Beijing Opera or Peking Opera



  • The usual English name for the most popular form of traditional drama in China. Although the tradition began in about 740 with the founding of China's first drama school, the Pear Garden, the style did not achieve cultural preeminence until the 19th century.

    The plays of the Beijing Opera combine dialogue, orchestralmusic, song, dance, and acrobatics. Works are classified as civil(weu) or military (wu), with the subject matter drawnfrom mythology, history, and fiction. The melodramatic stories usuallydeal with the triumph of good over evil.

    The productions are presented on a bare stage, using minimalprops and furniture. Some props have traditional symbolic meanings:a table represents a bridge, three chairs indicate a bed, a whip impliesa horse, a hat wrapped in red cloth means a decapitated head, anda folded red cloak on the floor is a corpse. Costumes follow similarconventions: emperors wear yellow, important officials wear red, andwarriors have magnificent embroidered costumes and impressive headdresses.

    There are four traditional types of role: male (sheng),female (dan), large males with painted faces (jing),and comedians (chou); until 1911 female roles were taken bymen. The most famous female impersonator of modern times was Mei Lan-Fang(1894 - 1961), whose skill and renown greatly enhanced the importanceof the heroine's role. During the Chinese Civil War he refused toact, letting his beard grow in protest.

    The actors, who are trained to use very little movement, improvisefrom an outline script, somewhat in the manner of the European commediadell'arte. Their speech is mostly delivered in a falsetto voiceaccompanied by music. Character is indicated by expressions drawnon the face, by props (such as a fan for frivolity), by colours ofdress (blue for good citizens and black for bad ones) or make-up (redfor courage, yellow for strength, white for treachery, and blue forferocity).

    In the early 1960s the Chinese National Peking Opera Company made a successful tour of Europe and Canada and it has since made frequentvisits to America. Despite its ingrained traditionalism, the Companyrecovered quickly after the Cultural Revolution, during which only state-sanctioned dramas on revolutionary themes were permitted. Subsequent decades, however, have seen a decline in audiences for traditional drama in China, prompting various attempts to reform or modernize the genre.