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Beijing Opera Essay, Research Paper

Beijing opera is a national treasure of China with a history of 200 years. In

the 55th year of the Qing Dynasty (1790), the four big Huiban opera entered the

capital and combined with Kunqu opera, Yiyang opera, Hanju opera and Luantan in

Beijing. Through a period of more than 50 years of combination and integration

of various kinds of opera there evolved the present Beijing opera. Beijing opera

is a combination of stylized action, singing, dialogues, acrobatic fighting and

dancing to represent a story or depict different characters and their feelings

of anger, sorrow, happiness, surprise, fear and sadness. In Beijing opera there

are four main types of roles: sheng (male) dan (young female), jing (painted

face, male), and chou (clown, male or female). Sheng has some sub-categories,

including Senior, Junior, Acrobatic, Junior Acrobatic, Child, Red-face, Poor,

Official, etc. These are classified according to the role’s characteristics.

Male roles are either civil or military. The actors themselves are mainly

trained for three main parts: Senior Male Role or Lao Sheng, a middle-aged or

old man who wears a beard, Junior Male Role or Xiao Sheng (Hsiao sheng), a young

man; and Acrobatic Male Role or Wu Sheng, a man of military tenor, especially

skilled in acrobatics. Lao Sheng actors are required to attain the dignity of

bearing and gentle, polished manners of the middle-aged mandarin official or

scholar; in military plays they may be a general or high-ranking officer of a

gentler and more educated character than of the painted faces. Their apparel

accordingly is of good quality but not too garish in its design or color. A Lao

Sheng has a black or white beard, depending on his age, and wears a black hat

with two fins on either side, which vary in shape according to his rank in a

civil role. When a military role is played, the costume is quieter and of a more

uniform color than those of the warriors in the painted-face roles, but the Kao

or amour is also worn. A Lao Sheng’s voice is soft and pleasant to listen to,

neither too harsh nor too high pitched, but gentle and firm. Minor officials or

landowners who have attained a small degree of responsibility are also included

in this role. The junior male or Xiao Sheng requires of its actor the

distinguishing feature of a swirl on his forehead and high-pitched voice to

indicate his youth. The part is extremely difficult to sing, and when the actor

is speaking his voice must suddenly drop from its high-pitched quality to

indicate the voice-breaking period of adolescence. The Xiao Sheng is usually

small and slight of stature, and his clothes are often quite elaborate if a

young man of society or a young warrior is being represented, but can be subdued

if they are those of an impoverished scholar. The young warrior can often be

distinguished by his long pheasant feathers, which rise in sweeping curves from

his hat. No beard is worn for this part. Wu Sheng actors are mainly acrobats,

although they sometimes have a part, which requires much acting. They play any

part in military or civil plays, which requires a high standard of acrobats. The

skill of these actors is demonstrated in the fighting scenes, which take on a

stylized form in Beijing opera, and also in scenes from legendary stories when

immortals and devils tumble and twist about the stage showing off feats of

skill. In military plays swords and spears are wielded deftly and quickly

without the attacker actually touching his opponent. These movements require

great precision in timing, and the actor ducks and twists his body, often

turning somersaults at same time. If he is a young military officer, the Wu

Sheng will also have pheasant feathers in his hat, and four small flags or

pennants strapped to his back and high-soled boots, all of which make his

acrobatic feats even more spectacular. His costume is often bright in color,

especially in the legendary plays. A Wu Sheng actor is not trained as highly in

singing, for acting and acrobatics are his outstanding feature, but he has a

pleasant voice, slightly stronger than Lao Sheng but rather quiet in pitch, and

he sings with a natural voice. The Dan or female role can be divided into six

main parts which principally indicate character; Qing Yi, modest and virtuous

usually rich and educated; Hua dan (Hua tan) flirtatious usually poor; Gui Men

Dan, a young, married girl; Dao Ma Dan, a stronger, more forceful character,

usually a woman general; Wu Dan, the female acrobat; and Lao Dan, an old woman.

A Qing Yi actress portrays a lady of good and sympathetic character Usually of a

quiet, gentle disposition and graceful in her movements, she is the Chinese

ideal of a beautiful woman. As a wife she is faithful, as a young girl a model

of propriety. Her good breeding is shown by the graceful, flowing movements of

her ‘water sleeves’. The Qing Yi’s costume is elegant, simple and of good

quality, but not as vivid in color as that of the Hua Dan. Her singing is of a

pure, high-pitched quality. For a Hua Dan actress the happy, flirtatious

personality of a young girl is required. Usually not of such a high social

standing as the Qing Yi, the Hua Dan actress with her child like and generally

quicker movements attracts the attention of the audience. This is a difficult

part to play successfully. The Hua Dan’s facial expression is continually

changing and her mischievous eye movements are particularly attractive. Because

of her lower social status more hand movements are required, as in old times it

was not considered polite for a well-bred Chinese lady to show her hands.

Costume, usually vivid in design and color, consists of a jacket and trousers,

and a red or other loud colored handkerchief is carried to flutter in the

actress’s hand. Her character, needless to say, is not as virtuous as that of

the Qing Yi and therefore her singing voice has a happier and slightly stronger

quality. She also has to do more speaking than singing. A Gui Men Dan is the

young, unmarried girl, who in later life will develop into a Qing Yi or a Hua

Dan; her immaturity is clearly shown in her reactions, for though naughty and

slightly mischievous, she has not the confidence of the Hua Dan, although her

schemes and plans are often just as successful. A Dao Ma Dan plays the part of

the female warrior. She is trained mainly for acting and singing and performs

many skilful movements especially with the pheasant feathers in her headdress

and her military weapons. She still retains feminine charm, however, and a very

versatile actress is required for this role. A Dao Ma Dan’s clothes can be very

elaborate, as she wears the four pennant strapped to her back and the Kao . A Wu

Dan is the female acrobatic role and the Wu Dan actress steps into or takes any

female role that requires a high degree of acrobatics. She is purely an acrobat

but her role demands a talented actress for a successful performance. A Lao Dan

is simply an old woman, but great skill is required for this specialized part.

The Lao Dan actress cleverly portrays in her bent back and faltering but

dignified movements her character’s advancing years. She is often seen carrying

a staff. Unlike the other female roles, the Lao Dan wears no make-up and her

costume is plainer in color and design. Her voice tends to be slightly deeper,

because the natural voice is used, not the forced high-pitched one used on other

Dan roles. To see a Jing actor for the first time is a startling experience for

the spectator. This part is more noted for courage and resourcefulness than for

scholarly intelligence. Often playing the part of a high-ranking army general,

the Jing actor with his painted face can also be seen as a warrior or official.

His robust, gruff, bass voice and grotesquely painted face together with his

swaggering self-assertive manner all combine to make him the most forceful

personality in most scenes in which he appears. Jing actors are usually, in

fact, extroverts. The general rule for the basic color is: red for good, white

for deceitful, black for rough, and blue for wild, i.e. a bandit would have a

blue face. All Jing actors wear a heavy, ornate costume and a head dress with a

padded jacket underneath to enhance the effect, They can be divided into three

main types: Hei Tou (black face), who is good at singing and usually a loyal

general; Jia Zi (Chia Tze), who is good at acting, and generally a more

complicated character; and Wu Jing, who is mainly proficient in fighting and

acrobatics and seldom plays a very prominent role. Lastly there is the Chou or

comedy actor who generally plays the role of a dumb but likeable and amusing

character with blinking eyes and all the appropriate gestures. Sometimes the

Chou can be a rascal, with a slightly wicked nature. Alternatively a scholar or

prince–an eccentric or representing the sort of scholar or prince who would not

command much respect. Chou parts can be divided into two types: Wen Chou, who is

usually a civilian, such as a jailer, servant, merchant or scholar; and Wu Chou,

who performs minor military roles as a soldier and must be skilled in

acrobatics. His costume is either elaborate or fussy if of high social standing,

but simple if of a low standing. The repertoire of Peking opera is mainly

engaged in fairy tales of preceding dynasties, important historical events,

emperors, ministers and generals, geniuses and great beauties, from the ancient

times to Yao, Shun, Yu, the Spring and Autumn Period, the Warring States Period

and the dynasties of Qin, Han, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, Qing. The music of

Peking opera is that of the "plate and cavity style?. Its melody with

harmonious rhythms is graceful and pleasing to the ears. The melody may be

classified into two groups: "Xipi" and "erhong", guiding

pattern, original pattern, slow pattern, quick pattern, desultory pattern being

their chief patterns. The performance is accompanied by a tune played on wind

instruments, percussion instruments and stringed instruments, the chief musical

instruments being jinghu (a two-stringed bowed instrument with a high register),

yueqin (a four-stringed plucked instrument with a full-moon-shaped sound box),

Sanxian (a three-stringed plucked instrument), suona horn, flute drum, big-gong,

cymbals, small-gong, etc. The costumes in Peking opera are graceful,

magnificent, elegant and brilliant, most of which are made in handicraft

embroidery. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Beijing Opera suffered

along with other kinds of theatrical arts in China. All the traditional pieces

reflecting the Old Societies were banned from performance. Traditional Beijing

Opera was allowed to be shown again in 1978. But due to the threat from other

entertainments, Beijing Opera’s out-of-date styles and the lack of historical

and theatrical knowledge of the young, this art had lost a lot of its audiences.

Most of the audiences are old people, who were children when Beijing Opera was

at its peak. The art is dying.

Chinese Opera Images and Stories by Wang-Ngai Siu Feb 1997 P45~50 Yu Ta-kang.

"Chinese Acrobatics, Part IV: Acrobatics During the Liao, Chin and Yuan

Dynasties," Echo 6.3 (1976), 30-31. Studies in Chinese-Western Comparative

Drama. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1990. Mackerras, Colin. Chinese

Drama: A Historical Survey. (Beijing: New World Press, 1990). Chang, Lulu.

"Chinese Opera as Music Drama," Asia Culture Quarterly. (Spring 1989)

v.17 n.1, p.15-21 Chln Cho Hang. Lecture at Fudan University, Shanghai. Retired

opera performer. Aug 15, 1998 Mai Wei Professor at Beijing University, Beijing

Aug 18, 2000 (Grandfather) Zhu Zhi Fang Professor at Beijing University Aug 18,

2000 (Grandmother)

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