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.