A short history of Chinese opera

2009-06-19 17:32 BJT

In 1790, theater companies from all over China arrived in Beijing, to perform for the Qing Emperor Qianlong's birthday. Here begins the history of the various opera forms as we know them today in China...

Four theater companies from Anhui arrived in Beijing, and their fresh styles of music and theater electrified the capital and eventually came to replace the Kunqu Opera style that had been pre-eminent in the capital for the past two hundred years. Characteristics from other forms of opera, such as Hopeh, Wuhan, and Shansi, were incorporated into the Anhui style. After a while this form of opera became known as Ching Hsi, or 'Capital Play.' Ching Hsi is what we know today as Peking Opera. Because of its long history, Peking Opera encompasses a wide variety of drama, and a wide variety of styles of acting. It emphasizes historical and military plays and can be quite patriotic, and so quite popular. But it is not the only style of opera still extant in China -- many regional Opera styles still exist. Some references list more than 300 regional opera styles in China. Among those still popular are Cantonese Opera, Hebei Clapper Opera, and Yue Opera.

Although there are many different regional styles, they all share many similarities. Each have the same four role types: the female, the male, the painted-face, and the clown. Performances consist of singing, poetry, music, dance, and gesture. Emphasis is on costume and makeup rather than props or scenery. The operas often tell the same stories, though with various regional differences, such as alternate endings or additional characters. The information described within this article will, unless otherwise noted, pertain to Peking Opera specifically, and the regional operas more generally.

Toward the end of the Qing dynasty, tea-houses began to double as theaters. Originally, the acting troupes used the tea houses as a place to rehearse plays, since their homes were too small. Business in the tea-houses carried on as before, except the patrons could enjoy the performance during their drinks and conversations. After a time, patrons began frequenting tea houses specifically to see the theater, and in some of these establishments the character for 'tea' was dropped from their name. The acting troupes earned their livelihood through performances for the court, though, and not through public performance. At first, actors had to bribe the eunuchs to ensure that word did not get out that they were performing publicly, because the court frowned on such activity. But performance in public tea houses over time became the common and accepted practice.

Chinese opera has many strong female roles, though for most of its history, no females to play them. Women in China, especially of the upper class, had to observe very reserved and controlled conduct, and for the most part confined themselves indoors. A woman who paraded herself on stage would be considered no better than a prostitute. Instead, men would play the female roles. At certain times in opera history, these female impersonators were the greatest stars of the stage. Their peak in popularity occured in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, the best among them widely acknowledged to be Mei Lanfang, whose performances both at home and abroad in Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States, influenced such famous dramatists as Berthold Brecht and Stanislavsky. He also met with and performed for famous actors such as Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. In addition to his mastery of over 100 roles, he also advanced Peking Opera by making significant changes to the costumes, staging, make-up, and texts, in effect creating a number of new plays, including his most famous, Farewell My Concubine.

Editor: Zhao Yanchen | Source: CCTV.com