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History of Chinese Opera


Chinese Opera

Beijing Opera Performer

Joris Machielse on Flickr.com

Since the time of the Tang Dynasty Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712-755), who created the first national opera troupe called the "Pear Garden," Chinese opera has been one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the country. Today, it is enjoyed by political leaders and commoners alike.

More than a millennium after Xuanzong's death, Chinese Opera performers are still referred to as "Disciples of the Pear Garden." They continue to perform an astonishing 368 different forms of Chinese Opera.

Many of the features that characterize modern Chinese Opera developed in northern China, particularly Shanxi and Gansu Provinces. These included the use of certain set characters: Sheng - the man, Dan - the woman, Hua - painted face, and Chou - the clown. In Yuan Dynasty times, 1279-1368, opera performers began to use the vernacular language of the common people, rather than Classical Chinese.

During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the northern traditional singing and drama style from Shanxi was combined with melodies from a southern form of Chinese opera called Kunqu. This form was created in the Wu region, along the Yangtze River. Kunqu Opera revolves around the Kunshan melody, created in the coastal city of Kunshan.

Many of the most famous operas that continue to be performed today are from the Kunqu repertoire, including: "The Peony Pavilion," "The Peach Blossom Fan," and adaptations of the older "Romance of the Three Kingdoms," and "Journey to the West."

However, the stories have been rendered into various local dialects, including Mandarin for audiences in Beijing and other northern cities. The acting and singing techniques, as well as costumes and makeup conventions, also owe much to the northern Qinqiang or Shanxi tradition.

Chinese opera makeup is particularly fascinating and rich in meaning. A character with mostly red makeup or a red mask is brave and loyal. Black symbolizes boldness and impartiality. Yellow denotes ambition, while pink stands for sophistication and cool-headedness. Characters with primarily blue faces are fierce and far-seeing, while green faces show wild and impulsive behaviors. Those with white faces are treacherous and cunning - the villains of the show. Finally, an actor with only a small section of makeup in the center of the face, connecting the eyes and nose, is a clown. This is called xiaohualian, or the "little painted face."

This rich operatic heritage was almost lost during China's dark days in the mid-twentieth century. The Communist regime of the People's Republic of China (1949-present) initially encouraged the production and performance of operas old and new. During the "Hundred Flowers Campaign" (1956-1957), in which the authorities under Mao encouraged intellectualism, the arts, and even criticism of the government, Chinese opera blossomed anew.

However, the Hundred Flowers Campaign may have been a trap. Beginning in July of 1957, the intellectuals and artists who had put themselves forward during Hundred Flowers period were purged. By December of that same year, a stunning 300,000 people had been labelled "rightists," and were subjected to punishments from informal criticism to internment in labor camps, or even execution.

This was a preview of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which would imperil the very existence of Chinese opera and other traditional arts.

The Cultural Revolution was the regime's attempt to destroy "old ways of thinking" by outlawing such traditions as fortune telling, paper-making, traditional Chinese dress, and the study of classic literature and arts. An attack on one Beijing opera piece and its composer signaled the start of the Cultural Revolution.

In 1960, Mao's government had commissioned Professor Wu Han to write an opera about Hai Rui, a minister of the Ming Dynasty who was fired for criticizing the Emperor to his face. Audiences saw the play as a critique of the Emperor (and thus Mao), rather than of Hai Rui (representing disgraced Minister of Defense Peng Dehuai). In reaction, Mao performed an about-face in 1965, publishing harsh criticism of the opera and of composer Wu Han, who was eventually fired. This was the opening salvo of the Cultural Revolution.

For the next decade, opera troupes were disbanded, other composers and scriptwriters were purged, and performances were banned. Until the fall of the "Gang of Four" in 1976, only eight "model operas" were allowed. These model operas were personally vetted by Madame Jiang Qing, and were entirely politically innocuous. In essence, Chinese opera was dead.

After 1976, Beijing opera and the other forms were revived, and once more placed within the national repertoire. Older performers who had survived the purges were allowed to pass on their knowledge to new students again. Traditional operas have been freely performed since 1976, though some newer works have been censored and new composers criticized as the political winds have shifted over the intervening decades.

Today, more than thirty forms of Chinese opera continue to be performed regularly throughout the country. Here are brief descriptions of some of the most prominent types of Chinese Opera.

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