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Peking Opera is regarded as possibly the highest artistic expression of the rich culture and tradition of China.  Combining singing, speaking, martial art forms, and abstract movement, including pantomime, Peking Opera is not only an artistic treasure, but also an archive of China's history as told by the extensive repertoire performed by the Peking Opera.  Peking Opera did not originate in Peking.  Interestingly, opera is actually a combination of styles that were active and popular in China about 200 years ago.  

Opera has been one of the main entertainments in China throughout history, and different styles developed in different regions.  Opera was enjoyed by people at all levels and not limited to certain social classes.  In 1790, during the reign of the Emperor Qianlong (Qing dynasty, 1644 - 1911), the capital city played host to opera troupes from several regions in China already famous for their operatic performances.  The troupes combined Kunqu, Qinqiang and Handia opera along with other styles popular in Peking at the time.  The style that we identify today as Peking Opera emerged as a result of this artistic integration nearly a half century ago. 

Peking Opera is such an important form of theater that it is classified as one of the three main theatrical systems in the world.  There are four main roles that are played: a male role and a female role, the role of a clown (played by a male or a female) and a painted face role, usually a male.  These primary roles can be further divided, depending on the story being told.  The roles will be highly defined in terms of the moral nature of the character.  There will be no question about who is good and who is bad, or if the character is lucky in life or portrays or more tragic existence. 

The make-up used in performances is intricate and very important.  The painted face, along with subtle gestures and movement will convey the entire range of emotion and experience of the character being portrayed.  There is the noticeable lack of the types of props and scenery that we might associate with a western theater performance.  Peking Opera performances demand that the audience pay strict attention to the players.  Even a shift of the eyes or a slight nod of the head conveys meaning.  This can make understanding what is going on a bit difficult for a foreigner. 

However, today if you have the good fortune to see the Peking Opera perform, you will be able to enjoy a translation.  Reading up ahead of time about the story you are going to see, which might involve looking into the history of the country - is also sound advice from the experts.  The costumes are another opportunity to highlight some of China's most breathtaking art - the embroidered and brocaded fabrics.  The costumes, which are usually based on traditional Chinese dress, also provide a glimpse into China's history. 

Performances are accompanied by music - usually played on three types of instrument: wind instruments, string instruments and percussion.  The main instruments are Chinese in origin: the jinghu, a two-stringed instrument played with a bow, the yueqin, a four-stringed instrument that is plucked, a sanxian, a three-stringed instrument also plucked, the suona horn, Chinese flutes and a variety of gongs and cymbals.  The melodies are rhythmic and graceful. 

The focus of Peking Opera shifted during the country's Cultural Revolution (1966 - 1976).  During this time, traditionally performed stories that exemplified the lifestyles of pre-Communist society were banned.  New performances were written, though - that reflected this major social and political change.  True to form, the Peking Opera continued to reflect the history of the country. 

Today, China has made an effort revive the art form and you can once again see the traditional stories performed.  The Peking Opera has been invited to perform all over the world - to the delight of foreign audiences.  This has greatly increased awareness of this priceless national cultural treasure.


 

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