Chinese Peking Opera Review

Chinese opera (Pinyin) is a popular form of drama and musical theatre in China with roots going back as far as the third century CE . The art form changed very little until the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). During those turbulent ten years, traditional Beijing opera was banned and replaced by five “modern revolutionary Beijing operas” known as yang ban xi. Although also called Beijing opera, these new creations were, in effect, the complete opposite of traditional opera. The traditional form is purely an artistic endeavor that focuses on the interpretative talents of the actors; in contrast, yang ban xi are meant to serve as political education. Yang (1969) argued that “The traditional Peking drama, in the view of the Communists, could only depict the lives and needs of the old ruling class: emperors, princes, ministers, generals, scholars, and beauties” (p. 167). Much other research focused on similar subjects, such as the analysis of “Eight Model Plays,” which deal with heroic stories during the revolutionary period before 1949. Researchers also paid close attention to the fact that the “Eight Model Plays” replaced all traditional dramas that appeared to be “feudalistic superstitious and anti-labor themes …” (Houn, 1959, p. 226).

Over a considerable amount of time techniques, from many other local operas were incorporated. Peking opera began when the famous four Anhui opera troupes came to Beijing after 1790. Wang (1937) provided the most basic and important historical record of Peking Opera based on the official record of the Qing Court. It records the dramas, the actors, the time, and the location for each performance in the Emperor’s Palace (the Forbidden City). The information in the book provides valuable and authentic data for later research of Peking Opera. Various writers and scholars of Peking Opera’s history rely on Wang’s work and refer to his book when they discuss the ancient artists’ names, plays, and performances Peking opera developed quickly during the reign of Emperor Qianlong and the Empress Dowager Cixi under the imperial patronage, and eventually became more accessible to the mostly common people. Long ago, Beijing Opera was performed on open-air stages in markets, streets, teahouses, or temple courtyards. In order to be heard over the crowds, the orchestra was forced to play loudly while the performers had to develop a piercing style of singing (Wichmann-Walczak, 2000, p. 98).

Peking Opera is a harmonious combination of Grand Opera, Ballet and acrobatic display, In each performance, there is dancing, dialogue, monologue, acrobatic combat and mime. This type of opera is thus more physically demanding, requiring an actor or actress to be more diversely qualified than those in other forms of performing art. He or she has to be a performing artist, a singer, and a dancer at the same time. It usually takes the student more than ten years of training to learn singing and acrobatic skills. Therefore, it is often extremely difficult and challenging to become an able performer in Peking Opera.

In different parts of China, opera was performed using distinct vocal styles and in some cases, also using different musical instruments. Along with percussion, the major musical instrument for opera is a type of fiddle, or bowed string instrument, most often the er hu. This instrument is held in the lap (not under the chin, like the violin), with the bow passing between its two strings. The player stops the string with the fingers of one hand, but without pressing them to the instrument’s neck—again, unlike the violin. One form of Chinese opera, kunqu, has been a passion of many literary types and lovers of poetry in China. It is a more ‘classic’ form, with a softer instrumental accompaniment by string and reed instruments. Other more popular forms of opera also include everyday language, and loud percussion instruments;

The following is a list of instruments used; the aerophone and cross flutes (usually played along with singing), Ta-lo and Siao-lo gongs(signify the beginning of the performance), chordophone violin like Hu-ch’in and Bu-ch’in ,Siao recorded flutes- usually played along with singing, Sona Trumpet(announces prosperous occasions), guitar like Yue-ch’in ,four-stringed instrument San-sien and Tan-pi-ku Kettle Drum(Used to create the tempo of the performance).

Huangmei Opera was originally a body of tea-collecting songs that developed in the Chinese region of Huangmei around 200 years ago. In the 1960s a number of these songs were incorporated into many movies that were extremely popular in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Southeast Asia,The most popular Huangmei Opera film, The Love Eterne (1963), held the box office record for two decades until the record was broken by Jackie Chan’s Project A in the 1980s (Lau 1994, p. 69). About 50 films, based on a combination of ancient stories and Huangmei folk music, established a film genre that enjoyed strong cult popularity and lasted into the 1970s. However, because of its lyrical music and Chinese literary traditions, the Huangmei Opera film genre was considered slow-paced by the next generation and was finally replaced by wuxia (swordfighting) and kung fu movies, which were full of rapid action scenes and poeticised violence.

According to Geertz (1973), culture is “a historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes toward life” (p. 89). Ahn (1972) dealt with the process of reforming Peking Opera during the Cultural Revolution, which followed political debate in the Communist party. Traditional Chinese cultural values have been transmitted and re-created by people who go to see Peking Opera and then practice what they learn. Meanwhile, Peking Opera producers create and transmit ideas symbolically to people. As a communicator of Chinese culture, Peking Opera relies on symbolic expression through archetypes that derive from traditions of ancient periods. These archetypes are communicated through certain symbols that have been created and used to diffuse certain messages. In traditional China, theatrical plays have long been a significant public space where crucial information is disseminated.

In the Peking Opera the makeup, the masks, the costumes as well as the stage props are stylized and strictly standardized. They all have very clear symbolic meanings. The more a spectator knows about the symbolism, the better he can understand what is happening on the stage. The makeup and the masks give clear clues about the characters that are being impersonated. Encoding and decoding of symbolic meanings is of central importance in a jīngjù performance. The fact that the traditional stage used to be illuminated only by oil lamps explains partly the strong colors of the masks and the costumes.

The role type includes information on gender, age, temperament, social status and the profession of the character. They are further divided into “civil” and “military” types. As different roles require different skills, an actor usually specializes mainly for one role type. The masculine role types are divided into 6 main categories. The lǎoshēng, the most common male role type, usually impersonate dignified middle aged or elderly men, who wear a beard and light makeup, the jìng or huāliǎn portrays a romatic type with a rough and bold character, who can impersonate a gallant and brave, but also a cruel and treacherous man, the wǔshēng impersonate most often warriors, outlaws, rebels and bandits, the xiǎoshēng are often young scholars or officers, a wáwashēng, a little boy, symbolizes the childish innocence and the chou or clown.

The women also have roles in the Peking Opera and they are usually in 5 categories; The lǎodàn are elderly women. The lǎodàn wear a light makeup and light lines in the corners of the eyes and cheeks to indicate their age, qīngyī, virtuos woman-the qīngyī are mostly young or middle aged , the huādàn ,who are young women, often servant girls with a low social status, or unmarried daughters of a good house. They wear colorful costumes, often short jackets and trousers, the wǔdàn must be good in martial skills as they impersonate e.g. female generals, as well as heroic outlaws, fairies and spirits and finally the cǎidàn, who are mostly sly and humorous characters. Like their male counterparts they impersonate clever, good-hearted and humorous women but also dull, mean and deceitful characters. The cǎidàn wear a simple costume. They sing and recite in the natural voice.

Mei Lanfang was one of the greatest artists of Peking Opera, who traveled to United States, Russia, and Japan in his heyday. Many cultural study researchers studied Mei’s trip to the U.S. in 1930. Carter (1930) discussed the relationship between Chinese people and traditional art.The story happened in Tang Dynasty around 745-755 AD. This is one of the masterpieces by Mei Lan-Fang. It is almost a one-person show. The story is quite simple. Mei had made this play famous by his vivid performance reflecting the concubine’s disappointment, her drunken charming, and her intentional show-off of her beauty. There are many movements difficult to perform, including drinking a cup with the performer’s teeth only and placing the cup on the tray by bending over backwards.YANG Yu-Huan was Emperor Ming-Huang’s favorite concubine. Banu, Wiswell, and Gibson (1986) studied Mei Lanfang as a symbolic figure and analyzed his performance based on various dramatic theory systems. Cosdon (1995) documented the success of Mei’s performance in New York. Cosdon also compared the rules for the Peking Opera performers to theater rules in Shakespearean times, such as the prohibition of female performers.

One evening the two had arranged to meet in a pavilion in the imperial gardens after the Emperor was off his duty. So YANG prepared a banquet and was sitting there waiting for him. But the Emperor failed to his promise and went to see one of his other beautiful concubines. The two eunuchs, Gao Li-Shi and Pei Li-Shi, who were serving YANG, informed her of her humiliating position.

Through Peking Opera we further identify how Chinese traditional ideas, Confucian thought, Chinese art forms, and Chinese stylized activities or rituals have combined to communicate and transmit Chinese spirit for thousands of years. The people and the culture they created embodied their perceptions of the world. The dynamic interactions also reflected the basic philosophical idea of the combination of “heaven” and “people” in imperial China.

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