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Peking Opera
2004/10/27

A Brief Introduction to the Peking Opera

Among all traditional Chinese operas, Peking Opera is a relatively newcomer. However, it has become the important and influential opera form for Chinese audiences and is now regarded as a nationally accepted form.

Like any other traditional opera, Peking Opera tells stories through movement, singing and elaborate dancing. Thus it is a graceful and consummate art which combines the best elements of literature, music and dance. First conceived and developed in Beijing (Peking), Peking Opera has only been performed for 200 years or so. But, by maintaining the heritage of traditional opera and absorbing so much from other local arts, it came to dominate the theaters of the imperial capital and enjoyed rapid growth. As it developed, Peking Opera has experienced periods of full bloom, diminishing popularity and near extinction. But in the end, it has still been passed down from generation to generation and maintained a loyal following because of its immense vitality.

The Formation and Development of the Peking Opera

The genesis of Peking Opera began when Hui Opera troupes first arrived in Beijing.

During the Qing Dynasty, opera became very popular with Beijing audiences. During the reign of Emperor Qianlong, "Huabu" arose (encompassing all local operas except kunqu). Jingqiang (the tunes of Beijig), qinqiang (tunes from Shaanxi), bangziqiang (songs using the bangzi), yiyangqiang (the runes from Jiangxi), luoluoqiang (songs from Hubei) and erhuang were all in vogue. In 1779, Wei Changsheng, an actor from Sichuan, went to Beijing to perform qinqiang and took the capital by storm with his interpretation of the play Gunlou. After that many quyi entertainers wanted to follow in wei's footsteps and join qin troupes. For a short while, qinqiang dominated the performing arts in Beijing. In the 55th year of Qianlong's reign (1790), the Sanqing Hui Opera troupe was summoned to Beijing to celebrate the emperor's 80th birthday. After the celebration ended the troupe stayed on in Beijing and gave performances for the public. As Qianlong entered his 56th year on the dragon throne (1791) various Siqing and Wuqing Hui Opera Troupes filtered into Beijing, and by the reign of the Emperor Jiaqing many other Hui opera troupes had come to and performed in Beijing, including the Sanqing Sixi, Hechun and Chuntai, known as the "big four." At that time, Hui opera troupes mainly performed Hui Erhuang, Qin Xipi and other local folk tunes. They attracted a diverse audience and occupied an obviously dominant position among all the troupes performing in Beijing.

During the reigns of Jiaqing and Daoguang, a group of Handiao actors came to Beijing to perform together with the Hui troupes. Because Handiao actors concentrated on both xipi and erhuang tunes, this encouraged the merging of Hui, Han and Qin and enabled Hui troupes to perform plays using pi huang tunes, laying the foundation for Peking Opera.

After another half century of development and experimentation, Peking Opera began to use the Beijing dialect for its songs and dialogue. Singing pi huang tunes in Beijing dialect became the dominant feature of Peking Opera, which also marked its birth in the mid-19th century.

The years 1917 to 1937 was a period of full bloom for the newborn opera form. The next decade saw a marked decline because of the People's Republic of China.

After another half centuryof development and experimentation,Peking began to use the Beijing dialect for its songs and dialogue. Singing pi huang tunes in Beijing dialect became the dominant feature of Peking Opera, which also marked its birth in the mid-19th century.

The years 1917 to 1937 was a period of full bloom for the newborn opera form.The next decade saw a marked decline because of the Japanese invasion.In1949, with the founding of the People's Republic of China, Peking Opera was reborn. Form 1964 to 1976, Peking Opera performers were directed to explore the possibilties of reflecting revolutionary themes using traditional artistic forms, but due to the upheaval of the "cultural revolution," any further growth and development was seriously disrupted.In the 1980's, Peking Opera managed to resurrect itself once again and become even more vigorous.

The Peking Opera Plays

Peking opera has always reflected common life in its plots,allowing it a wide variety of topics.The Dictionary of Peking Opera Plays, published in 1986, listed 5000 plays. Peking Opera also included a considerable number of traditional stories, almost 3800 according to one count.

As a comprehensive art form, Peking Opera incorporates literature, music, dance, the fine arts and traditional martial part, Peking Opera has many ways to tell a story. Different plays may resort to different means of expression. Some, such as Longfeng Chengxiang(The Dragon and Phoenix Bring Luck)an Kong Cheng Ji(The Stratagem of a Defenceless City), employ diversified expressions, including singing, monologues, traditional acting and martial-arts demonstrations. Other works may highlight only one or two forms of expressio. For instance, Yutangchun and Er Jin Gong(Entering the Palace for the Second Time)emphasize singing; Shi Yuzhuo(Picking Up a Jade Bracelet)stresses acting; Sanchakou(At the Junction of Three Roads)and Nao Tiangong(Havoc in Heaven)are showcases for the martial-arts;a nd Guifei Zuijiu(The Drunken Beauty)demonstrates both singing and dancing.

Peking Opera plays can be roughly divided into three categories according to their contents:

Historical stories: traditional historical plays dating from ancient times up to the Qing Dynasty make up the largest part of Peking Operas.

Mythological Plays: Mythological plays have an important place in Peking Opera.They make full use of martial arts and are very popular with audiences. Many of these plays are based on "Journey to the West,", a classical novel in which Sun Wukong,or the Monkey King,is one of the main characters.

Modern plays: Though the writing of modern plays in China started as early as the 1930s,the most notable Peking operas with modern themes were composed after the founding of the People's Republic of China.

Peking Opera, with its many subjects,constitutes a valuable cultural repository for the Chinese audiences. It occupies an important place even in the storehouse of plays throughout the world.

The Stage and the Unique Sense of Time and Space in Peking Opera

In the past, Peking Opera was performed on an open stage without a curtain.There was usually a table and two chairs or props, and sometimes there were no rpops at all. Later on a curtain was added. In some cases a second curtain was used when the stage needed to be set with tables and chairs or if performers needed to change costumes in the course of a performance.

There is a free sense of time and space on the Peking Opera stage. When the curtain rises there is no setting or time until the first actor appears,and makes these elements clear through his dialogue or a song. For instance, an actor might sing and deliver a monologue to show that he is in his study-as soon as he exits the stage,the study, that is the time and the setting, exits with him. When another actor appears, he acts to show that he is waling along a winding path,and it is up to the audience to visualize a winding path on the stage instead of a study. Later on a man sits down in his own home. He wants to visit a friend,so he walks around the stage in a circle, a technique called yuan chang. He stops at where he starts, symbolically having come full circle to let the audience know he has arrived at his friend's home.

Depending on the situation, a momentary feeling may be represented as long and an action that would mormally take a substantial amount of time may be shortened. When a character suddenly hears shocking news, he may sing a piece that seems to last forever in order to show his strong feelings in a particular instant. Or he may dispense with a quick gesture to indicate that he is writing or reading a letter,or enjoying a drink.Therefore, much imagination and visualization is required on the part of the audience when taking in a Peking Opera performance.

Acting in Peking Opera

In Peking Opera acting is both visualized and stereotyped. With no props on the stage, an actor must execute pantomime movements to indicate opening a door and closing it behind him, riding a horse, or rowing a baot. In a battle scene, several soldiers may appear from the two sides of the stage, representing two antagonistic armies. These soldiers are called longtao, or mass performers.

Every movement on the stage, such as sitting dowm, holding up a hand and taking a step, has a rule as to how it must e executed. There are also prescribed sets of movements for actors to follow, which are called chengshi. There include how a general should check his suit of armor before going into battle, the way a soldier steals through the night towards a target, how a man rides a horseback and how they should fight. All of these movements depend heavily on visualization, and are carefully choreographed.

Different Types of Roles in Peking Opera

The roles in Peking Opera are quite regimented, being divided into four types, or hangdang:sheng, dan, jing and chou, according to their sex, age, status, character and stage stereotype. The sheng are male characters, such as Zhuge Liang in Kong Cheng Ji (The Precious Lotus Lantern), and Bai Suzhen in Baishe Zhuan (The Story of White Snake); the jing (painted face) symbolized anyone belonging to a rough crowd (and can be either godd or evil), such as Bao Zheng in Mei An (The Case of Executing Chen Shimei), and Cao Cao in Qunying Hui (All the Heroes Come Together); and chou represent good or bad buffoons who can be either male or female.

Each of these types can also be sub-divided. For instance, sheng incorporates lao (old) sheng, xiao (young) sheng and wu (martial-art)sheng, while the dan are subdivided into qingyi,hua dan, wu dan and lao dan.Different roles use different costumes, makeup, songs, monologues, acting methods and even martial-arts stances.

Within a type there are also different schools of performing, such as the famous "Four Dan Schools of Mei (represented by Mei Lanfang), Shang (represented by Shang Xiaoyun), Cheng (represented by Cheng Yanqiu)and Xun (represented by Xun Huisheng)." These different schools interpret and represent their roles according to their own capabilities, hence forming their own special styles.

Peking Opera Costumes

Peking Opera costumes are very colorful and quite ostentatious at times. They are knows as xingtou or xiyi to the performers. Like the stage and the acting, they are heavily stereotyped and represent not different dynasties or seasons, but instead correspond to character types and roles. For instance, emperors and rules should wear mangpao, whichare robes embroidered with clouds, dragons and wavey patterns. An actor playing a mandarin wears a similar robe, but with a square patch on both front and back and no embroidery. Officers and soldiers wear suits of armor called kao. There are soft and hard kao for the actors to wear, a hard kao having four triangular flags strapped to the actor's back, such as the one worn by Zhao Yun in Hui Jinzhou (Returning to Jinzhou), while a soft kao having none. Some costumes have a piece of white silk stitched to each of the cuffs. This is known as shui xiu, or water sleeves. Some characters wear ling zi, two long pheasant feathers, atop their hat, crown or helmet. Both shui xiu and for acting. A performer may be directed to wave his sleeves or stroke his feathers as a means of expression.

The Settings and Props in Peking Opera

Though the Peking Opera stage uses little more than a table or some chairs, they can be used to serve different purposes. If A Table is set at the center of the stage with a chair on each side, the stage becomes an inn,a study, or a room. If a chair is placed near the entrance of the stage, then the audience should visualize a scene outside of a house or a command tent for a general. Again two tables may be laid side by side with a chair on top of them and another at the side (for actor to step on and off again) in dicating a command platform or a mound, and two chairs covered by a sheet of red silk may indicate a young woman's bedroom.

Chines martial-arts use many ancient weapons similar in Peking Opera to real ones, but with some variations for the convenience of the actors. Called bazi or daoqiang bazi, they include various kinds of swords, broadswords, spears and hammers. There is also a prescribed set of movements for each weapon.

Though the settings in Peking Opera rely a lot on visualization, there are a few props, called qimo.Some are quite literal in their application, and inkstones. Some are more figurative. For instance, a piece of blue cloth may be hung up for a city wall, a white banner painted with wavey patterns acts as a river, and a square black flag in each hand, then it means there is a caravan or a procession of some kind tramping across the stage. Performers may also play with handkerchieves painted with patterns to indicate flpating clouds. Today, some innovations have been made in stage settings and rpops. Modern opera techniques, especially in setting,enhance the theatrical effects of the Peking Opera performance.

Songs and Scoring for Peking Opera

Songs from Pera are of two kings; xipi and erhuang, together known as pihuang. Within each category there are different banshi (modes), developed from a basic tune but varying a bit in beat,rhythm and melody. Both xipi and erhuang have different variations on yuanban (original mode), manban (largo), kuaisanyan (allergro), sanban (lyrical and loose mode) and yaoban (swing mode). Xipi also has its own modes of erliu (two & six), liushui (flowing water) and kuaiban (allegro), all different from one another, but also related. They may serve either as independent pieces or can be played in sets to express different feeling. Singing is prominent as a means of characterization in Peking Opera. Apart from the main xipi and erhuang tunes, there are other tunes,such as sipingdiao, manbangai and gaobozi.

The music for Peking Opera is also stylized, and tunes and modes may be repeated. In Nuqijie (On Her Way to Jail), Su San Sings a xipi manban; in Fenhe Wan (Fenhe River Bend) Liu Yingchun also sings a xipi manban, though with subtle variations rarely found in Western opera. Therefore, to enjoy Peking Opera, the audience should learn to tell the differences between the tunes.

Apart from music that is sung there are also instrumentals for preludes or interludes played with qupai. The tunes vary in nature and in length according to different instruments played for defferent occasions. For instance, the shuilongyin (Chant of Water Dragon) will be played on a suona horn when a general is to give military orders; the gongchishang for receiving and seeing off guests; and the kuhuangtian(Crying for Heaven) for funeral rites.

Gongs and drums are important instruments to all aspects of Peking Opeara-singing,monologues, acting and martial-arts demonstrations-to create atmosphere, particularly in battle scenes. There are different beats, called luogujing, mainly as preludes for songs and as accompaniment to acting and martial-arts fighting.

Moreover, drums and gongs also have another function: linking the performance together. Changing the tempo of the action on stage and switching from a song to a monologue, or acting, or the beginning of a martial-arts sequence are all announcde through drums and gongs, which end up being used throughout a play from beginning to the end.

Peking Opera monologues are a musical language written especially for the stage, quite defferent from daily colloquialisms. There are two types: jingbai and yunbai. Jingbai is based on the Beijing dialect, and has a very quicktempo with exaggerated rises and dips in tone.Both huadan and chou roles use jingbai. Yunbai utilizes the local dialect of central China.It is more sing-song and more rhythmic than jingbai. Most Peking Opera roles, such as the laosheng, qingyi, hualian, xiaosheng and laodan, speak in this way. Peking Opera monologues, using plain language and simple vocabulary, have strong expressive capabilities.

Peking Opera Painted Faces: Origin and Development

The development of the art of painting faces is closely related to that of Chinese dramatic art, although the earliest painted faces, or their precursors, appeared long before Chinese drama took shape. Clowns with a big white spot painted on their faces were seen in Song dynasty operettas and Yuan dynasty poetic dramas of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Facial make-up like that of Peking opera jing roles (warriors or robust male characters) had, however, been used in songs and dances nearly a thousand years earlier. As far back as the Northern and Southern Dynasties and the Sui-Tang (420-907) a song and dance featured warriors wearing masks, a precursor of the painted face. This is told in the Old History of the Tang Dynasty: Chapter on Music:"Prince Lanling of the Northern Qi was a great warrior but had a pretty, womanish face. To frighten his enemies, he would wear a fearsome mask when he went to war. Once, in a battle with the state of Zhou outside Jinyong City, he proved himself the strongest and bravest of all. His people were so proud of him that they composed a song and dance called 'prince Lanling at the Front' in which the actors wore masks and their movements simulated the way the prince vanquished his enemies." Thus the custom of actors wearing masks began. Though not in general use nowadays, masks are still worn in some traditional operas, such as the local dramas performed by the Bouyei people of Xingyi, Guizhou Province. Such masks may be regarded as living fossils in the history of opera facial make-up.

As Chinese dramatic art developed, the drawbacks of wearing masks became increasingly evident, for masks prevented the actors from showing their facial expressions. A vividly painted face, however, enables audiences to see expressions clearlv even from a distance, a great advantage in the days when dramatic performances were usually staged in the open air before large crowds. So actors began to apply powder, ink, paint, and soot to their faces, creating the art of facial make-up.

In the beginning only three sharply contrasting colors-red, and black-were generally used in facial make-up. Eyes. Ears, nose, mouth, and facial contours were delineated clearly and a character's most distinctive features, such as thick brows, large eyes, upturned nose, or wide mouth, were usually exaggerated. The earliest painted faces were simple and crude, but with time the designs became more elaborate and ornamental. By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when Peking opera had acquired its unique artistic style and methods of performance, the art of Peking opera facial make-up was developing fast, thanks to the improvements and innovations made by successive generations of performers and artists and to the assimilation of the best make-up used in various local operas. Colors and designs have since become richer and more diversified; distinctions between different roles and characters have become sharper, and a host of new faces has been created for both historical and legendary figures.

Peking Opera Painted Faces: Facial Colors

The basic colors in modern Peking opera painted faces are red, purple (or crimson), black, white, blue, green, yellow, pink, gray, gold, and silver. Originally, colors were used just to emphasize or exaggerate a person's natural complexion. Gradually colors acquired symbolic meanings. In general, red is the color of loyalty and courage; purple, of wisdom, bravery, and steadfastness; black, of loyalty and integrity; watery white, of cruelty and treachery; oily white, of an inflated, domineering person; blue, of valor and resolution; green of chivalry; yellow, of brutality; dark red, of a loyal, time-tested warrior; and gray, of an old scoundrel. Gold and silver are used on the faces and bodies of deities, Buddhas, spirits, and demons, because their sheen produces a supernatural effect.

Although these symbolic meaning are fairly well established, they are not hard and fast. Great flexibility is allowed in the use of color. For example, in operas based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms the face of the old warrior Guan Yu is painted red to symbolize his courage and loyalty to his elder brother, the king of Shu. But in the opera Famen Temple the face of the eunuch Liu Jin is painted red for quite a different purpose: to exaggerate the man's ruddy complexion and mark him as one who holds great power in the imperial court and has lived a life of ease and affluence. His brows, eyes, and mouth are all depicted in a way that betrays his treacherous nature, enabling audiences to recognize him instantly as a scoundrel and despot.

The face of Chao Gai, an outlaw chief in Outlaws of the Marsh, is another example of the variant uses of a color. Chao Gai wears a three-tile(see III.2) face of faded yellow, but the yellow does not have its usual meaning of cruelty or brutality, neither of which is an attribute of this outlaw chief. It merely represents the man's natural pale complexion. The red spot painted conspicuously between the eyebrows symbolizes a hero who has joined a good cause.

A dictum familiar to most Peking opera fans, "No red for the three Gangs," illustrates how colors represent human character. The three Gangs ( Li Gang, Yao Gang, and Xue Gang ) were bold and obstinate, but in Peking operas they are portrayed as solemn and serious, so no red is allowed in their facial make-up, not even on their lips, and no pink powder (which symbolizes humor) is applied to their cheeks. By contrast, in operas adapted from the Romance of the Yang Family the cheeks of the two characters Meng Liang and Jiao Zan are powdered pink because these two men are humorous by nature. In Hongyang Cave, however, the two no longer have pink cheeks, for this opera portrays them as old people whose temperaments have changed.

In summary, colors are used to symbolize human nature in Peking opera. The choice of colors, largely empirical, is based on the experience of many generations of veteran dramatic artists, through whom a fairly complete set of Peking opera facial patterns has been created.

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