Beijing opera is said to have been born on this date in 1790 (or 1791) when the ‘Four Great Anhui Troupes’ brought Anhui opera to Beijing, for the eightieth birthday of Qianlong (pictured), sixth emperor of the Qinq dynasty. It was originally staged for the court and only made available to the public later. In 1828, several famous Hubei troupes arrived in Beijing and performed jointly with Anhui troupes. Out of the combination, plus influences from other performance genres including acrobatics, developed what is now classic Beijing opera. Throughout the 19th century Beijing opera grew in popularity from the emperor’s palace to the peasantry. Unlike classical Chinese performance forms, Beijing opera is readily accessible to everyone, with easy melodies to sing at home (for the Chinese!), action, comedy, and drama concerned with everyday situations. It was generally banned as “decadent” during the Cultural Revolution, and for a time was only performed in Taiwan. Now with more relaxed cultural rules it is making a comeback, and is popular with tourists.
Beijing Opera presents scenes that fuse four artistic forms: singing, dialog, dancing, and martial arts, all very stylized. Singing and dialog move the story forward, while dancing and martial arts displays, for the most part, entertain and illustrate the narrative. Singing and dialog are actually related in that even the dialog has a musical quality, and the songs are normally narratives. Vocal tone, which varies according to character, is a vital element of the drama. There are over 1,400 plays in the repertoire with a few being perennial favorites. Here is an example of sung narrative.
All the roles are stock characters, divided into four types, Sheng, Dan, Jing, and Chou. Sheng is the common name of male characters. Lao Sheng is the older male figure who generally acts as the stable element, and Xiao Sheng is the young man, often playing a lover.
Dan is the general name for female characters such as Zheng Dan, the strong willed older woman, Hua Dan, low class girl, Lao Dan, senior woman, and Wu Dan, skilled fighter. Sometimes female roles are played by men.
Jing characters are male roles with painted faces. They are stereotyped roles with their face paint indicating, through color and design, the temperament and character of each role. For example red denotes integrity and loyalty, white, evil or devious people, and black, honesty and dependability.
Chou is the male clown role and is perhaps the most complex role of all, although Chou characters are secondary to the main plot. Chou roles can be divided into Wen Chou, civilian roles such as merchants and jailers, and Wu Chou, minor military roles. The Wu Chou is one of the most demanding in Peking opera, because of its combination of comic acting, acrobatics, and flexible speaking voice. Chou characters are generally amusing and likable, if a bit foolish. Their costumes range from simple for characters of lower status to elaborate for high status characters. Chou characters wear special face paint, called xiaohualian, that differs from that of Jing characters. The defining characteristic of this type of face paint is a small patch of white chalk on the bridge of the nose. This is generally thought to represent either a mean and secretive nature or a quick wit.
Although Chou characters do not sing often, their arias (as well as narrative) can feature considerable improvisation. The orchestra has to be experienced enough to be able to follow along at these points. Improvisation has been severely restricted in modern times as the Beijing opera has become more standardized, and also to avoid impromptu social commentary which used to be the norm. Chou characters, unlike the others who use formal classical Chinese, speak in common Beijing dialect and, hence are much loved because the audiences can relate to them. (This is a common characteristic of performance throughout east and southeast Asian performance.)
The accompaniment for a Peking opera performance usually consists of a small ensemble of traditional melodic and percussion instruments. The lead melodic instrument is the jinghu, a small, high-pitched, two-string spike fiddle. The jinghu is the primary accompaniment for performers during songs. Accompaniment is heterophonic, that is, the jinghu player follows the basic contours of the song’s melody, but diverges in pitch and other elements. The jinghu often plays more notes per measure than the performer sings, and does so an octave lower.
The other main stringed instrument is the circular bodied plucked lute, the yueqin. Percussion instruments include a wide range of drums, gongs, cymbals, and clappers which provide an emotive element in action scenes, especially those involving martial arts. The player of the gu and ban, a small high pitched drum and clapper, is the conductor of the entire ensemble. Here are a series of action scenes featuring the percussion section
Beijing opera could be performed in royal courts, at banquets, or in specially constructed outdoor theaters (pictured). There was very little use of staging or props; only what was absolutely essential for a scene.
I have chosen a recipe to celebrate Beijing opera based on an old legend: guo qiao mi xian. It is said that the dish came about when a young scholar in Yunnan province retreated to a secluded place to prepare for the imperial examination for the imperial exam of the Qing Dynasty, which would qualify him for an official position. His loving wife would travel daily to him to bring him his main meal. To do so meant she had to cross a lake by bridge separating the village from his hideaway. She would leave the meal for him, but he was so often lost in his studies that he forgot to eat. One day she made a soup with noodles and other ingredients from a whole chicken. When she came to collect her cooking pot she discovered that the meal was untouched. She expected it to be stone cold, and was surprised to discover that it was still warm due to the insulating layer of chicken fat on top. From then on, she would serve the noodles and meat slices with the oil layer soup, and the young scholar could enjoy a warm meal every day. When he did well in the examination, he credited his success to his wife’s noodles, so the dish is now called guo qiao mi xian, which means “across the bridge noodles.” It is a popular dish nowadays with a great many variants. You can choose pretty much whatever ingredients you want. The essential elements are thick round rice noodles and fatty chicken broth. I have not given precise quantities for the ingredients because they are served communally for each guest to pick from to place in the soup. For some of the authentic fresh ingredients you will need a good Asian market.
guo qiao mi xian
thinly sliced chicken breast
thinly sliced Chinese ham
squid cut in thin rings
cooked rice noodles
raw quail eggs
bok choy, shredded
chinese mushrooms, sliced
spring onion, green tops chopped in long lengths
oily chicken stock
Bring the chicken stock to the boil.
Place each of the ingredients in separate bowls on the table (crack the quail eggs in small individual bowls)
Serve each guest with a big bowl about ¾ full of chicken stock that is boiling hot. Use deep Chinese ceramic bowls, not European soup bowls. It is vital that the stock be as hot as possible and retain its heat as long as possible. It should have a healthy film of chicken fat oil on top.
Each diner takes some meat, then eggs mushrooms and noodles, and lets them cook in the broth. This takes a few minutes. Then the peanuts, green onion, and cilantro can be added as a garnish.
Note: If you wish to serve this as a dinner dish to guests, I strongly advise you to experiment first to be sure you can serve the stock hot enough to do the job. All the ingredients should be at room temperature otherwise they will cool the stock too much.