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Traditional Chinese Opera

Updated: Mar 20

Chinese Opera Actor © terimakasih0 / Public domain / Pixabay

Traditional Chinese opera (戲曲 xì qǔ) was first created in the Anhui province to entertain Gods. Today, it is a well-known cultural Chinese art. It mixes several traditional art forms, including ancient literature, traditional Chinese dance, music, fine arts, kung fu, acrobats, and performance art. Moreover, there are more than 360 genres of Chinese opera throughout the country. The history of Chinese opera can be traced back to the Three Kingdoms Period (A.D 220-265). Well known in China as well as overseas, Chinese traditional opera has an important history which defines traditional Chinese culture in the modern era (Easy Tour China).

One of the most influential opera genres is the Beijing Opera (previously called Peking Opera, originates from the provinces of Anhui and Hebei and only performed in Beijing later on). Beijing Opera was listed in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List in 2010 (Zhou, 2021).

The stories from which operas are based are mostly tales of preceding dynasties, important historical events, emperors and empresses, ministers and generals, as well as stories from literature and classical novels. (Zhou, 2021).

The Emperor Taizong (唐太宗 táng tài zōng) of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) established an academy called Liyan (梨园 lí yuán), translated as The Pear Garden. Performers from this imperial academy were known as the “disciples of the pear garden”. During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), court officials and emperors brought different opera troupes to the imperial court and Chinese opera became a traditional art form. Later, during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Chinese opera became an art form “fashionable among ordinary people”, with performances being made in tearooms, restaurants, and makeshift stages (Travel Guide China).

The stage of Chinese opera is exposed to the audience on three sides and performances can be watched from the back as well. The stage is divided into two parts: the backstage and the stage separated by an embroidered curtain called shǒu jiù (守旧) . In front of the curtain, the orchestra playing during the Opera are seated nearby and could be seen by the audience (Pang, 2021).

The major instruments used for the Beijing Opera as well as for other operas are the percussion block (板 bǎn), the single drum (单皮鼓 dān pí gǔ), the large gong (大锣 dà luó), a two-stringed bowed instrument with a high register (京胡 jīng hú), a two-stringed bowed instrument with a lower register (京二胡 jīng èrhú), a four-stringed plucked instrument with a full-moon shaped sound box (月琴 yuè qín), and a three-stringed plucked instrument (三弦 sān xián). (Pang, 2021).

Four major roles are presented during the opera: the man role (生 shēng), the female role (旦 dàn), the painted face male (净 jìng) and the comedy role (丑 chǒu). Each of the four main characters wears specific costumes and make-up in order to differentiate from the other roles, and to emphasise the artistic expression. In the early years of Beijing Opera, the female roles were played by men (Zhou, 2021).

After the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the women’s liberation movement granting equal rights with men, women were allowed to perform on stage and join opera troupes (Xinhua, 2000).

The costumes represent different styles from ancient China and the music has an important role in the play to emphasise the emotions of the characters as well as to set the tone of the drama. The acting was based on allusions, with gestures expressing different actions (Pang, 2021).

Bright and contrasting colours were used for the make-up and costumes based on the rank, occupation, and lifestyle of the different characters, as well as social status and personality of the characters (Li, 2017). For the make-up, bats, swallows or butterfly wings are painted on eyebrows, eyes and cheeks, and nose and mouth are exaggerated to portray the facial expressions (Zhou, 2021).

The major instruments used for the Beijing Opera as well as for other operas are the percussion block (板 bǎn), the single drum (单皮鼓 dān pí gǔ), the large gong (大锣 dà luó), a two-stringed bowed instrument with a high register (京胡 jīng hú), a two-stringed bowed instrument with a lower register (京二胡 jīng èrhú), a four-stringed plucked instrument with a full-moon shaped sound box (月琴 yuè qín), and a three-stringed plucked instrument (三弦 sān xián) (Pang, 2021).

Here are the five most well-known Chinese operas stories:

The Drunken Concubine

The Drunken Concubine (贵妃醉酒 guì fēi zuì jiǔ) is one of the most well-known masterpieces in Chinese opera. Set during the Tang Dynasty era (618-907), it tells the story of Yang Yuhuan, the emperor’s favourite concubine. One night, she arranges a banquet and waits for the emperor to come. After realising that she has been abandoned because the emperor has chosen another concubine, Yang decides to drink alone. Méi Lánfāng 梅兰芳 (October 22, 1894-August 8, 1961) was a notable Beijing opera artist who gave an outstanding performance of Yang (Li, 2017).

A River All Red

This story is about Yuè Fēi 岳飛 . He was a military general who lived during the Southern Song dynasty (960-1279) and is a well-known hero for leading forces during the wars between the Southern Song and the Jin dynasty in northern China in the 12th century. A River All Red represents Yue’s battle and his imprisonment by Qin Hui, a treacherous court official. In the end, Yue is killed by Qin but his troops won the war (Li, 2017).

Wild Boar Forest

Wild Boar Forest is based on the novel Water Margin (水浒传 shuǐ hǔ zhuàn), written by Shī Nài’ān 施耐庵 during the Yuan and early Ming dynasties, which is known as one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature. It is set during the Song Dynasty and tells the story of Lin Chong, the trainer of 800 000 imperial guards, who is framed and nearly assassinated during his exile. He is later saved by his sworn brother, Lu Zhishen and they go to the Liangshan Marsh and join forces (Li, 2017).

The Phoenix Returns Home

First performed by Mei Lanfang in 1929, it is one of the most popular Beijing Operas. The story is about a senior court minister who retires and returns to his hometown with his two daughters: Xueyan, the elder daughter known as a plain and ordinary woman, and the youngest, who is known as beautiful and elegant. The story genre is a mix of romance, love, manipulation, and mistaken identity (Li, 2017).

Unicorn Trapping Purse

Written by Wēn Ǒuhóng 翁偶虹 in 1937, Unicorn Trapping Purse (锁麟囊 suǒ lín náng) is based on a Chinese tradition that prescribes that families need to prepare jewellery for the bride in order to make sure she will be well provided for and will have promising sons. In this story, the jewellery is the “unicorn trapping purse” for Xue Xianglin. She will use this treasure to do many good deeds and in the end Xue and her family are saved from a crisis by an anonymous supporter (Li, 2017).

This traditional art form of more than 200 years is still well known in China and worldwide. Different troupes from different provinces represent China’s traditional culture, values, and history through opera.

Prisca Mirchandani is a freelance journalist. She holds a trilingual Master’s degree of Global Security and Analysis (French, English, and Chinese) from the University of Bordeaux, France. She is passionate about China-EU relations, China-France relations, and China Hong Kong’s history. You can find her on LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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In a previous version of this article, the Liyan (梨园 lí yuán) (Pear Garden) academy was incorrectly referred to as an opera. European Guanxi apologises for any inconvenience this might have caused.


Easy Tour China. Chinese Opera.

Li, W. 10 masterpieces in traditional Peking Opera repertoire. China Daily. 11/09/2017

Pang, K. Beijing Opera. China Highlights. Updated 12/10/2021

Pang, K. Beijing Opera Stage Set-Up. China Highlights. Updated 23/08/2021

Zhou, R. Chinese Traditional Operas, History of Chinese Opera. China Highlights. Updated 23/08/2021

Travel Guide China. Chinese Opera. Updated 10/02/2022

Xinhua. Men for Women: Fatal Question for Beijing Opera. 11/06/2000

1 comentário

Annemarie Montulet
Annemarie Montulet
22 de mai. de 2023

Hi Prisca, great introduction to Chinese opera. I personally am a fan of kunqu, the form of Chinese opera performed at the imperial court.

Have you also had the opportunity to check out scholarly works and Chinese language materials on this topic? Colin Mackerras from Australia has made great contributions on the modern stage practice. Wilt Idema has translated many original opera texts. Elizabeth Wichmann has written extensively on the music. I hope you will continue learning and sharing on this great Chinese cultural tradition.

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