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
Opera has been one of the main entertainments in China throughout
history, and different styles developed in different
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
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
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
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.