Omeida Chinese Academy’s teacher Twelve gave us a vivid lesson about Peking Opera for this week’s culture class. Twelve is very talented in singing traditional Peking Opera, and he illustrates the origin of it as well as demonstrated the beauty of this special melody.

What is the importance of Peking Opera?

Beijing Opera is the at the heart of Chinese history, art, and culture. The largest Chinese opera form, it is extolled as ‘Oriental Opera’. Having a history of 160 years, it origin has created many ‘firsts’ in Chinese dramas: the abundance of repertoires, the number of artists, opera troupes and spectators.One of the most outstanding figures of Peking Opera, Mei Lanfang, was the first Peking Opera actor to perform with his company abroad. His interpretation of Dan roles is legendary and from his style, a whole new performing school developed. From the 1920ies on Mei Lanfang visited countries like Japan and the United States, where he achieved extraordinary success.

What are the characteristics of Peking Opera?

Beijing Opera is developed from absorbing many other dramatic forms, mostly from the local drama ‘Huiban’ which was popular in South China during the 18th century. It is a scenic art integrating music, performance, literature, aria, and face-painting. Certain rules are set up and regulations are standardized during many artists’ long practice on stage. Different from regional plays, it is stricter on the variety of the workmanship. The combination of virtual and reality – a special technique of expression, keeps it largely free from the restriction of time and space on stage performance. Beijing Opera has had many interesting names since it came into being, such as Jinghuang, Daxi, Pingju, Jingxi.

Main Roles in Beijing Opera Performance

Over the past hundreds of years, the roles of Peking opera have been simplified to today’s Sheng, Dan, Jing and Chou, known as the four major roles in Peking opera.

Sheng:

It’s a common name of male characters and composed of Lao Sheng and Xiao Sheng. Lao Sheng refers to the middle-aged man with a beard who acts as the decency figure; for example, Zhugeliang in ‘Empty City Scheme’. Xiao Sheng means young man without a beard. Zhangsheng in ‘The Story of the West Room’ is a representative of Xiao Sheng.

Dan:

The general name for female characters can be divided into Zhengdan, Huadan, Laodan, Wudan. Zhengdan is also called ‘Qingyi’, who mainly plays the part of the strong-minded middle-aged woman who behaves elegantly. Huadan refers to little girls who often live in the bottom of society. Laodan refers to the senior woman and Wudan indicates the female who is good at fighting.

Jing:

Painted face often refers to male characters with unique appearance or personality, such as Baozheng and Caocao. Besides, Chou is a comic role or villainous character or righteous person. The actor’s nose is painted by a piece of white powder, making him or her easily recognizable.The main color in a facial makeup symbolizes the disposition and destiny of the character. As one of the essential elements of Peking opera, the masks can help the audience better understand the opera. To put it simple, red indicates devotion, bravery and uprightness; black indicates either a rough and bold character or an impartial and selfless personality; blue represents staunchness, fierceness and astuteness; a green face tells the audience that the character is impulsive and violent and depicts surly stubbornness, impetuosity and a total lack of self-restraint; yellow signifies fierceness, ambition and cool-headedness; white suggests treacherousness, suspiciousness and craftiness; gold and silver colors are usually used for gods and spirits. The archetypes of masks were found in the primitive society where the people used masks to perform religious rituals.After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Peking Opera performances that dealt with contemporary and revolutionary themes were encouraged, while other topics were censored. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, all forms of the traditional theater were banned, and artists found themselves humiliated and persecuted by the Red Guards. Despite these tumultuous events, Peking Opera was revived in the ’80s, and the lively art form continues to be performed today.