Peking opera of China is a national treasure
with a history of 200 years. In the 55th year of the reign of Emperor
Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty(1790) ,the four big Huiban opera Troupes
entered the capital and combined with Kunqu opera, Yiyang opera, Hanju
opera and Luantan in Beijing's thearetical circle of the time. Through
a period of more than half a century of combination and integration
of various kinds of opera there evolved the present Peking opera, the
biggest kind of opera in China, whose richness of repertoire, great
number of artists of performance and of audiences, and profound influence
are incomparable in China.
Peking opera is a synthesis of stylized action, singing, dialogue and
mime, acrobatic fighting and dancing to represent a story or depict
different characters and their feelings of gladness, anger, sorrow,
happiness, surprise, fear and sadness. In Peking opera there are four
main types of roles: sheng (male) dan (young female), jing( painted
face,male), and chou (clown, male or female). The characters may be
loyal or treacherous, beautiful or ugly, good or bad, their images being
The repertoire of Peking opera is mainly engaged in fairy tales of preceding
dynasties, important historical events, emperors, ministers and generals,
geniuses and great beauties, from the ancient times to Yao, Shun, Yu,
the Spring and Autumn Period, the Warring States Period and the dynasties
of Qin, Han, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, Qing.
The music of Peking opera is that of the "plate and cavity style".Its
melody with harmonious rhythms is graceful and pleasing to the ears.
The melody may be classified into two groups: "Xipi" and "erhong",
guiding pattern, original pattern, slow pattern, quick pattern, desultary
pattern being their chief patterns. The performance is accompanied by
a tune played on wind instruments, percussion instruments and stringed
instruments, the chief musical instruments being jinghu (a two-stringed
bowed instrument with a high register), yueqin( a four-stringed plucked
instrument with a full-moon-shaped sound box), Sanxian( a three-stringed
plucked instrument), suona horn, flute drum, big-gong, cymbals, small-gong,
The costumes in Peking opera are graceful, magnificent, elegant and
brilliant, most of which are made in handicraft embroidery. As the traditional
Chinese pattern are adopted, the costumes are of a high aesthetic value.
The types of facial make-ups in Peking opera are rich and various, depicting
different characters and remarkable images, therefore they are highly
appreciated. Moreover there are numerous fixed editions of facial make-up.
Since Mei Lanfang, the grand master of Peking opera, visited Japan in
1919, Peking opera has become more and more popular with people all
over the world, and it has made an excellent contribution to cultural
exchange between China and the West, to friendly association and to
improvement of solidarity.
Terms and Roles
Actually, "piao you" means Peking opera fans, "piao fang"
means the place where fans meet to amuse themselves and "xia hai"
means turning professional. When you come across with a small group
of Peking opera fans singing in a street corner, that corner can be
considered a "street piao fang".
"Sheng, Dan, Jing, Chou," for instance, are just the terms
for four different types of roles. Every type has its telltale facial
makeup and decoration.
The ten Chinese characters shown on left probably says everything about
the roles in Beijing Opera. The top five characters list the five role
catagories. The rest tells what roles appear in the plays, from the
powerful supernatural beings to animals like tigers and dogs. There
are currently four main role catagories in Beijing Opera. They are:
Male Role (Sheng),
Female Role (Dan),
Painted Face Male (Jing),
Comedy Actor or Clown (Chou).
Any role in these catagories or sub-catagories can be the leading role
in a play. Except the second catagory, the other three catagories are
for male charactors.
As for why the role catagories take the names of Sheng, Dan, Jing and
Chou, here is an explanation. It is said that they were chosen to mean
the opposite. Sheng in Chinese may mean "strange" or "rare",
but the chief male is a character of most seen. Dan, which means "morning",
"masculine", is in contravory with the femiline nature of
the characters. Jing means "clean". In fact, the paintings
on face make the charaters look like unclean but colorful. And Chou
in Chinese sometime represents the animal "Cow", which, in
some aspects, is slow and tardy. In contrast, Chou charaters are usually
active and quick.
Sheng -- Male Role:
Sheng has some sub-catagories, including Senior, Junior, Acrobatic,
Junior Acrobatic, Child, Red-face, Poor, Official, etc. These are classified
according to the role's characteristics. Male roles are either civil
or military. The actors themselves are mainly trained for three main
parts: Senior Male Role or Lao Sheng, a middle-aged or old man who wears
a beard, Junior Male Role or Xiao Sheng, a young man; and Acrobatic
Male Role or Wu Sheng, a man of military tenor, especially skilled in
Lao Sheng actors are required to attain the dignity of bearing and gentle,
polished manners of the middle-aged mandarin official or scholar; in
military plays they may be a general or high-ranking officer of a gentler
and more cultivated disposition than of the painted faces. Their apparel
accordingly is of good quality but not too garish in its design or color.
A Lao Sheng has a black or white beard, depending on his age, and wears
a black hat with two fins on either side which vary in shape according
to his rank in a civil role. When a military role is played, the costume
is quieter and of a more uniform color than those of the warriors in
the painted-face roles, but the armour is also worn. A Lao Sheng's voice
is soft and pleasant to listen to, neither too harsh nor too high pitched,
but gentle and firm. Minor officials or land owners who have attained
a small degree of responsibility are also included in this role.
The red face Lao Sheng, or Hong Sheng has only two roles. One of such
a role is Guan Gong who is regarded as the God of War. He is greatly
revered and respected. Guan Gong is one of the heroes of the Chinese
classical novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The other Hong Sheng
role is Zhao Kuang-Yin, the first Song Dynasty Emperor.
The junior male or Xiao Sheng requires of its actor the distinguishing
feature of a shrill and high-pitched voice to indicate his youth. The
part is extremely difficult to sing, and when the actor is speaking
his voice must suddenly drop from its high-pitched quality to indicate
the voice-breaking period of adolescence. The Xiao Sheng is usually
small and slight of stature, and his clothes are often quite elaborate
if a young man of society or a young warrior is being represeented,
but can be subdued if they are those of an impoverished scholar. The
young warrior can often be distinguished by his long pheasant feathers
which rise in sweeping curves from his hat. No beard is worn for this
Wu Sheng actors are mainly acrobats, although they sometimes have a
part which requires much acting. They play any part in military or civil
plays which requires a high level acrobats. The skill of these actors
is demonstrated in the fighting scenes, which take on a stylized form
in Beijing opera, and also in scenes from legendary stories when immortals
and devils tumble and twist about the stage showing off feats of skill.
In military plays, swords and spears are wielded deftly and quickly
without the attacker actually touching his opponent. These movements
require great precision in timing, and the actor ducks and twists his
body, often turning somersaults at same time. If he is a young military
officer, the Wu Sheng will also have pheasant feathers in his hat, and
four small flags or pennants strapped to his back and high-soled boots,
all of which make his acrobatic feats even more spectacular. His costume
is often bright in color, especially in the legendary plays. A Wu Sheng
actor is not trained as highly in singing, for acting and acrobatics
are his outstanding feature, but he has a pleasant voice, slightly stronger
than Lao Sheng but rather quiet in pitch, and he sings with a natural
Dan -- Female Role:
The Dan or female role can be divided into six main parts which pricipally
indicate character; Qing Yi, modest and virtuous; Hua dan, flirtatious;
Gui Men Dan, a young unmarried girl; Dao Ma Dan, a stronger, more forceful
character, usually a woman general; Wu Dan, the female acrobat; and
Lao Dan, an old woman.
A Qing Yi actress portrays a lady of good and sympathetic character.
Usually of a quiet, gentle disposition and graceful in her movements,
she is the chinese ideal of a beautiful woman. As a wife she is faithful,
as a young girl a model of propriety. Her good breeding is shown by
the graceful, flowing movements of her 'water sleeves'. The Qing Yi's
costume is elegant, simple and of good quality, but not as vivid in
color as that of the Hua Dan. Her singing is in a pure, high-pitched
For a Hua Dan actress, the flirtatious personality of a young girl is
required. Usually not of such a high social standing as the Qing Yi,
the Hua Dan actress with her coy, coquettish and generally quicker movements
arrests the attention of the audience. This is a difficult part to play
successfully. The Hua Dan's facial expression is continually changing
and her mischievous eye movements are particularly attractive. Because
of her lower social status, more hand movements are required, as in
olden times it was not considered polite for a well-bred chinese lady
to show her hands. Costume, usually vivid in design and color, consists
of a jacket and trousers, and a red or colored handkerchief is carried
to flutter in the actress's hand. Her character, needless to say ,is
not as virtuous as that of the Qing Yi and therefore her singing voice
has a gayer and slightly stronger quality. She also has to do more speaking
A Gui Men Dan is the young, unmarried girl, who in later life will develop
into a Qing Yi or a Hua Dan; her immaturity is clearly shown in her
naughty and slightly mischirvous actions. She has not the confidence
of the Hua Dan, although her schemes and plans are often just as successful.
A Dao Ma Dan plays the part of the female warrior. she is trained mainly
for acting and singing and performs many skillful movements especially
with the pheasant feathers in her head-dress and her military weapons.
She still retains feminine charm, however, and a very versatile actress
is required for this role. Her parts, such as that of Mu Gui Ying, are
of the heroines in Chinese history who were famed for their military
prowess. A Dao Ma Dan's clothes can be very elaborate, as she wears
the four pennants strapped to her back.
A Wu Dan is the female acrobatic role and the Wu Dan actress steps into
or takes any female role that requires a high degree of acrobatics.
she is not only a purely acrobat but demands a talented actress for
a successful performance.
A Lao Dan is simply an old woman , but great skill is required for this
specilized part. The Lao Dan actress cleverly portrays in her bent back
and faltering but dignified movements. She is often seen carrying a
staff. Unlike the other female roles, the Lao Dan wears no make-up and
her costume is more subdued in color and design. Her voice tends to
be slightly deeper, because the natural voice is used, not the forced
high-pitched one used by other Dan roles.
Jing -- Painted Face Male:
To see a Jing actor for the first time is a startling experience for the
spectator. This part is more noted for courage and resourcefulness than
for scholarly intelligence. Often playing the part of a high-ranking army
general, the Jing actor with his painted face can also be seen as a warrior
or offocial . His robust, gruff, bass voice and grotesquely painted face
together with his swaggering self-assertive manner all combine to make
him the most forceful personality in most scenes in which he appears.
Jing actors are usually, in fact, extroverts. The general rule for the
basic color is: red for good, white for treacherous, black for brusque,
and blue for wild, i.e. a bandit would have a blue face. All Jing actors
wear a heavy, ornate costume and a head dress with a padded jacket underneath
to enhance the effect, They can be divided into three main types: Dong-Chui,
better known as Hei Tou (black face), who is good at singing and usually
a loyal general; Jia Zi, who is good at acting, and generally a more complicated
character; and Wu Jing, who is mainly proficient in fighting and acrobatics
and seldom plays a very prominent role.
Chou -- The Comedy Role:
Lastly there is the Chou or comedy actor who generally plays the role
of a dim but likeable and amusing character with blinking eyes and all
the appropriate gestures. Sometimes the Chou can be a rascal, with a slightly
wicked nature. Alternatively a scholar or prince--an eccentric or representing
the sort of a scholar or prince who would not command much respect. Chou
parts can be divided into two types: Wen Chou, who is usually a civilian,
such as a jailer, servant, merchant or scholar; and Wu Chou, who performs
minor military roles as a soldier and must be skilled in acrobatics. His
costume is either elaborate or fussy if of high social standing, but simple
if of a low standing.
Mention must be made of the Monkey King who has a special place in the
hearts of all who are interested in Chinese opera. Played by an exceptionally
talented Wu Sheng actor, the Monkey King holds every minute of the audience's
attention with the quick, agile movements of his lithe body, and his blinking
eyes. He is traditionally supposed to have accompanied a Buddhist monk
who went on a long journey across the mountains from China to India to
collect the Buddhist scriptures and bring them back to China. The Monk's
legendary companions on this journey are a pig (to provide the humour),
a not so learned monk, supposed to represent a shark spirit, to mediate
in quarrels, and the Monkey King, who possesses special supernatural powers
to combat evil spirits encountered on the way. The Monkey King's costume
is bright yellow in color and consists of a voluminous jacket and baggy
trousers to enable him to perform his movements with ease and grace. He
mimics a monkey the whole time, with his knees always bent and his hands
held dangling in front of him, occasionally even scratching himself. His
eyes have a mischievous twinkle in them as they blink at the audience.
The Monkey King also has a trouple of monkeys who behave in the same manner,
but all have their own characteristics--one is greedy, one naughty, one
sleepy, etc.--and their skilful acrobatics and movements are a continual
source of delight and object of affection for the audience.