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A Brief History of Chinese Opera

Chinese opera has been one of the most common modes of entertainment in the world since Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty (712–755) established that the very first national opera troupe, the "Pear Garden," but really began nearly a millennium earlier in the Yellow River Valley during the Qin Dynasty.

More than a millennium after Xuanzong's death, it is still enjoyed by political leaders and commoners alike in a variety of interesting and imaginative ways, and Chinese opera performers are still known as "Disciples of the Pear Garden," performing an incredible 368 different types of Chinese opera.

Early Development

Most of the characteristics that distinguish modern Chinese opera originated in northern China, especially in the provinces of Shanxi and Gansu, such as the use of fixed characters such as Sheng (the man), Dan (the woman), Hua (the painted face), and Chou (the clown). Opera performers started to use common people's vernacular language rather than Classical Chinese under the Yuan Dynasty, which lasted from 1279 to 1368.

The northern classical singing and drama style from Shanxi was mixed with melodies from a southern version of Chinese opera called "Kunqu" during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1644 and 1644-1644 ) This shape was built along the Yangtze River in the Wu area. Kunqu Opera is based on the Kunshan melody, which was composed in Kunshan, a coastal city in China.

Many of the more well-known operas, such as "The Peony Pavilion," "The Peach Blossom Fan," and versions of the older "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" and "Journey to the West," are still performed today. For audiences in Beijing and other northern cities, the stories have been translated into a variety of local dialects, including Mandarin. The northern Qinqiang or Shanxi tradition also influenced the acting and singing styles, as well as the costumes and make-up conventions.

Hundred Flowers Campaign

During China's dark days in the mid-twentieth century, this rich operatic tradition was almost destroyed. From 1949 to the present, the People's Republic of China's Communist government promoted the development and presentation of both old and modern operas. Chinese opera blossomed anew during Mao's "Hundred Flowers Campaign" in 1956 and 1957 when the authorities promoted intellectualism, the arts, and even government critique.

The Hundred Flowers Campaign, on the other hand, may have been a trap. The academics and artists who had put themselves forward during the Hundred Flowers era were purged beginning in July 1957. By December of the same year, a staggering 300,000 people had been branded "rightists" and faced penalties ranging from casual opposition to concentration camp internment or even execution.

This was a foreshadowing of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, which threatened the very life of Chinese opera and other western arts from 1966 to 1976.

Cultural Revolution

The Cultural Revolution was the regime's effort to eradicate "old ways of thought" by outlawing customs like fortune-telling, papermaking, formal Chinese fashion, and the study of classic literature and art. The Cultural Revolution began with an assault on a Beijing opera piece and its composer. Professor Wu Han was commissioned by Mao's government in 1960 to compose an opera about Hai Rui, a Ming Dynasty minister who was sacked for openly opposing the Emperor. The play was seen as a rebuke of the Emperor—and therefore Mao—rather than Hai Rui's portrayal of disgraced Minister of Defense Peng Dehuai by the audience. In response, Mao reversed his position in 1965, publishing harsh criticism of the opera and musician Wu Han, who was later fired. The Social Movement came with this salvo.

Opera troupes were dissolved during the next decade, other musicians and scriptwriters were purged, and productions were outlawed. Just eight "model operas" were permitted until the "Gang of Four" fell apart in 1976. Madame Jiang Qing personally vetted these model operas and found them to be fully politically neutral. In a nutshell, Chinese opera was no longer alive.

Modern Chinese Opera

Beijing opera and other genres were restored and reintroduced into the national repertoire after 1976. Older artists who had survived the purges were once again permitted to teach new pupils. Traditional operas have been performing publicly since 1976, though some younger works have been banned and new musicians have been chastised as political winds have changed.

The makeup used in Chinese opera is especially interesting and symbolic. A courageous and trustworthy character is one who wears mainly red lipstick or wears a red mask. Black is a color that represents boldness and impartiality. Pink represents beauty and cool-headedness, while yellow represents ambition. Characters with predominantly blue faces are fierce and foresighted, while those with predominantly green faces exhibit wild and impulsive behavior. Those with white faces are the show's villains, treacherous and clever. Finally, a clown is a performer who wears just a minimal amount of makeup in the middle of his or her forehead, linking the eyes and nose. This is known as "xiaohualian," which translates to "little painted face."

More than thirty types of Chinese opera are still performed on a daily basis throughout the country today. Beijing's Peking opera, Shanghai's Huju opera, Shanxi's Qinqiang opera, and Cantonese opera are among the most well-known.

Beijing (Peking) Opera

For further than two decades, the theatrical art form known as Beijing opera—or Peking opera—has been a staple of Chinese entertainment. When the "Four Great Anhui Troupes" went to Beijing to play for the Imperial Court in 1790, it was established.

After 40 years, renowned Hubei opera troupes joined the Anhui singers, fusing their ethnic styles. "Xipi" and "Erhuang," two principal melodies adapted from the Shanxi musical tradition, were used by both the Hubei and Anhui opera troupes. The modern Peking or Beijing opera arose from this mash-up of regional styles. Beijing Opera is also recognized as China's national form of art.

Beijing Opera is known for its convoluted storylines, vibrant makeup, exquisite costumes and sets, and performers' distinct vocal style. Many of the 1,000 plots revolve around political and military conflict rather than romance, which is perhaps unsurprising. The basic myths, which also include historic and even mystical entities, are hundreds or even thousands of years old.

Many Beijing Opera fans are concerned about the future of the art form. Many details of pre-Cultural Revolution life and culture that are new to young people are referenced in conventional plays. Furthermore, all of the stylized gestures have specific interpretations that untrained viewers can miss.

Worst of all, operas now have to contend for audience interest with films, TV shows, video games, and the internet. The Chinese government is encouraging young artists to perform in Beijing Opera through grants and competitions.

Shanghai (Huju) Opera

Shanghai opera (Huju) began about 200 years ago, around the same period as Beijing opera. However, and instead of being derived from Anhui and Shanxi, the Shanghai variant of opera is based on traditional music from the Huangpu River valley. Huju is done in a Shanghainese dialect of Wu Chinese that is incomprehensible to Mandarin speakers. In other words, a Beijinger will be unable to comprehend the lyrics of a Huju song.

Huju's costumes and makeup are surprisingly plain and contemporary due to the recent existence of the stories and songs that make up the film. Shanghai opera actors dress in garments that mimic common people's clothes from the pre-communist period. In comparison to the thick and substantial grease paint used in the other Chinese Opera styles, their makeup is not any more intricate than that worn by western stage performers.

Huju was common during the 1920s and 1930s. Many of the Shanghai region's stories and songs have a strong western influence. This is unsurprising, considering that major European powers had trade concessions and embassy offices in the flourishing port city prior to WWII.

Huju, like many other ethnic opera forms, is on the verge of extinction. Few young performers pursue the art form because film, television, and even the Beijing Opera offer much more prestige and wealth. Shanghai Opera, unlike Beijing Opera, which is now considered a national art form, is presented in a regional dialect and therefore does not translate well to other provinces.

Nonetheless, Shanghai is home to millions of people, with tens of millions more in the surrounding area. Huju may survive to delight theatergoers for centuries if a concerted effort is made to introduce younger audiences to this fascinating art form.

Shanxi Opera (Qinqiang)

The musically rich Shanxi province, with its thousand-year-old Qinqiang or Luantan folk melodies, is responsible for most aspects of Chinese opera, including their singing and acting styles, some of their melodies, and story lines. This ancient style of art first appeared in the Yellow River Valley during the Qin Dynasty, which ruled from 221 to 206 B.C., and was popularised during the Tang era, which lasted from 618 to 907 A.D., at the Imperial Court in modern-day Xian.

Throughout the Yuan Era (1271-1368) and the Ming Era (1271-1644), Shanxi Province's repertoire and symbolic movements evolved (1368-1644). Shanxi Opera was presented to the court at Beijing under the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Shanxi singing was so common with Imperial audiences that it was adopted into Beijing Opera, which is now a national musical style.

About 10,000 operas were once part of Qinqiang's repertoire; currently, only about 4,700 are recalled. There are two kinds of arias in Qinqiang Opera: Huan yin, or "joyous song," and ku yin, or "sorrowful tune." Shanxi Opera plots often deal with resistance to tyranny, battles against northern barbarians, and questions of allegiance. In addition to the traditional operatic acting and singing, some Shanxi Opera performances involve special effects such as fire breathing or acrobatic twirling.

Cantonese Opera

Cantonese Opera is a highly formalized operatic genre originating in southern China and overseas ethnic Chinese populations. It stresses gymnastic and martial arts skills. Guangdong, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Malaysia, and Chinese-influenced regions of western countries are all home to this form of Chinese opera.

The first performance of Cantonese Opera took place during the reign of the Ming Dynasty's Jiajing Emperor, who reigned from 152 to 1567. Cantonese Opera started to incorporate local folk songs, Cantonese instrumentation, and gradually Western modern tunes, based on older versions of Chinese opera. Modern Cantonese Opera productions can include Western instruments such as the piano, cello, or even saxophone, in addition to traditional Chinese instruments like the pipa, erhu, and percussion.

The Cantonese Opera repertoire consists of two styles of plays: Mo, which means "martial arts," and Mun, which means "intellectual," all of which have melodies that are completely secondary to the lyrics. Mo's shows are fast-paced and feature tales of battles, courage, and betrayal. The actors also use arms as props, and the elaborate costumes will weigh as much as real armor. Mun, on the other hand, is a more formal, slower art style. To convey deep feelings, the performers use voice sounds, facial gestures, and long flowing "water sleeves." The majority of Mun stories are romances, morality tales, ghost stories, or well-known Chinese myths or legends.

The makeup is one of the most distinctive aspects of Cantonese opera. It is one of the most intricate makeup systems in all of Chinese opera, with various shades of color and shapes, particularly on the forehead, showing the characters' emotional state, trustworthiness, and physical health. A small red line is drawn across the brows of sickly characters, while a wide white dot is drawn on the bridge of the nose of cartoon or clownish characters (you can watch cartoon online and anime on this website). Actors of some Cantonese Operas wear "open face" makeup, which is so elaborate and complex that it looks more like a drawn mask than a living face.

Hong Kong is also at the forefront of campaigns to keep Cantonese Opera alive and well. The Arts Development Council sponsors opera lessons for the city's students, and the Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts offers two-year degrees in Cantonese Opera production. This rare and complex style of Chinese Opera may find an audience for decades to come as a result of such concerted effort.

About The Authors

Katya Ryder

Katya Ryder - School teacher, earned National Board Certification in 2013 I have a passion for science and majored in biology at Arizona State University, where I also earned teaching certificate and Master of Education.

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