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Chinese Opera

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Chinese Opera
Chinese Opera in General
Chinese Opera comes in many forms and each is notable for its own unique style. Whilst many foreigners sometimes joke that it sounds like someone strangling a cat, this is most unfair as it is a highly developed art form that many simply do not understand. It is known as 'opera' to emphasise this point.

This page will introduce the major styles and what is special about each, with links to greater information - of which Cultural China and Wikipedia are great sources.

The most noted forms are: Peking or Beijing Opera, Cantonese or Yue Opera, Sichuan Opera, and Huang Mei Song. We also briefly describe other important forms such as: Ping, Henan, Qinqiang and Kunqu + mention the Shaw Brothers studios in Hong Kong.

Nearly all Chinese Opera are highly stylised stage performances with performers wearing highly colourful and embellished traditional Chinese dress. It can take half a day for a top artiste to dress for performance, with several hours alone being dedicated to the facial make-up, never mind the hair! The productions are often set to grand backdrops and echo the lives of the rich and influential. Many tales are based in real history (Sometimes thousands of years ago), or their performance keeps history alive today.

To understand Chinese culture you will need to understand the rudimentaries of Chinese Opera. The stories told are often of deep significance to educated Chinese people and signify a higher art form. Many such as the enduring 'Red Mansions' are equivalent of our western love for Shakespeare and should be respected with equal reverence. Chinese people may quote certain clauses in daily conversation, much the same as we may do with extracts from The Bard.

Chinese Opera can trace its roots back to the third century AD, and to Canjun opera of the Three Kingdoms period, which was one of the first Chinese operatic forms. Chinese opera in a more organized form began in the Tang Dynasty with Emperor Xuanzong (712–755), who founded the "Pear Garden" (梨园/梨園; líyuán), the first known opera troupe in China. The troupe mostly performed for the emperors' personal pleasure. To this day operatic professionals are still referred to as "Disciples of the Pear Garden" (梨园弟子/梨園弟子, líyuán dìzi).

What is it All About?
With the exception of Huangmei Opera, most formal opera tells just one story and is made up of many scenes that comprise the whole. These are normally as the order of events occurred, but occasionally 'reflections' are used.

The art is judged by the singers voice control, which whilst alien to many western ears, is extremely difficult to master. There is great subtlety and pitch or warble control used by the very best practitioners that would defeat a top western concert singer. Nearly all singers have a great range and often use extended voice, but not falsetto. There are exceptions, as when males take female roles, and vice versa.

This devotion to form of delivery is extended to presentation, where one short clause such as 'I love You' could take many minutes to be sung. Each equivalent of our western syllables is often exaggerated and extended whilst the performer conveys additional substance to the work by gestures and pose.

Beijing Opera, known also as Peking Opera 京剧 (Jing Ju)
This is regarded as the standard opera of China, and its highest evolution by many. It is always performed in Mandarin and may be thought of as a state institution. There are University campus devoted solely to Beijing Opera, whose young talent often goes on to careers on stage, or in film and television. You may note that when surfing Chinese TV there will be a couple of channels only showing Beijing Opera.

Beijing Opera is noted for its colourful faces with hugely artful and diversified facial makeup, which can be used for four purposes:
1. indicate personalities.
2. introduce characteristics.
3. tell good and evil.
4. distinguish beauty and ugliness.

Cantonese Opera, know as Yue Ju 粵劇
'Yue' is what Cantonese people call themselves and 'ju' means opera or show. Yue Opera is performed in Cantonese and covers the Cantonese speaking world, roughly: Guangdong, Guangxi, Northern Vietnam, Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore and Malaysia. In many ways it is quite similar to Beijing Opera, but differs in that greater use is made of facial make-up of some quite bizarre forms to accentuate the characters or deliver hidden messages. Like other mainstream form of Chinese opera, Yue Ju contains: music, singing, martial arts, acrobatics and acting, which all featuring prominently. Most of the plots are based on Chinese history and famous Chinese classics and myths. The culture and philosophies of the Chinese people can be seen in the plays. Virtues like loyalty, moral, love, patriotism and faithfulness are often reflected by the operas.

Cantonese opera is less concerned to a degree with formalised styling, although it has produced some of the artistes regarded as national treasures. Most of the cast are usually female and in turn this opera style has little acrobatics and fighting (in the form of 'action' sequences). However the melodies are exceptional and one such gave rise to the famous film and story 'The Butterfly Lovers'.

I watched a complete show one evening when I was living on the island, and whilst half of it passed me by, the rest was fast and entertaining. I remember laughing at one comedy scene, even though my grasp of Cantonese remains limited. Given that I was living on an island with a population of a few hundred people 4, 000 turned up every evening for three days to watch this travelling troupe. I was there on the last night and in company with the island administrator. After the show the director and stars joined us at the village shop for a beer and chat. I think they were just as surprised to find me there as I was them. Remarkable!

Sichuan Opera
This form of opera is widely known all over China and sometimes incorporated into shows for the opera fan. It is delivered in Mandarin and takes face painting to an extreme that is highly colourful and entertaining. Today's Sichuan opera is a relatively recent synthesis of 5 historic melodic styles. Regionally Chengdu remains to be the main home of Sichuan opera, while other influential locales include Chongqing, Guizhou, Yunnan, Hubei and Taiwan

One of the greatest arts is what is known as 'Changing Faces', where the actor by some hidden means instantly changes his current face mask for something completely different. This is a top secret skill that very few people know. Having watched this several times I can tell you this is excellent theatre. The masks appear to change with a flick of the head, no other means being viable. A top artiste may change the face 20 times over the course of a performance, and even within the space of a minute!

Overall the art form is well known for its singing, which is less constrained than that of the more popular Beijing opera form. Sichuan opera is more like a play than other forms of Chinese opera, and the acting is highly polished.The music accompanying Sichuan opera utilizes a small gong and an instrument called a Muqin, which is similar to the Erhu.

The traditional formula is quite systematic with a combination of stunts like face-changing, tihuiyan, sword-hiding, fire-spitting and beard-changing with the plot and different characters

Ping Opera 评剧 (Ping Ju)
Ping opera originated in Tangshan region, east of Beijing and is renown for its plain scripts, which are very easy for the audience to understand. This makes it popular with rural communities and especially where people are not well educated. Since the beginning of last century, unlike the other operas that are focused on historical theme topics, Ping opera focuses mostly on modern topics, which is very unique in contemporary Chinese opera.

Henan Opera 豫剧 (Yu Ju)
This form of opera is mainly known in the central regions of China, being watched from Tibet through to the northern border. It has attained great following and is the only form of opera to not require funding by the state. It is also only the second form of opera after Beijing opera to have travelled on tour to Europe.

Qinqiang Opera
This opera form originates from Shaanxi province. It is often considered to be the sixth most popular Chinese opera. It also has the oldest and richest characteristic melody system in Chinese opera. Some people even credit as the “Oldest Chinese opera”.

Kunqu Opera
Kunqu opera has been known for over 600 years of continuous history and is known as the “teacher” or “mother” of a hundred operas. This is because of its influence on other Chinese theatre forms, including Peking Opera.
Huangmei Song 黄梅戏 originally "Caicha Opera"
This form of opera is very different from the others above and is based upon the lives of rural peasants and from the songs and lives of tea pickers. It originated in Cai Cha region of Huangmei County in Hubei Province. Following devastating floods the population migrated to Anqing region of Anhui Province. Performances often depict individual items, such as the rendition of a favourite song or story, which makes many shows far more varied and interesting.

However, Huangmei opera has also grown and developed with age and now boasts full performances dedicated to only one subject. One of the most enduring mini-opera's is entitled 'Lament of a Child Bride' (Correctly: 'Lament of a Miserable Child Bride'). It tells the story of a young girl (12 years old I think) who was sold as a child bride by her parents. It details her sad life until the time of her escape - something rare, common, or often ending in young suicide. This became mainstream with the arrival of Mei Lang Fong, who was herself a child bride and escaped with nothing but her life and a burning desire to live. She was adopted by a travelling theatre troupe and later became a star known all over China as their most famous opera singer. When she sang this tale it was a direct recount of her early life, and warmed the hearts of many.

Another classic tale is called 'Flood Refuge' made famous by Hu Paya in 1884. Notable others include the performers: Wu Pu Yang and Shi Pai.

Other famous works:

Emperor's Female Son-in-law (Nu Fuma):
Feng Suzhen is engaged to Li Zhaoting. But misfortune befalls Li's family: Feng's father doesn't want his daughter to marry Li and puts him into prison. The father wants to marry Feng off to a rich and powerful family, but Feng doesn't agree. Feng disguises herself as a man and goes to the capital to take the imperial examinations. She wins the title of "Number One Scholar" and is made the emperor's son-in-law. In the bridal chamber, Feng tells the truth to the princess, who shows deep sympathy for her. The "couple" go to see the emperor and the emperor absolves Feng from guilt. Later, Feng marries Li and the princess marries Feng's brother, a former "Number One Scholar."

Employer Deceived (Mulaohu Shang Jiao):
Qian Fu, a waiter with the Shilixiang Wine Shop, flatters his boss, a shrew, in order to marry her daughter. He then persuades her to fire Sun Chengpu, an honest waiter. The boss is deceived by Qian's flattery until she is forced to pay his debts. At last, she sees his dishonesty and marries her daughter instead to Sun Chengpu.

Fallen Stars (Niulang Zhinu):
Niulang and Zhinu are stars in the heavens who come to earth and become a couple. Zhinu gives birth to a son and a daughter. But when the Heavenly Queen hears the news, she sends generals to bring Zhinu back and separates the couple with a heavenly river. From then on, the couple can meet only once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month. This is known as Double Seven Festival and is Chinese Valentine's Day

Goddess' Marriage (Tianxian Pei):
Dong Yong's father dies. In order to raise money to bury his father, he has to serve as a slave for three months in Landlord Fu's family. The Jade Emperor's seventh daughter, who sympathizes with Dong, descends to the world and marries him. However, when the two leave Fu's family for home, the Jade Emperor orders the goddess to return to the Heavenly Palace. The husband and wife part reluctantly.

You can find good resources on the following websites:
China Vista Interesting introduction and worth reading.
China Corner Another good website containing a little more information

Shaw Brothers
No description of Huangmei Opera would be complete without mention of the famous Shaw Brothers studios in Hong Kong. For several most of the last century (1920 - 1990) they produced a significant amount of films which are still popular today on Chinese Television, and pioneered a genre. They would normally be made in Cantonese, but often dubbed or re-shot in Mandarin.

To their great credit, Shaw Brothers did much to promote Chinese culture to the masses, and also brought through many students to fame and stardom. One of their most enduring hits (Still popular today) was entitled 'The Love Eterne' (traditional Chinese: 梁山伯與祝英台; pinyin: Liang Shan Bo yu Zhu Ying) and this is regarded as a modern day classic and esteemed as a Chinese 'Romeo and Juliet'.
Wikipedia - The Love Eterne

We will leave this here, but please see our links below for a lot more information:

Jump-Cut Great website with a lot of information
Wikipedia De facto take on The Shaw Brothers

Farewell My Concubine 霸王别姬
This recent film has won international honours and is available in English. It charts the life of a top Opera star from his early childhood of lowly birth and harsh circumstances, through the rigours of his early life, to his rise as China's premier opera star. It is notable that he plays the female lead, whilst his equally disadvantaged friend plays the male lead.

This story is absorbing within itself, and flows well from childhood, through adolescence, to stardom. What is of great intrigue is the main sub-plot, which focus' on his sexuality. It is this theme that pushes the boundaries in China, a country where homosexuality is thought of as being impossible. However, we are left to ponder whether the main protagonists are 'gay' because of their personal sexual orientation, or because of extenuating circumstances forced upon them in childhood? Worthy of Mainstream world cinema and most thoroughly engaging.

Farewell My Concubine Free download from Youku in Mandarin

More information:
Wikipedia have an excellent and in depth section devoted to all the different styles of Chinese Opera - there are perhaps 100 of them! Their introductory page is here below:

Cultural China is a fantastic website for those wishing to learn more about all forms of Chinese opera. Their in depth descriptions are supported by excellent photographs and some videos.
This information is as supplied by ourselves, and ably supported by our friends and various internet portals: 
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