Greek tragicomedy, Indian Sanskrit drama, and Chinese opera are indisputably the three most ancient forms of drama in the world. In China, opera has traditionally been the main source of theatrical drama; it is the Chinese counterpart to what one in the West terms "theatre", as in "Shakespearean theatre". Yet the English language notion of opera does not fully capture the true essence of opera in China, as anyone even vaguely familar with Chinese opera would agree. In fact, the term, "Chinese opera", is itself not a bad jumping off point for talking about the phenomenon of opera in China, since the term suggests - and rightly so - that there is something about opera in China that sets it apart from the Western notion of opera.
The Chinese word for opera is xiqu, which is roughly translated as "theatre of song", or possibly even "a musical", yet neither of these terms accurately captures the essence of Chinese opera, while they may even create associations that are in contradiction to the essence of Chinese opera. What constitutes the essence of Chinese opera is a matter for scholars to debate, and of course one must recognize that since 'there is nothing new under the sun', xiqu did not suddenly emerge 'out of the blue' as a full-blown opera form - it gradually took shape through the absorption of a variety of theatrical currents and practices that had preceeded it. But at some point in this evolution one can rightly speak of a dramatic form that is sufficiently developed to set it apart as a discipline in its own right.
It is this stage in the development of Chinese opera that is of interest here as a starting point from which to construct a simple picture of what Chinese opera is really about, without having to resort to hair-splitting semantical discussions. In the following, the main outline of the historical development of the dramatic medium in China that has come to be known as "Chinese opera" will be presented, including its various regional origins as well as its most popular current styles. But first, what constitutes xiqu?
According to scholars (not to imply that all scholars of Chinese opera are in agreement, but there seems to be a general consensus in this case), to qualify as xiqu, the art form in question must possess the following elements:
1. The action, or drama, must involve a plot,
2. It must rest on a written script replete with stage instructions,
3. It must involve a cast of actors/ performers who impersonate characters (this to distinguish xiqu from a narration),
4. The plot must unfold via a mixture of dialogue, action, and singing ("dancing" - including leaping and other dramatic movement associated with martial arts - may occur, but this is strictly optional),*
5. There must be a combination of "makeup" (not the same as the Painted Face**) and costumery,
6. There must be musical accompaniment from start to finish (not just musical accompaniment during certain passages during the drama, as in the American genre calling itself a "musical"),
7. There must exist well-defined role categories (the tragic figure, the jester, etc.), and finally,
8. The xiqu performance must be the main event itself, not a warm-up act or an intermezzo for another event.
* In the West, opera usually has little or no action, while drama - except in the case of the musical, which is a recent theatrical innovation, comparatively speaking - usually has no singing.
** The Painted Face role, or jing, is a feature unique to Chinese opera, and is a crucial element in identifying the character's specific role (there are four jing roles, as will be discussed below). The Painted Face involves not only facial makeup, but also headdress as well as a specific costume to fit the specific role of the character. The Painted Face no doubt originated as a device to disguise a male actor as a female, but from there it was expanded to the jing role, and as such provided important symbolic information to the audience. From the concept of the Painted Face to the idea of changing masks is a very small step, however (it is of course much easier to change a mask than to remove makeup and re-apply it in a different pattern).