Beijing Opera

Written by Sally Guo Updated Jun. 23, 2021

Combining music, acrobatic dance, theater, and bright costumes, Chinese Opera creates the narrative of stories based on the historic past and Chinese folklore.

Through the use of abstract and symbolic body movements, rich dramatic content and storytelling, comedy, singing, dancing, clowns, and acrobatics, the actors on stage are able to embody characters of the heroic, divine, and animals from the old Chinese legend worlds, often staged in warlike performances. Traditional make-up, close to the mask, and elaborate costumes allow a well-educated public to identify with the story and its characters without hesitation.

The main opera group in China today is found in Beijing; there are also main troupes in Tianjin in the north, Shanghai in the south, as well as Taiwan. The Beijing Opera is so respected that on November 16, 2010, it was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Intangible Cultural Heritages List.

Chinese Opera is such an iconic part of the Chinese cultural landscape that a large portion of the Chinese population considers the Beijing Opera absolutely quintessential to the definition of the Chinese culture. The group has just 200 years of history but celebrates enormous popularity as it is adopted and enjoyed by all the classes of the population.

In history, this art form was known under various names according to the period and place. The first Chinese name was formed by a combination of the names of the major melodies Xipi and Erhuang; it was called Pihuang. Later into the operas’ popularity, its name became Jingxi or Jingju, which name is anchored in the former capital Jing and the character of “presentation” which is Xi.

From 1927 until 1949, Beijing was known as Beiping, and the Beijing Opera was then acknowledged under the name of Pingxi or Pingju to confirm the name change. Later with the establishment of the People's Republic of China, the name of the capital reverted back to Beijing and the official name of Beijing theater in mainland China was reestablished as Jingju.

Beijing Opera was born when the Four Great Anhui Troupes brought Anhui Opera, or what is now called Huiju, to Beijing in 1790 to celebrate the birthday of the Qianlong Emperor. Indeed, it was originally staged for the court and only made accessible to the public later.

In 1828, several famous Hubei troupes arrived in Beijing and performed jointly with Anhui troupes. The combination gradually formed Beijing opera's melodies.

Although these performances are called Beijing Opera (Beijing theater style), its origins come from the southern Anhui and eastern Hubei, which share the same dialect of Xiajiang Mandarin (Lower Yangtze Mandarin) and has 2 main melodies, Xipi and Erhuang, which were derived from Anhui Opera after about 1750.

Xipi literally means “Skin Puppet Show,” referring to the puppet shows that originated in the Shaanxi Province. Much dialogue is also carried out in an archaic form of Mandarin Chinese, in which the Zhongyuan Mandarin dialects of Henan and Shaanxi are close.

It also absorbed music from other operas and local zhili musical art forms; many principles of staging, performance elements, and aesthetic principles were retained from Kunqu, the form that preceded it as court art.

The Beijing Opera was officially established in 1845.

Beijing opera performers use 4 main skills. The first 2 are song and speech. The third is acting through dance expression. This includes pure dance, pantomime, and all other types of dance. The final one is combat, which includes both acrobatics and fighting with all manner of weaponry. All of these abilities are expected to be performed effortlessly, in keeping with the spirit of the art form.

At first, Beijing Opera was originally exclusively for males. The Qianlong Emperor banned all female performers in Beijing in 1772. The appearance of women on the stage began unofficially during the 1870s when female performers started to take male roles. Their talents were rewarded when Li Maoer, a former performer, founded the first female troupe in Shanghai and by 1894, the first public female stage took place. This encouraged other female troupes to form, which gradually increased in recognition. Theater artist Yu Zhenting later petitioned for the lifting of the ban after the founding of the Republic of China in 1911. This was accepted, although the ban was revoked in 1912.

The roles of Beijing Opera divide generally as follows: the Sheng (生) is the main male role, the Dan (旦) refers to any female role, the Jing (净) is a painted face male role, and the Chou (丑) is a male clown role. Moreover, the painted face is the most special character of the Beijing Opera.

It is generally considered that the first period of prosperity of Beijing Opera was at the end of the 19th century. During this period, performances took place not only in the campaign, but also in the imperial palace, and it developed at an unprecedented speed under this joint influence. Thanks to the imperial family, Beijing Opera possessed a very good environment in which to improve its shows, costumes, painted faces, and decorations.

The second remarkable period arrived between 1920 and 1940 through the appearance of schools, the most famous of which was founded by Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), Shang Xiaoyun (1900-1976), Cheng Yanqiu (1904-1958), and Xun Huisheng (1900-1968). Every school included many known actors, who played actively on the boards of Beijing and Shanghai. The Opera of Beijing was extremely trendy during this time.

Mei Lanfang, the most famous actor of Beijing Opera all over the world, began learning to the theater at the age of 8 and rose on the scene at the age of 11. During the 57 years of his career, he brought creative changes to the singing, dialogue, dance, music, costumes, and make-up of the Dan (female) roles.

He created a truly emblematic style. In 1919, Mei Lanfang was on tour in Japan with his troupe. It was the first time that the Opera occurred abroad. In 1930, his visit to the United States reached immense success, and 4 years later, was invited to visit Europe. This drew the attention of the world to the Beijing Opera art and performance form.

After the Reform and Opening of China, Beijing Opera acquired a special status as "political symbolism" and received more monetary support than other forms of theater. Today, stage plays take place all year round in the Chang An Grand Theater in Beijing. International Contests are organized for amateurs every year. Moreover, the Opera of Beijing is always the directory of cultural exchanges between China and foreign countries.

Today, this highly respected traditional art form is less popular than it was during its golden age. Young people are not as interested in it as their predecessors. Nevertheless, every Chinese citizen knows what the Beijing Opera is, and its popularity and reputation have broadened to other countries such as the United States and Japan.

Don’t miss the opportunity to discover this highly respected art form rich in symbolic meaning during one of your tours in China!

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