Chinese Opera/Peking Opera: History, Performance Culture and Costumes

China is the third largest country in the world, occupying one-fourteenth of the earth’s total landmass, and almost the size of entire Europe. The current population of China is 1.37 billion, which makes it the largest country in terms of population density. China is not only a large country because of landmass and population, but is also an ancient civilization. Contribution of Chinese thoughts, philosophy and art is immense.

China facts

Third largest country in the world
The current population of China is 1.37 billion
More than 55 ethnic communities live in China
Peking man originated in China
Confucianism and Taoism originated in China
There are more than 300 opera forms in China
When Marco Polo visited China, in the thirteenth century, Chinese were already burning coals.
Chinese were the first people to use paper. They created paper in about 105 AD.
Printing was discovered in China in 6th century.
Chinese were the first to use paper money. They have been using paper money for more than 1000 years.

History of Chinese Opera

There are more than 55 ethnic communities living in China. The diversity of language and culture has given birth to various kinds of theatrical styles. Since the time immemorial, performing art has played a vital role in Chinese civilization. The earliest record that mentions Chinese theatre art dates back to 1000 BCE.

Opera is a drama combined with singing, dancing and music. Chinese opera has many opera forms. Chuangi, Jingxi, Kungu, Zaju and Nanxi are some of the opera forms in China. Peking Opera (Jingxi), or Beijing Opera in the modern term, is one of the many opera forms in China that came into being in 1790, during the reign of Emperor Qianlong of Ching dynasty, the last of the imperial dynasty (1644-1911). The growth of a large number of performing artistes represented development of Peking Opera art. There are more than 300 types of opera in China, and these different operas styles are have their own ethnic and regional characteristics.

Chinese Opera originated from ancient songs and dance with the history of over nine hundred years. And Peking Opera, or Beijing Opera to be precise, is indispensible part of Chinese culture. The basic performing and storytelling techniques in Chinese Opera include actors’ movements, music, dance, dialogues, songs, recitations, acrobatic performance and marshal art. Chinese Opera is very different to the Western drama in a sense that it is not completely based on song or dance. Conventional designs are used in the costumes that mark the grand heritage of Chinese culture.

Places to Visit in China

Imperial palace complex, also called Forbidden City, in Beijing was the centre of Chinese power in the medieval time. It was built in 1406 and spreads over 72 hectors.

The tomb of 8000 life sized terra-cotta soldiers in Shaanxi Sheng, was discovered in 1974 The statues of each soldiers have individually detailed faces. The tomb was built in 221-207 BCE.

The Great Wall of China is a man made wonder. The 5500 miles stone wall was built between 7-4th century BCE, which is the only man made structure that can be seen from the moon.

Aspects of Chinese Opera or Peking Opera

Make up, mainly face painting, and costumes are two important aspects of Chinese Opera and also of Peking Opera. Since the stage usually do not have sets or props, stage environment, and time and space, is established by actors’ movements, and emphasized by lavish costumes. Through the actors’ performance, vivid and life like characters are created and the stage is made full of life.

Peking Opera Costumes are called Xingtou which are made from silk, satin and crepe. Costumes of artistes distinguish the rank of the characters being played. Red is the dominant color for high ranking characters. The characters of virtue also wear red. Lower ranking officials wear blue. Young characters are symbolized with white. Costumes for the old characters are white, brown or olive. Ornate decorations such flowing sleeves and wings attached on the helmet or hats give value to detailed choreography in Peking Opera.

Makeup helps to transform actors into characters. Face paints are extensively used. Red symbolizes uprightness and loyalty, white represents evil or crafty characters, and black is the color of integrity. In Peking Opera, the Jing is a painted face male role. The Chou is a male clown, whose bridge of nose and eyes are marked with white powder. Dan is a female character. These different characters are given different costumes for the performance. In the beginning of Chinese opera, women were not allowed to perform on stage so all Dan roles were played by men.

Apart from elegant costumes, musical instruments also play vital roles in Chinese Opera. The common melodic instruments used in Chinese Opera are fiddle, bowed lute and barrel drums.

Chinese Opera Costumes

Traditional Chinese opera costumes are made mainly according to the styles of dress of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), with inputs from Tang, Sung and Ching Dynasty. However, in the modern times, historical costumes have gradually blended with song and dance costume. Color, style and patterns have made opera costume rich for the stage performances. Performers’ roles are denoted by costumes in Peking Opera. Irrespective of season, the costume is always the same. Costumes separate the nature of characters such as good and evil, and loyal and wicked. Lavishness of costumes such as baldrics, plumes, crowns and wings attached on the headdress, long sleeve gives dramatic effect on the stage.

Different Kinds of Opera Costumes

There are various kinds of Opera costumes such as Mang, Kao Pei and headdress. Mang are the ceremonial robes for emperors, princes, generals and ministers. They are embroidered with the patterns of clouds, dragons and sea waves. The costume color for emperor is yellow, whereas officers wear different colors according to their status, traditions, ages and personalities. Kao are the armors for soldiers. Some armors are hard and some are soft. Their color is related to the age and personality of the character. And Pei are informal robes for emperors and civil officials.

Opera headdress comprise items such as crowns, helmets, hats, including wings attached, and scarves. Artificial beard and whiskers are extensively used by male characters. They are usually made from human or yak hair, even fiber glass. Colors of beard and whiskers are black, grey and white. Wide variety of shoes and boots are used in opera performances mainly including flat boots, tiger headed boots, thin sole combat footwear, fish headed boxer shoes and laced boxer shoes.

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