Chinese opera, also known as the "grand drama," is a unique art form that incorporates three different art forms: folk songs and dances, speaking and singing, and comedic plays. This rich combination of art forms has captured the hearts of many elderly viewers, who are drawn to their captivating performances and intricate storytelling.
Emerging from primitive song and dance, Chinese opera has a rich history and is a complex stage art. Through long periods of development and evolution, it has given birth to five major genres, with Beijing Opera, Yue Opera, Huangmei Opera, Pingju Opera, and Yu Opera at the forefront.
Opera is one of the traditional Chinese arts, with various exciting genres and performance styles that include singing, dancing, talking, and martial arts. It integrates the "four skills" of singing, acting, recitation, and combat into a single art form, making it unique in the history of world theatre. Taking Beijing Opera as an example, which represents the pinnacle of classical opera art, its main characteristics include: men portraying women (while in Yue Opera, it is common for women to portray men); the division of characters into four categories: Sheng (male role), Dan (female role), Jing (painted-face role), and Chou (comic role); the use of exaggerated makeup known as "facial patterns"; the standardization of costumes and props known as "costume types"; and the use of a pre-arranged program to guide the performance.
The following are two common forms of Chinese operas:
Yue Opera (or Cantonese Opera), one of the roughly 400 regional forms of Chinese opera, thrives in the Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong Province and is sung in Cantonese. Due to its grand scale, Yue Opera is often referred to as "grand drama" in Guangzhou, Macau, and Hong Kong. Its music comprises vocal melodies, percussion, and accompanying music, with the most used vocal melodies being speaking and singing, bangqiang (also known as benghuang), and xiaoqu. In addition, Yue Opera actors use singing, acting, recitation, and martial arts, along with the accompaniment of gongs and drums, makeup, costumes, props, and stage design, to create a comprehensive art performance for entertainment and religious purposes. Despite the influence of Western culture, Yue Opera still flourishes in Hong Kong as one of its unique traditional arts.
Beijing Opera, a quintessential Chinese art form, has a fascinating history that spans several centuries. During the Qing Dynasty, a local folk performance known as Yiyang tunes went to Beijing and combined with the city's dialects to create Jingqiang, the precursor to Beijing Opera. However, when Emperor Qianlong took over in 1736, the theatrical world began to split into two distinct categories: the refined and the popular. Kunshan tunes, which were more elegant, fell under the refined category, while all other non-Kunshan tunes were known as "luantan", the popular category. In 1790, as Emperor Qianlong celebrated his eightieth birthday, Hui opera troupes came to Beijing to congratulate him, bringing the Erhuang tunes and adding another layer of musical complexity to Beijing Opera. And by the mid-nineteenth century, Chutune (also known as Hantune) had found its way to Beijing, followed by Xipi. The blending of Erhuang and Xipi gave birth to Pihuang Opera, a term still used to refer to Beijing Opera today. So, the Beijing Opera we know, and love is the product of an extended blending of various regional tunes, dialects, and folk performances. It is no wonder it has become a beloved cultural treasure, captivating audiences with its rich history, stunning performances, and enduring legacy.
Performing roles in traditional Chinese opera are divided into different acting categories. Each category, including the "sheng" (male role), "dan" (female role), "jing" (painted-face role), and "chou" (comic role), has its unique image, meaning and set of techniques and regulations. Each region also has its own set of technical rules and regulations, known as "chengshi," which are applied to the performance of each acting category in traditional Chinese opera.
"Sheng" is one of the main categories of roles in Chinese opera. Actors in this role play male characters. The term "Sheng" first appeared in the Southern opera of the Song and Yuan dynasties, referring to the male protagonist in the play. In modern times, it has been further divided into subcategories such as "laosheng" (old male role), "xiaosheng" (young male role), and "wusheng" (martial male role). These different subcategories all have their own unique set of techniques and rules that are specific to their role.
"Dan" is one of the main types of roles in Chinese opera, referring to female characters. The term "zhuangdan" (meaning "to play the female role") was already used in the Song dynasty's zaju drama. The name "dàn" was later adopted by Southern and Northern opera during the Song and Yuan dynasties, respectively, with slight variations in usage. During the mature period of Kunqu opera, four branches of dan roles emerged: zhangdan (main female role), xiaodan (young female role), tiean (secondary female role), and laodan (old female role). Later, numerous sub-branches were created in various forms of opera. In modern times, dan roles are generally divided into zhengdan (young female lead), huadan (flirtatious female role), wudan (female warrior), laodan (old female role), caidan (painted-face female role), and other specialised roles, again each with their own unique characteristics in performance.
"Jing" is commonly known as "painted-face" in Chinese opera. It uses facial makeup with various colours and patterns to highlight the character's personality, temperament, and unique features, portraying male characters with distinct traits, such as roughness, honesty, slyness, or recklessness. They sing with a loud and broad voice and have bold and distinctive movements, creating a unique style on the opera stage. It is said that this role evolved from the supporting role of "fujing" in the Song Dynasty's zaju. With the rise of the "hua" (flower) style, the range of roles played by jing gradually expanded. The jing role is divided into subcategories according to the character's personality and status.
"Chou" refers to the comedic characters in Chinese opera. The makeup for this role consists of small patches of white powder on the bridge of the nose and between the eyes, hence its other name, "small flower face." Since the Song and Yuan dynasties, this role has been present in various types of Chinese opera. Chou plays many characters; some are kind-hearted and humorous, while others are treacherous and mean-spirited. In modern times, the performance art of Chou has made significant progress, and each opera has its unique characteristics. The performance of chou generally focuses on something other than singing, but instead on clear and fluent delivery of lines.
Compared with other roles, the performance routine of Chou is more relaxed, but it has its own style and standards. Basic movements for Chou include bending the knees, squatting, tiptoeing, and shrugging. Depending on the character's identity, personality, and technical features, Chou can generally be divided into two categories: wenchou (scholarly Chou) and wuchou (martial Chou).