Last updated by david at 2013-11-27
Beijing Opera, the quintessence of Chinese culture
Only 200 years of history and nevertheless, a big part of the Chinese considers it as the essence of Chinese culture, one of the world's oldest cultures. Beijing opera or Peking opera -Jingju- is an emblematic form of traditional Chinese theatre.
In China, young people are not too much interested in it anymore; however, each knows what Beijing opera is. Famous singers, such as Zhou Jielun or A Xin made explicit references in their songs.
Traditional performance, Beijing Opera is less popular than at its golden age, but remains considered as the best symbol of Chinese culture; it could be presented as the most elaborate Chinese art form.
How was Beijing Opera born?
This shape of scenic expression would have been born in 1790 in Beijing, of a combination of former theatrical styles. Only 200 years of history and a huge recognition due to its popularity by the entire population independently of the social position.
Although it is called Beijing opera (Beijing theatre style), its origins are in the southern Anhui and eastern Hubei, which share the same dialect of Xiajiang Mandarin (Lower Yangtze Mandarin).Beijing opera was born when the 'Four Great Anhui Troupes' brought Anhui opera, or what is now called Huiju, in 1790 to Beijing, for the eightieth birthday of the Qianlong Emperor on 25 September.
What is Beijing Opera?
Beijing opera is a form of traditional Chinese theatre which combines music, vocal performance, mime, dance, and acrobatics. The plays are mostly taken from historical novels or traditional stories about civil, political and military struggles.
Within the Chinese Operas, there are so many variants as dialects in China. Major performance troupes are based in Beijing and Tianjin in the north and Shanghai in the south.
During the stages, the body movements are symbolic. With their elaborate and colourful costumes, performers are the only focal points on Beijing opera's characteristically sparse stage.
Costumes function first to distinguish the rank of the character being played. Emperors and their families wear yellow robes, and high-ranking officials wear purple. The robe worn by these two classes is called a mang, or python robe. It is a costume suitable for the high rank of the character, featuring brilliant colours and rich embroidery, often in the design of a dragon. Persons of high rank or virtue wear red, lower-ranking officials wear blue, young characters wear white, the old wear white, brown, or olive, and all other men wear black.
Heroes of Chinese pantheon
Intrigues, strongly dramatic, emphasize people of virtue, integrity and ideals. That explains the always happy end, and the satire of the tyrannical or corrupt characters. The good characters are often idealized and the bad ones caricatured...
In literary plays, the main interest lies in the songs and the relation between the protagonists. In warriors’ epics, it is dance and acrobatics as well as martial arts which are at the heart of the actor’s performance. The repertoire of Beijing opera inspired by history and legends is extremely rich and includes nearly 1,400 works.
Beijing opera is performed using both Classical Chinese and Modern Standard Chinese with some slang terms added for colour. The social position of the character being played determines the type of language that he or she uses.
Civil and martial plays
The oldest and most commonly used system is to category plays into civil and martial types. Civil plays focus on the relationships between characters, and feature personal, domestic, and romantic situations. The element of singing is frequently used to express emotion in this type of play. Martial plays feature a greater emphasis on action and combat skill.
Beijing opera stages have traditionally been square platforms and -opera performers utilize four main skills. The first two are song and speech. The third is dance-acting. This includes pure dance, pantomime, and all other types of dance. The final skill is combat, which includes both acrobatics and fighting with all manner of weaponry.
All of these skills are expected to be performed effortlessly, in keeping with the spirit of the art form. Those talents are not disconnected, but rather should be combined in a single act. One skill may take precedence at certain moments during a play, but this does not mean that other actions should come to an end: the highest aim of performers is to put beauty into every motion.
The presentation techniques include besides aural performance elements:
- Vocal production which is conceived of as being composed of "four levels of song": songs with music, verse recitation, prose dialogue, and non-verbal vocalizations;
- Stage speech;
- Song: there are six main types of song lyrics: emotive, condemnatory, narrative, descriptive, disputive, and "shared space separate sensations" lyrics;
- Music: the accompaniment for a Beijing opera performance usually consists of a small ensemble of traditional melodic and percussion instruments.
Sichuan Opera has a long history of several centuries which goes back to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). It is characterized by face change or more precisely masks change.
Bianlian performers wear differently coloured masks that they can change in a fraction of a second, allowing for a sudden change of facial expression. Bianlian belongs to the Chinese cultural heritage and is a highly esoteric secret that is only transmitted from father to son.
Symbolically, the mask change from white to red, from red to green or from green to black, illustrates a variation of the mood of the character. A magic and surprising performance which is of rare beauty …
Performances often take place in tea houses and restaurants. We would recommend attending some in Shufeng Yayun Teahouse (蜀风雅韵).
Shufeng Yayun Teahouse is located in Chengdu Culture Park on Qintai Road, next to Qingyang Taoist Temple, and adjacent to Wuhou Memorial Temple and Dufu Cottage.
Add: No.23 Qintai Road (In Chengdu Culture Park), Chengdu
Mixture of dances, folk music, traditional customs and colourful performances, Sichuan opera is a show at the same time poetic and acrobatic which amazes, amuses and enthuse spectators.
Actors’ acts are more than astonishing: unpredictable faces, fire-eater, and shadows plays to quote only some of it.
Humour also invites itself in Sichuan opera; the excessive expressions that succeed in setting characters are of a contagious joke!
If you choose to attend a Sichuan opera, plan to arrive in advance because contrary to the western shows, you have access to the "changing room" of the artists.
You will then have the opportunity to go from one to another and look at them making up and get dressed for their stage to come. It is really worth the gaze! Because the actors have neither personal hairdresser nor make-up artist to their service, they have to dress up and make up themselves.
Sichuan opera is an entertainment which, although immortalizing ancestral traditions, is very lively. A fabulous moment! Ready for this experience?
Going back to Song dynasty (960 1279), Kunqu opera is one of the oldest existing forms of opera in China. Its rhythmic motives influenced all the more recent forms of Chinese opera, in particular those of Sichuan or Beijing. Kunqu opera combines songs, declamation, body movements and dance.
At the beginning of the reign of Wanli (1573-1620) during Ming dynasty, Kunqu spread very quickly in the provinces of Kiangsu and Zhejiang, became major in this art form and benefited from an overwhelming superiority with regard to the other highlights of the South.
Afterward, Kunqu extended in the capital by bureaucrats and men of letters, and it was appointed theatre of the imperial court.
Very quickly, it was very prominent in all the country. At the same time, a lot of plays and excellent actors made their appearance. Besides the men of letters and the noble persons, Kunqu had many ordinary amateurs, especially in the regions of Kiangsu and Zhejiang, and even villagers could sing some sentences.
This period corresponds at the height of Kunqu which reigned in master in the environment of the Chinese theatre during two hundred years, and it wrote a brilliant page in the history of the evolution of this theatre.
During the some centenarians of its evolution, Kunqu accumulated an impressive repertoire which includes more than 400 chosen plays which artistic level was very high. A lot of masterpieces were owed to the feather of famous playwrights of the last times.
On the level of the show, Kunqu possesses two characteristics: it is sophisticated and strict. Besides the words and music, the roles, the scenery, the costumes, the accessories, the scenic arrangement is clearly described and needs to observe strictly rules otherwise it could have an influence on the other roles, and even on the representation of all the stage.
The division of the roles in Kunqu opera is very marked; this one includes seven roles: Sheng, Dan, Jing, Chou, Mo, Wai, Tie (Beijing opera has only the four first of the list).
The Kunqu show is characterized by the depth of its melody and its dance choreography. Kunqu shaped its own formula of songs and complete and rigorous dances. Indeed, Kunqu occupies a very important place in the literary, theatrical and musical history of China; it also holds a place in dance history.
It is listed as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO since 2001.
Today, Kunqu is performed professionally in seven Mainland Chinese major cities: Beijing (Northern Kunqu Theatre), Shanghai (Shanghai Kunqu Theatre), Suzhou (Suzhou Kunqu Theatre), Nanjing (Jiangsu Province Kunqu Theatre), Chenzhou (Hunan Kunqu Theatre), Yongjia County/Wenzhou (Yongjia Kunqu Theatre) and Hangzhou (Zhejiang Province Kunqu Theatre), as well as in Taipei.
Non-professional opera societies are active in many other cities in China and abroad, and opera companies occasionally tour.
There are many plays that continue to be famous today, including The Peony Pavilion and The Peach Blossom Fan, which were originally written for the Kunqu stage.
The Peony PavilionIts melody or tune is one of the Four Great Characteristic Melodies in Chinese opera
At No.1 East Maanshan Road (Maanshan Dong Lu) in Kunshan, visitors find the Kunqu Opera Museum in Tinglin Park. Kunshan is the cradle of Kunqu Opera, which is said to be the 'ancestor of all operas' in China.
An ancient style stage and the auditorium constitute the main buildings of the museum. The museum has seven exhibition halls, displaying varied information on the Kunqu Opera.
Admission Fee: Free
How to get there: Take bus 1,10,12,18,19,29,51,105,117,119 and get off at Tinglin Park
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