Known as Xiqu (戲曲), Chinese Opera is an art form which has been performed all over the country since the 4th century, making it one of the oldest forms of theatrical performance in the world. It has evolved to incorporate singing, dancing, martial arts, acrobatics, dialogue and mime.
There are over 300 different forms of Chinese Opera, each originating from a different part of the country. The most popular of these styles include the Peking Opera, Sichuan Opera, Huangmei Opera and Cantonese Opera.
Though this art form has been an important part of China’s cultural identity for centuries, it was almost destroyed completely during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s and 70’s, when only four “model” operas were allowed to be performed in the country. During those ten years, most professional performers were either killed or publically shamed, and much of the skill and joy of opera in China was lost. Thankfully, this has largely been recovered since the end of the Revolution and Chinese Operas are again widely enjoyed throughout the country.
Characteristics are mostly visible through costume and makeup or masks. Facial hair is also revealing – a character with a black beard is generally around 30 or 40 years old and a grey one means he is about 50 or 60; white indicates he is much older. Live musicians play traditional instruments such as the yueqin (a large, round mandolin), as well as lutes, fiddles, cymbals, horns and chimes.
Actors usually cover their faces with face paint or masks, their colours exhibiting a special symbolic meaning. The dominant colour is the biggest clue to the type of character he is:
• White indicates someone is sinister or suspicious.
• Black usually means the character is either rough or selfless.
• Red means the character is courageous and loyal.
• Yellow signifies ambition or ferociousness.
• Blue demonstrates pride, or sometimes cruelness.
• Green often means the character is violent and impulsive.
• Purple a sign of nobility and sophistication.
• Pink usually shows a character is weak.
• Silver or gold often indicates someone is holy.
Peking Opera 京剧
This regional branch dates back to the 18th century and is also known as Jīngjù, or the Beijing Opera. It was officially inscribed in the UNESCO Heritage List in 2010 and is perhaps the most serious form of Opera in China, requiring at least 5 years of intense training in one of several schools across the country.
The style of singing in the Beijing Opera is similar to other forms of Chinese Opera, though slightly more technical than most, and special techniques are used for breathing and vowel formation. There are four different shapes into which singers form their mouth, one for each of four vowel types. This creates sometimes very intense facial expressions, which are interesting to watch.
Shows are either full-length or highlights, the latter typically consisting of 4 different plays, each around 10 minutes in length. Characters don’t wear masks; instead they paint the symbolic colours directly onto their skin. The women wear colourful dresses, which often feature long scarves known as ‘water sleeves’, inspired by flowing ribbons of ink.
Set design is minimalistic and props are often not used; the focus is instead on the skill of the actors, as well as their painted faces and beautiful costumes. Even the musicians are nearly hidden away, grouped together in an area at the edge of the stage.
Where to see it: Beijing has several theaters and teahouses that show primarily Peking Opera performances. These include the Liyuan Theater at the Qianmen Jianguo Hotel, the historic Huguang Guild Hall, the 300-year-old Zhengyici Theater and the Imperial Granary in the Nanxincang cultural complex. Tickets can be reserved through the Theatre Beijing website.
Sichuan Opera 川劇
Also known as Chuānjù, the Sichuan Opera dates back to the 1600’s and is a highly entertaining form of Chinese Opera. This style combines singing, puppetry, fire breathing, folk music and face-changing, also known as bianlian, which is a changing of masks so smooth and quick that it seems almost like a magic trick.
There are 3 forms of bianlian: “pulling,” which requires the removal of a thin fabric mask, “wiping,” where the actor removes all or part of a painted face, and “blowing,” where the actor changes his face by blowing into a coloured powder. Each requires skillful movements and precise timing, and are a lot of fun to watch.
Shows are usually around 90 minutes long and consist of several short performances in different styles, each ranging from dramatic to comedic. There are over 2,000 Sichuan Opera plays, each inspired by a classic Chinese story or legend. Most stories are told visually or with instruments, so those who don’t speak Mandarin will still be able to enjoy the performances.
Where to see it: Though it’s performed throughout the Yunnan, Guizhou and Sichuan Provinces, most people go to Chengdu to see a Sichuan Opera show. Shu Feng Ya Yun Theater is the main performance venue, but other options include the traditional Shunxing Tea House, Jinjiang Theater and the Wuhou Temple Grand Stage. Tickets can be easily booked through TripAdvisor.
Huangmei Opera 黃梅戲
Huangmei, or “Caicha” Opera is a more stripped-down style of Chinese Opera that’s known for its natural style of music, which grew out of the folk songs of tea pickers in China’s Hubei Province. Actors in these shows rarely wear masks or makeup, and singing is sweet and lyrical. Costumes are unextravagant, and often resemble traditional styles of dress.
\Huangmei Opera can be performed as short plays, or full-length shows. One of its full-length plays, Marriage of the Fairy Princess, was instrumental in this style of opera gaining national recognition in the 1950’s. Since then, Huangmei shows have been performed throughout China, as well as on international stages.
Where to see it: There isn’t much information online in English about where to buy tickets for Huangmei shows, though you can ask tour companies and even your hotel concierge for suggestions, particularly if you’re traveling through China’s Anhui or Hubei provinces.
Cantonese Opera 粵劇
Cantonese Opera, or Yueju, is highly popular in Cantonese-speaking regions such as Hong Kong, Macau and Mainland China’s Guangdong and Guangxi regions. Though once very similar to the other forms of traditional Chinese Opera, it’s developed its own unique style over the years, incorporating modern Chinese songs and even Western music. It was inscribed in the UNESCO Cultural Heritage List in 2009.
Yueju Opera is known for its strong emphasis on lyrical storytelling and colorful costumes, and like the Peking Opera, an actor will apply paint onto his or her face, which reveals some important traits of the character.
Though its origins aren’t well known, it is agreed that this style of opera became popular in China’s Guangdong Province around the 13th century, and though interest faded around the 1930’s, it regained popularity in the 1950’s, when several hundred Cantonese operas were turned into motion pictures, and then grew again after the Cultural Revolution in the 1970’s.
Where to see it: In Hong Kong, the Sunbeam Theatre and Ko Shan Theatre have regular Cantonese Opera performances, though there are also other venues around the city that host shows. Tickets can be purchased online through Cityline or URBTIX. In Macao, traditional operas are often overshadowed by the Vegas-style stage shows, though there are a few theaters that host shows, usually with free admission. Visitors to Guangzhou can inquire at their hotel about shows in one of the many theaters around the city, or enjoy some small-scale performances over dim sum at Tong Le Restaurant on Shishu Road.
Yue Opera 越剧
China’s popular Yue Opera is also known as the Shaoxing Opera, named after the city it originated in. By the early 1900’s, it had been brought to the bigger city of Shanghai, and while it was initially successful, many soon lost interest and it wasn’t until the 1930’s that Shanghai fully embraced it. By that time, the operas had shifted from all-male casts to all-female ones.
It gained new life in the late 1970’s after the liberation, and though pre-revolutionary traditions were largely brought back, the once all-female troupes began casting men again, mainly as antagonist characters.
This style of opera is, like the Cantonese Opera, commonly known as Yueju, though performance styles are different. Yue Opera doesn’t usually feature acrobatics or martial arts, and most of its stories are romantic dramas.
Where to see it: Because Shanghai offers so many different styles of opera for its visitors to enjoy, it may be difficult to find a specific Yue Opera performance. The many theaters in the city, such as Shanghai’s Yifu Theater, stage various types of opera, including Yue productions.
Are you planning a trip to China?
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