No.52 to north station of Beijing bus stop.
2. MeiLanfang Theater
Address: Beidajie Street, Xicheng district.
How to get: take No. 107, No.701 to Gongzhuandong bus stop
3. Liyuan Theater
Address: Yong’an Road, Xuanwu District
How to get: No.06, No.15, and No.622 to Yong’an Lu bus stop.