A Brief History of Chinese Opera

Chinese Opera
Beijing Opera performer.

Joris Machielse/Flickr.com

Since the time of the Tang Dynasty's Emperor Xuanzong from 712 to 755—who created the first national opera troupe called the "Pear Garden"—Chinese opera has been one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the country, but it actually started nearly a millennium before in the Yellow River Valley during the Qin Dynasty. 

Now, more than a millennium after Xuanzong's death, it is enjoyed by political leaders and commoners alike in many fascinating and innovative ways, and Chinese opera performers are still referred to as "Disciples of the Pear Garden," continuing to perform an astonishing 368 different forms of Chinese opera.

Early Development

Many of the features that characterize modern Chinese opera developed in northern China, particularly in the Shanxi and Gansu Provinces, including the use of certain set characters like Sheng (the man), Dan (the woman), Hua (the painted face) and Chou (the clown). In Yuan Dynasty times—from 1279 to 1368—opera performers began to use the vernacular language of the common people rather than Classical Chinese.

During the Ming Dynasty—from 1368 to 1644—and the Qing Dynasty—from 1644 to 1911—the northern traditional singing and drama style from Shanxi was combined with melodies from a southern form of Chinese opera called "Kunqu." This form was created in the Wu region, along the Yangtze River. Kunqu Opera revolves around the Kunshan melody, created in the coastal city of Kunshan.

Many of the most famous operas that are still performed today are from the Kunqu repertoire, including "The Peony Pavilion," "The Peach Blossom Fan," and adaptations of the older "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" and "Journey to the West." However, the stories have been rendered into various local dialects, including Mandarin for audiences in Beijing and other northern cities. The acting and singing techniques, as well as costumes and makeup conventions, also owe much to the northern Qinqiang or Shanxi tradition.

Hundred Flowers Campaign

This rich operatic heritage was almost lost during China's dark days in the mid-twentieth century. The Communist regime of the People's Republic of China—from 1949 to present—initially encouraged the production and performance of operas old and new. During the "Hundred Flowers Campaign" in 1956 and '57—in which the authorities under Mao encouraged intellectualism, the arts and even criticism of the government—Chinese opera blossomed anew.

However, the Hundred Flowers Campaign may have been a trap. Beginning in July of 1957, the intellectuals and artists who had put themselves forward during Hundred Flowers period were purged. By December of that same year, a stunning 300,000 people had been labeled "rightists" and were subjected to punishments from informal criticism to internment in labor camps or even execution.

This was a preview of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution of 1966 through 1976, which would imperil the very existence of Chinese opera and other traditional arts.

Cultural Revolution

The Cultural Revolution was the regime's attempt to destroy "old ways of thinking" by outlawing such traditions as fortune telling, paper-making, traditional Chinese dress and the study of classic literature and arts. An attack on one Beijing opera piece and its composer signaled the start of the Cultural Revolution.

In 1960, Mao's government had commissioned Professor Wu Han to write an opera about Hai Rui, a minister of the Ming Dynasty who was fired for criticizing the Emperor to his face. Audiences saw the play as a critique of the Emperor—and thus Mao—rather than of Hai Rui representing disgraced Minister of Defense Peng Dehuai. In reaction, Mao performed an about-face in 1965, publishing harsh criticism of the opera and of composer Wu Han, who was eventually fired. This was the opening salvo of the Cultural Revolution.

For the next decade, opera troupes were disbanded, other composers and scriptwriters were purged and performances were banned. Until the fall of the "Gang of Four" in 1976, only eight "model operas" were allowed. These model operas were personally vetted by Madame Jiang Qing and were entirely politically innocuous. In essence, Chinese opera was dead.

Modern Chinese Opera

After 1976, Beijing opera and the other forms were revived, and once more placed within the national repertoire. Older performers who had survived the purges were allowed to pass on their knowledge to new students again. Traditional operas have been freely performed since 1976, though some newer works have been censored and new composers criticized as the political winds have shifted over the intervening decades.

Chinese opera makeup is particularly fascinating and rich in meaning. A character with mostly red makeup or a red mask is brave and loyal. Black symbolizes boldness and impartiality. Yellow denotes ambition, while pink stands for sophistication and cool-headedness. Characters with primarily blue faces are fierce and far-seeing, while green faces show wild and impulsive behaviors. Those with white faces are treacherous and cunning—the villains of the show. Finally, an actor with only a small section of makeup in the center of the face, connecting the eyes and nose, is a clown. This is called "xiaohualian," or the " little painted face."

Today, more than thirty forms of Chinese opera continue to be performed regularly throughout the country. Some of the most prominent of which are the Peking opera of Beijing, Huju opera of Shanghai, the Qinqiang of Shanxi, and Cantonese opera. 

Beijing (Peking) Opera

The dramatic art form known as Beijing opera—or Peking opera—has been a staple of Chinese entertainment for more than two centuries. It was founded in 1790 when the "Four Great Anhui Troupes" went to Beijing to perform for the Imperial Court.

Some 40 years later, well-known opera troupes from Hubei joined the Anhui performers, melding their regional styles. Both the Hubei and Anhui opera troupes used two primary melodies adapted from the Shanxi musical tradition: "Xipi" and "Erhuang." From this amalgam of local styles, the new Peking or Beijing opera developed. Today, Beijing Opera is considered China's national art form.

Beijing Opera is famous for convoluted plots, vivid makeup, beautiful costumes and sets and the unique vocal style used by performers. Many of the 1,000 plots—perhaps not surprisingly—revolve around political and military strife, rather than romance. The basic stories are often hundreds or even thousands of years old involving historic and even supernatural beings. 

Many fans of Beijing Opera are worried about the fate of this art form. The traditional plays make reference to many facts of pre-Cultural Revolution life and history that are unfamiliar to young people. Furthermore, many of the stylized movements have particular meanings that can be lost on uninitiated audiences.

Most troubling of all, operas must now compete with films, TV shows, computer games, and the internet for attention. The Chinese government is using grants and contests to encourage young artists to participate in Beijing Opera.

Shanghai (Huju) Opera

Shanghai opera (Huju) originated at about the same time as Beijing opera, around 200 years ago. However, the Shanghai version of opera is based on local folk-songs of the Huangpu River region rather than deriving from Anhui and Shanxi. Huju is performed in the Shanghainese dialect of Wu Chinese, which is not mutually intelligible with Mandarin. In other words, a person from Beijing would not understand the lyrics of a Huju piece.

Due to the relatively recent nature of the stories and songs that make up Huju, the costumes and makeup are comparatively simple and modern. Shanghai opera performers wear costumes that resemble the street clothing of ordinary people from the pre-communist era. Their makeup is not much more elaborate than that worn by western stage actors, in stark contrast to the heavy and significant grease-paint used in the other Chinese Opera forms.

Huju had its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s. Many of the stories and songs of the Shanghai region show a definite western influence. This is not surprising, given that the major European powers maintained trading concessions and consular offices in the thriving port city, prior to World War II.

Like many of the other regional opera styles, Huju is in danger of disappearing forever. Few young actors take up the art form since there is much greater fame and fortune to be had in movies, TV, or even Beijing Opera. Unlike Beijing Opera, which is now considered a national art form, Shanghai Opera is performed in a local dialect and thus does not translate well to other provinces.

Nevertheless, the city of Shanghai has millions of residents, with tens of millions more in the near vicinity. If a concerted effort is made to introduce younger audiences to this interesting art form, Huju may survive to delight theater-goers for centuries to come.

Shanxi Opera (Qinqiang)

Most forms of Chinese opera owe their singing and acting styles, some of their melodies, and their plot-lines to the musically fertile Shanxi province, with its thousand-year-old Qinqiang or Luantan folk melodies. This ancient form of art first appeared in the Yellow River Valley during the Qin Dynasty from B.C. 221 to 206 and was popularized at the Imperial Court at modern-day Xian during the Tang Era, which spanned from 618 to 907 A.D.

The repertoire and symbolic movements continued to develop in Shanxi Province throughout the Yuan Era (1271-1368) and the Ming Era (1368-1644). During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Shanxi Opera was introduced to the court at Beijing. The Imperial audiences so enjoyed Shanxi singing that the form was incorporated into Beijing Opera, which is now a national artistic style.

At one time, the repertoire of Qinqiang included over 10,000 operas; today, only about 4,700 of them are remembered. The arias in Qinqiang Opera are divided into two types: huan yin, or "joyous tune," and ku yin, or "sorrowful tune." Plots in Shanxi Opera often deal with fighting oppression, wars against the northern barbarians, and issues of loyalty. Some Shanxi Opera productions include special effects such as fire-breathing or acrobatic twirling, in addition to the standard operatic acting and singing.

Cantonese Opera

Cantonese Opera, based in southern China and overseas ethnic Chinese communities, is a very formalized operatic form that emphasizes gymnastic and martial arts skills. This form of Chinese Opera predominates in Guangdong, Hong Kong, Macau, SingaporeMalaysia, and in Chinese-influenced areas in western countries.

Cantonese Opera was first performed during the reign of the Ming Dynasty Jiajing Emperor from 152 to 1567. Originally based on the older forms of Chinese Opera, Cantonese Opera began to add local folk melodies, Cantonese instrumentation, and eventually even Western popular tunes. In addition to traditional Chinese instruments such as the pipaerhu, and percussion, modern Cantonese Opera productions may include such Western instruments as the violin, cello, or even saxophone.

Two different types of plays make up the Cantonese Opera repertoire—Mo, meaning "martial arts," and Mun, or "intellectual"—wherein the melodies are entirely secondary to the lyrics. Mo performances are fast-paced, involving stories of warfare, bravery and betrayal. The actors often carry weapons as props, and the elaborate costumes may be as heavy as actual armor. Mun, on the other hand, tends to be a slower, more polite art form. The actors use their vocal tones, facial expressions, and long flowing "water sleeves" to express complex emotions. Most of the Mun stories are romances, morality tales, ghost stories, or famous Chinese classic tales or myths.

One notable feature of Cantonese Opera is the makeup. It is among the most elaborate makeup systems in all of Chinese Opera, with different shades of color and shapes, particularly on the forehead, indicating the mental state, trustworthiness, and physical health of the characters. For example, sickly characters have a thin red line drawn between the eyebrows, while comic or clownish characters have a large white spot on the bridge of the nose. Some Cantonese Operas also involve actors in "open face" makeup, which is so intricate and complicated that it resembles a painted mask more than a living face.

Today, Hong Kong is at the center of efforts to keep Cantonese Opera alive and thriving. The Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts offers two-year degrees in Cantonese Opera performance, and the Arts Development Council sponsors opera classes for the city's children. Through such concerted effort, this unique and intricate form of Chinese Opera may continue to find an audience for decades to come.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "A Brief History of Chinese Opera." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/history-of-chinese-opera-195127. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, August 25). A Brief History of Chinese Opera. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-chinese-opera-195127 Szczepanski, Kallie. "A Brief History of Chinese Opera." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-chinese-opera-195127 (accessed February 9, 2023).