Beijing Opera is a national treasure of China that has a history of more than 200 years. Its birth was marked when in 1790 (Qing Dynasty), four major Anhui Opera troupes entered Beijing to perform at Emperor Qianlong’s 80th birthday celebration. After more than half a century, Beijing Opera finally came into being as it evolved from the integration of various kinds of Chinese opera and became more accessible to the common people.
As a synthesis of acting, singing, mime, dance and acrobatics, Beijing Opera requires its performer to be skillful in multiple areas of performing art. It usually takes a person more than ten years of training to become a qualified performer in Beijing Opera.
The stage of Beijing Opera knows no limit in space or time and every action of a Beijing Opera performer is highly symbolic. Footwork, gestures, and various kinds of body movements can portray and symbolize the actions of opening a door, going upstairs, or rowing a boat. For example, four generals and four soldiers represent an army of thousands, waving a whip with tassels in the air represents riding a horse, and when a performer walks around the stage once that means he has traveled a long distance. There are hundreds of stylized gestures using the sleeves, hands, fingers, feet and legs. For the opera connoisseur it is the execution of these movements that mark the distinction of greatness for the actor.
There are four main roles in Beijing Opera: Sheng (male), Dan (female), Jing (painted face), and Chou (comic). Each role has its own vocabulary of gesture, walking, and vocal technique.
Sheng are the leading male actors and are further divided into: Lao-sheng, who wear beards and represent old men; Xiao-sheng, who represent young men; Wu-sheng, who are military men; and Wawa-sheng, who play boys. These roles usually wear no facial paintings. Hong-sheng, another category of Sheng, whose face is painted red, mainly plays Guanyu (Chinese Ares) and Zhao Kuangyin (the founder of the Song Dynasty).
Dan are the female roles. Formerly, the term meant “female impersonator.” It is divided into many categories: Lao-dan, the old ladies; and Cai-dan, the female comedians. Wu-dan usually play women skilled in martial arts. The most important category, Qing-yi, usually play respectable and decent ladies in elegant costumes. Hua-dan are lively and clever young girls, usually in short costumes.
Jing, who are most often male, are the face-painted roles representing warriors, heroes, statesmen, and occasionally gods and demons. In addition to their bold make-up, the Jing actor wears multi-layered costumes with padded shoulders to gain presence, and high soled boots to increase their height. These roles require skill in fighting and a powerful voice capable of protracted enunciation of tremendous volume.
Chou refers to clowns, who are distinguished by a white patch around the eyes and nose. Though Chou can be evil characters, most of the time they are characters of wit and humor. This is the only role that consistently uses colloquial speech. The chou actor is at liberty to improvise, and the spontaneity of his performance is part of his technique.
Facial paintings are representations of the roles of the characters. For example, red is the color of loyalty and bravery; white, of treachery and guile; green, of stubbornness and lack of self-restraint; yellow, of cruelty; black, of integrity. Gold and silver distinguish deities, gods and demons, giving the sense of illusion. The pattern of the facial painting is also significant. There are over one thousand painted facial patterns in Beijing Opera and each pattern allows the characters on the stage to reveal themselves voicelessly.
The costumes in Beijing Opera are mainly based on fashion of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Costumes give no indication of seasonal changes, their function being specifically to designate roles. Different colors indicate different social status: yellow for the imperial family, red or blue for high nobility, white for old officials, black for men of fierce or aggressive character. Scholars usually wear blue gowns, military generals wear padded armors, and emperors wear dragon robes.
In summary, Beijing Opera, also known as Peking Opera, is a classical Chinese art form that combines voice, music, dance, acrobatics, and mime movents to depict stories based on Chinese history and culture.