Chinese opera (戏曲 xìqǔ) might sound a little strange to the ears of those not used to it, but it is a stunning blend of many different art forms – music, singing, dancing, martial arts, acrobatics, costume design and make-up art, as well as literary art forms. Chinese opera reached its height, both in terms of quality and popularity, in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), with hundreds of regional styles developing.
Want to know more about this iconic culture, it’s history and the people involved? Read on to find out!
One of these styles was Huiju, Anhui Opera, and in 1790 four of the greatest opera troupes from Anhui arrived in Beijing to perform for the 80th birthday of Emperor Qianlong. Since the journey was long, many of the troupe members settled in Beijing, and though at first they only performed for the court, later they began performing publicly.
In 1828 several troupes from Hubei arrived and they soon began performing together with the Anhui troupes. This combination of opera styles became Jingju ( ( 京剧 Jīngjù; Peking Opera, or Beijing Opera as it is better known today), and it is considered to have been fully formed by around 1845. It was extremely popular at the Qing court, particularly with Empress Cixi.
There are four main role types: sheng (gentlemen), dan (women), jing (coarse men), and chou (clowns), and various divisions within each type. Troupes often have several of each, as well as many supporting performers. Traditionally, all roles were performed by men, particularly after Emperor Qianlong’s ban on women performing in 1772. By the late 1800s some women had begun performing Beijing opera, though it remains heavily male dominated.
Beijing opera is now the most popular style of Chinese opera. What makes it so special? It is much simpler than other styles of opera such as Kunqu, the style which had been most popular before it. For example, the vocal requirements for each role are simpler compared to other styles, and the smaller number of melodies and singing patterns means anyone can sing them. The Chou rarely has a singing part, focusing instead on the more comedic and acrobatic aspects of the role. And performers are the only focal points on Peking opera’s bare stage. Costumes, facial make-up, gestures and conventions all help the audience to understand the plot.
The future of Beijing opera is not assured. Although there was a brief revival after the Cultural Revolution, audience numbers have declined sharply since then. Its lack of relevance to modern life, and its reliance on subtitles (due to its roots in Anhui and Hubei it is performed in a dialect unintelligible to Mandarin speakers) have held it back. However, a renewed focus in Chinese society on traditional Chinese culture, and innovation within the Peking Opera community, such as the development of operas focusing on contemporary themes, suggest the art form will be successful in the years to come.
Interested in seeing and hearing some opera for yourself? There are several Chinese opera theatres in Beijing (listed below). Or if you prefer to experience it from home, CCTV11 is a channel dedicated to Chinese opera!
Mei Lanfang Theater (梅兰芳大剧院 méi lán fāng dà jù yuàn)
Named after one of the most renowned Beijing opera performers Mei Lanfang.
Performance times are irregular – check their website for the schedule, in Chinese only (http://www.bjmlfdjy.cn/news/index.aspx?nav=1&sid=1).
Tickets from RMB50.
32, West Ping’anli Street, Xicheng District
Liyuan Theater (梨园剧场 lí yuán jù chǎng)
Inside the Jiangguo Hotel Qianmen. Performances daily at 7.30pm (closed on Chinese New Years Eve). Visits to the dressing room are permitted.
Tickets from 200RMB.
175 Yongan Road, Xicheng District
Chang’an Grand Theater (长安大戏院 cháng ān dà xì yuàn)
Various performances monthly – check their website for the schedule, in Chinese only. (http://www.changandaxiyuan.com)
Tickets from 80RMB.
7, Jianguomen Inner Street, Dongcheng District
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