Chinese Opera has been around for generations, dating back to the eleventh century. It was quite popular in the Qing Dynasty Court where tea-houses would often also serve as a theatre. Changes and variations have taken place through the years and Chinese Opera has spread throughout the country, reaching broader more diverse audiences. Once an art form for only the highly educated, various regional forms of opera have arisen which in turn made opera available to the masses. There are different forms of Chinese Opera, which include Bejing, Cantonese, Huang Mei Song and Sichuan Opera. All of these include similarities in the types of performance such as artistic elements like martial arts, acting, acrobatics and of course singing and music. They all have distinct differences such as with the costumes, singing practices, topics and even the types of roles men and women play which vary by form and region. This creates a completely dynamic art form, unique to China.
When we use the term “opera” most of us imagine a play that is sung in its entirety and acting accompanies the singing. There is music from the beginning to the end of the entire show. However, Chinese Opera varies from this. Chinese Opera combines music with speaking between actors, dancing, poetry, some singing and acrobatics. It also differs from what we would think of as opera where the scenes and sets are changed, where there are props, different lighting and costume changes. In Chinese Opera they try to convey these things through “stage conventions immediately understandable to the audience. Those conventions included complex but standardized face painting that essentially writes the personality of the character on the actor’s face” (Ngai / Lovrick, Preface). These face paintings are extremely expressive, are often almost grotesque or odd in nature and show the complete characterization of the part. While there are numerous different styles of opera that vary by region of the country, each have the same roles which include the female (referred to as the dan), the male (referred to as the sheng), the painted-face (referred to as the jing) and the clown (referred to as the chou) (Nepstad, 3). There are also subcategories to each of these roles. The Dan role is broken down into many others by age, character and status. The Zhengdan which is a young or middle-aged woman who is proper and refined. The Huadan is a lively, unmarried woman who isn’t very reserved or could be a prostitute. She is often depicted as being feisty or wild and represents a lower social status. The Wudan is a female role that is proficient in martial arts and acrobatics. This role is equal to the Wusheng role for men. Then there is a Qing Yi actress that plays a noblewoman or royalty. She depicts an honorable woman showing the ideal of what a Chinese woman should be. The Laodan is an older woman and their costume would be subdued and they wear no make-up. The Laodan sings in a more natural voice and it is usually lower than the other Dan roles. The role of Gui Men Dan is that of a young woman from a rich family that usually isn’t out in the world but lives apart in the family’s mansion. This character depicts a young woman who has not come in to her own, but will eventually grow up to be a Qing Yi or a Huadan. There is even a role for a warrior woman called a Dao Ma Dan. They usually wear full armor adorned with peacock feathers along their hat. The last type of female subcategory is the Caidan which is a clownish or deceitful female. The Sheng has five subcategories. The Laosheng is a man with a beard who is supposed to depict a middle-aged or older man who is seen as more dignified. The Xiaosheng is a younger male character and they sing with a kind of warbling voice to imitate the voice of a young boy going through puberty. The Wusheng is a male that appears as a warrior or in a battle scene or as an acrobat who would perform what is often the most exciting parts of a Chinese Opera. Then there are two roles that are male children, the Hongsheng and Wawasheng. The Jing is the painted-face and are shown with different painted colors and designs. They are considered the most recognizable role in a Chinese Opera. They are males with different characteristics and are usually a some sort of important official, army general, a warrior or even a bandit of some sort. The Jing have very elaborately painted faces. The colors they use represent different characteristics. For example the use of black means that they are honest or righteous. A white face depicts faithlessness or treason. Red shows virtue and courage in the face of adversity and blue would mean they were wild, crazy or cruel. If a Jing has multiple colors, it means they have a more complicated personality. In Peking Opera, the Chou is one of the main parts . They are the clown role and the eyes and nose are surrounded in white for the male actors and the female Chou would have blackened eyebrows and a red face. Usually an actor only trains for one type of role. It is very uncommon for someone to play multiple types of roles. If they do, they are considered extremely talented. Historically Chinese opera has a lot of female parts (twice as many as there are male) but it wasn’t considered appropriate for women to participate in the theatre. They would be looked down upon, especially if they were part of the upper class who were expected to be very reserved and demure. So men would play these parts too. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that women were able to began participating in the theatre without being looked down upon.

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Unlike more common western performances, there are very few or no scenery or props used. Usually you will only find something like a table and chair set up on the stage. If any props are used they are limited to things like a sword, umbrella or a horse whip. This is what makes Chinese opera such a unique and difficult art form. Because there are no (or very few) props or scenery, it rests entirely on the actor to “convey the story, through voice, movement, and gestures” (Nepstad, 4). In addition, each character wears a traditional costume and makeup. The costume serves as another cue as to the characters status in society and their personality traits. If a costume includes armor, it is called a K’ao. This is armor worn my those high up in the military. It is not a very flexible costume, often appearing very stiff. They are bright colors and sometimes have a design on the front of an animal like a dragon. This type of armor would usually be worn by those playing the role of the Jing, the Wusheng and the Dao Ma Dan. They are even special types of hats worn by actors that accentuate the costumes and elaborate on status and personality. Sheng or male actors who are portraying the thinkers or other official can be seen wearing a simple black crepe hat with a kind of fin on each side. Even the shape of the fin on the hats relates to the actors status or character. Still others have feathers from pheasants on them that can measure six to seven feet in length. A lot of the costumes also have extraordinarily long sleeves. These are called water sleeves and are part of the costume that are made of white silk. By throwing, shaking, jerking or flicking them the actor can emphasize a feeling or emotion like anger. Usually any top ranking official depicted in the play would have water sleeves on their costume.

Even though there are over 360 styles of Chinese Opera, they can be broken down in to four main categories. The first of these categories is Beijing Opera. This is also often referred to as Peking Opera. This is often considered the purest form of Chinese Opera. This is the type of opera that was popular in the aforementioned tea-houses in the Qing Dynasty. Beijing Opera has a history that spans 200 years. It is always performed in Mandarin. There are even universities in China that only teach Beijing Opera. Some things that make Beijing Opera different from the other forms is that the faces are painted in extremely colorful paints that are very artful and vary from character to character. The facial expressions are meant to show differences in personalities, characteristics of the parts being played, to show the difference between good and evil and to set apart beauty and ugliness. Peking Opera includes different types of dramatic art forms and styles of acting. They are usually based on a historical story or a military play. They are often very patriotic in nature.

The second form is known as Cantonese Opera. It is also known as Yue Ju. As the name suggests, Cantonese Opera is performed in the Cantonese language. The word “Yue” is what the Cantonese people call themselves. The word “ju” means show or opera. This type of opera is usually only performed in the areas of China and Asia that speak Cantonese including places like Northern Vietnam, Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore and Malaysia. It is believed that this type of opera was imported from or brought in from the northern part of China and that it slowly made its way to the southern province of Guangdong late in the 13th century. It does have some things in common with Peking Opera. However, the facial make-up in Cantonese Opera can often be very bizarre, to emphasize the character or to deliver some sort of hidden message. Yue Ju opera does include music, singing and acting. However it also includes acrobatics and martial arts. Most of the story lines are based on Chinese history or famous myths. Chinese culture also comes through in the performances. They show virtues that are important to the culture such as faithfulness, morality, patriotism, love and loyalty. Usually the cast is female with an occasional male involved in the performance. Because of this, there aren’t a lot of fighting or acrobatic scenes. Cantonese Opera can be broken down into two types of plays. There are the Mou and the Man. Mou means martial arts so all of these types of plays have to do with war and the majority of characters have military roles like warriors or generals. They have a lot of action scenes and the actors do wear a type of armor. Man means highly educated so these type of plays deal a lot with culture and poetry. The main characters in these plays are students or people of learning. These type of plays are considered to be more gentle. The actors in Man plays use a lot of unique facial expressions and gestures to show and express the emotions of the story or poem.

A third category is called Sichuan Opera. It is a common form known all over China. It is sung or spoken in Mandarin. It also takes the face painting to an extreme level and combines five different styles of melody. It is performed mainly in Chengdu, which is a city in Sichuan province. This city is located in the central or middle part of China. It is also performed in five other provinces and the country of Taiwan. One thing that is unique to Sichuan Opera is the art called “Changing Faces, where the actor by some hidden means instantly changes his current face mask for something completely different” (, 2). This is a very secretive skill that very few actors master. It is almost impossible for those watching the show to see how the face or mask is changed. It seems that they are able to make the change with something as simple as a “flick of the head” (, 2). An actor who is very skilled in this type of performance could change their face over twenty times in a performance. Sichuan Opera is also not as strict as Beijing Opera when it comes to the type of singing. It is more like an opera or a play in America. They also usually use a gong in the music that is played during the opera. That small gong is called a Muqin.

The fourth type of opera is Huang Mei Song. This type of opera was originally referred to a Caicha Opera. It is not like the other forms mentioned above because it is not based on historical stories. The topics are usually about “the lives of rural peasants and from the songs and lives of tea pickers” (, 3). This type of opera is more easily understood than the complex form of Beijing Opera. It began in the Cai Cha region of the Hubei Province in China. Many of the shows will only portray one item like a song or shorter story. However, as Huang Mei Song became more popular, the performances have gotten larger or more detailed, but still only focus on one topic.

While those are the four main types of opera which can be found in China and in Asia, there are a few other minor forms that should be mentioned. The first of these is called Ping Opera. This type of opera started in an area east of the city of Beijing. It has very plain and simple stories, which made it perfect for any audience to understand. Ping opera also does not deal with historic stories or myths. It focuses on modern topics, which makes it quite unique as a Chinese form of opera.

Kunqu Opera is known to have existed in China for 600 continuous years. Because of its long duration, it is often called the “teacher or mother of a hundred operas” (china-expats, 4). This type of opera is thought to have influenced and brought about the creation of many other types of Chinese Theatre including Peking Opera.

The final other form that bears mentioning is the Qinqiang Opera which comes from the Shaanxi province. It has a very unique melody system. It is often referred to as the “Oldest Chinese Opera” (, 4).

Chinese Opera is extremely diverse and difficult to master. It takes actors years of practice to master the singing techniques which include very unique and difficult warbles. The technique of voice control which sounds very weird to those who aren’t familiar with Chinese Opera, is one of the hardest things to learn. Chinese Opera, in any form, is beautiful to behold. However, if you do not speak or understand the languages they are presented in it can be very difficult to follow the story due to the lack of props and scenery. Despite this, the long history of Chinese Opera, dating back centuries, proves that it is an innovative art form that is here to stay and will be enjoyed by generations to come.

  • “A Short History of Chinese Opera.” Nepstad, Peter. 1 July 2000. Web. 14 Sept. 2015. .
  • “Chinese Opera Has Many Forms.” Chinese Opera Has Many Forms. Web. 14 Sept. 2015. .
  • Wang-Ngai, Siu and Peter Loverick. Chinese Opera: Images and Stories. University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2014.
  • Xiafeng, Pan. The Stagecraft of Peking Opera: From Its Origins to the Present Day. New World Press, Beijing, 1995.