Go Deeper

The Stagecraft and Influence of Classical Chinese Opera

Posted September 9th, 2010

We try to know everything about everything, we really do. But our knowledge of Chinese opera isn’t as extensive as it could be. So to help us get psyched for the 2010 Live Arts Festival’s Journey to the West—Reinterpreting Tradition Series with world-renowned theater artist Danny Yung, we (that is, intrepid intern Ellen Freeman) tracked down Anastasia Cifuentes. Anastasia is a burgeoning film and television actor who studied Chinese language and culture at Princeton University and in Beijing. She also trained in martial arts and Peking Opera style dance with famed Peking Opera performer Jamie H.J. Guan. She was kind enough to offer this overview of Chinese opera. Journey to the West opens on Monday night.

In China there are over 360 different regional opera forms, differing mostly in dialect and music, and many thriving since the middle of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Despite their differences, Chinese opera styles are generally the same in their conventions, as they all incorporate the same role types, a similar style of acting, and costume. Classical Peking Opera has survived to be the most prominent form, despite its suppression during the Cultural Revolution by the Chinese government. It is the most representative of the Chinese classical dramatic forms, as it was created and developed by skillful artists over the course of several centuries. Constantin Stanislavsky called the performance, “the art of regulated and yet free movements,” since the technique requires impressive formal discipline, but also demands limberness of body. Unlike in western theater, the Chinese Opera stage is enlivened primarily by the gestures and miming of the performer and not by the props and scenery of the stage, making the job of the actor an exacting creative journey.

After the jump: digging in.

The underlying principle behind Chinese Opera is to aesthetically represent aspects of human life through symbolic performance. Actors require impeccable muscular memory as they are asked to envision, for example, the unbolting of a door, the climbing of a mountain, the sewing of a needle, and other familiar movements. Such movements can represent grander actions—holding a whip and circling the stage, for instance, indicates horse-riding; walking in a circle continuously symbolizes a long journey, and moving an oar back and forth with knees bent creates the effect of forging a heavy tide through a river. As Opera scholar Wu Zuguang states, these abstract renderings of life allow the actor to carry the audience to almost any conceivable location and situation we can imagine.

While executing these laborious movements, some actors must concurrently train in singing, speech, and acrobatics, all of which are accomplished with stamina and precision. It is for this reason that Chinese Opera has been labeled “total theater,” defined by E.T. Kirby as the “place of intersection of all the arts . . . music, movement, voice, scenery, lighting, etc.” Total theater synthesizes various artistic components into one, in this case the body of the Chinese Opera actor. And for them, no element of performance is extraneous.

The comprehension and intensity of the training require that students begin classes around the age of ten so that their bodies, as well as their imaginations, are kept nimble and flexible over their career as an artist. Students are grouped into sections and assigned a master who has already cultivated a solid opera career. The coaching can be more than grueling, as perfection is the standard. Jamie H.J. Guan, who in the 1970s, was rated number one in his Peking Opera troupe, shared a particularly vivid experience from his childhood opera instruction; to create flexibility, his master would have Jamie spread both legs against a wall, and have the remainder of students in the class place their legs in the same position behind Jamie. Once the entire class was arranged, the master would place and push a table behind the last student in line, forcing all performers? legs to open at an 180-degree angle without recourse to rest. The experience was agonizing, according to Jamie, and almost all of the children were pleading to stop the exercise. Although somewhat harsh, the training makes for tremendous physical discipline and litheness.

In Chinese Opera, physical alacrity is coupled with mental and imaginative facility to create seamless movements that are fully charged by narrative norms. Students are trained to expertly perform as one of four different role types including the sheng (male), dan (female), jing (enemies, spirits, animals), and chou (clown). Within each role, there are various subcategories that allow for extensive artistic diversity. A female role, for instance, includes lao dan parts, which are older feminine roles such as mothers, aunts, elderly women, and dowager queens. Such roles, according to Chinese Opera Historian Rewi Alley, were “done in so slow and dignified a manner . . . that actors could not consider themselves perfect until they could hold a brush between their knees and walk about without letting it fall.” Other female roles include hua dan (typically maidservants) that wear outlandish costumes and who specialize more in acting than singing, also dao ma dan who are the fighting females on horses like the famed Hua Mulan and qingyi who are the graceful young maidens said to be paragons of Confucian virtues.

Because women were required to respect a code of conduct that restricted them to the home for more than two thousand years of feudalism, the dan or female role was developed and perfected by male actors. Mei Lanfang is indisputably the best known dan actor to ever live. He became a household name in China in the 1920s and gained widespread repute from theater critics in the west, including Bertolt Brecht and Stanislavsky. Breaking the mold of most Chinese opera actors preceding him, Mei Lanfang specialized in more than one female role. He began as a qingyi actor, and later became skilled in hua dan, dao ma dan, as well as gui men dan (an unmarried girl), eventually spanning 100 different characters in over 50 years of stage life. He contributed immense style and passion to his craft, and garnered a versatile repertoire over the course of his career. One of Mei Lanfang?s poet contemporaries noted of Mei Lanfang?s performances, “A smile brings an eternal spring, And a sob unending sorrows”, a lyric dedication to Mei Lanfang?s inspiring art form.

For every female role there is typically a male counterpart. Xiaosheng (young man), for instance, is the stage counterpart to the qingyi, and is typically a young scholar or prince. The male roles also include wu sheng (fighting roles), lao sheng (older men with beards), as well as wen sheng (scholar officials). Chou roles are the only roles that involve direct communication with the audience from the stage, and can be found in the female and male role-types. Improvisation and comedic timing are crucial for the chou actor, as he is encouraged to dispense relevant cultural quips and asides throughout the play, almost as a sidekick. Jing roles tend to be much more austere, and are known for their highly complicated make-up styling. Bright colors and bold designs are applied to the actor?s face and often their foreheads are strategically shaved to connote animals, gods and goddesses, as well as enemies. These roles are often the most aesthetically ornate.

A first-time viewer might be initially shocked by the elaborate wardrobes common in Chinese Opera. Intricate embroidered designs and contrasting colors dramatically showcase the status of different role-types. A courtier who wears yellow, for instance, indicates imperial lineage, while black represents a violent demeanor. Water sleeves also contain a powerful aesthetic appeal – these rippling garments flow down the arms of the performer, and can be swiftly brought back to reveal elegant hand movements. At the feet one can see high court shoes, which elevate the height of the actor and provide a sense of grandeur to the performance. But these seductive elements of costume design are not superfluous, they help build a rich iconographic lexicon that veteran audience members will rely on to understand the opera?s story.

Synthesized with these sophisticated visual elements, dialogue and song form another specific element of Chinese Opera?s storytelling. In Peking Opera, spoken parts are subdivided into recitation with rhymes, generally used in historical operas, and “Beijing dialect”, applied to folk operettas. The former speech is often used by more serious role-types, while the latter is appropriate for clowns and other humorous roles. Peking Opera song is often rendered in two forms called er huang and xi pi—the former evolved from the folk tunes of the Anhui and Hubei provinces, and the latter was developed from the Shaanxi province of Northwest China. Actors will often sing and speak in unison with the orchestra, who in turn, cue the actor on specific steps and linking segues.

Peking Opera has proved to be an enduring art form for artists internationally, fostering westernized hybrids and other regionalized mutations. The result of these combinations has brought about a new school of Peking Opera purveyors who are taking the art form to the next level. Such visionaries include Taiwanese artist Hsing-Kuo Wu, who re-interpreted King Lear as his own personal struggle against a domineering opera master using Chinese Opera style dance-acting. Danny Yung is another such artist, who has usurped the traditional importance of symbolic wardrobe and makeup, as in one performance where the actor wears a blindfold throughout. Other theater groups have combined the famed Japanese kabuki with Peking Opera to create a pan-Asian-inspired total theater.

Just as the drama of everyday life provides multiple opportunities for artistic expression, so to does the form of Peking Opera. Its evolution from traditional forms to the present-day, where artists push its aesthetic and narrative tenants, is a testament to the great and manifold influence of classical Chinese Opera.

–Anastasia Cifuentes

Further Reading about Chinese Opera:

Elizabeth Halson, Peking Opera, A Short Guide (Hong Kong: Oxford University
Press, 1966).

David Johnson, ed., Ritual Opera, “Mu-Lien Rescues his Mother” in Chinese
Popular Culture
(California: IEAS Publications, 1989).

Huang Shang, Tales from Peking Opera, (Beijing: New World Press, 1985).

A.C. Scott, Mei Lan-Fang, The Life and Times of a Peking Actor (Hong Kong:
Hong Kong University Press, 1959).

Colin Mackerras, The Rise of the Peking Opera, 1770-1870, Social Aspects of
the Theatre in Manchu China
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972).

Colin Mackerras, The Chinese Theatre in Modern Times, From 1840 to the
Present Day
(University of Massachusetts Press, 1975).

Pan Xiafeng, The Stagecraft of Peking Opera, From its Origins to the Present
(Beijing: New World Press, 1995).
Marjory Bong-Ray Liu, Tradition and Change in Kunqu Opera (U.M.I, 1976).
Bell Yung, Cambridge Studies in Ethnomusicology, Cantonese Opera,
Performance as creative process
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

Daniel L. Ferguson, A Study of Cantonese Opera: Musical Source Materials,
Historical Development, Contemporary Social Organization, and Adaptive
(U.M.I, 1988).

Jonathan P.J. Stock, Huju, Traditional Opera in Modern Shanghai (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2003).

–Photo courtesy of Zuni Icosahedron