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The history, culture, and meanings behind Chinese opera

By Catharina Cheung 29 June 2020

Header image courtesy of @hoannguyentrong (Flickr)

Chinese opera, along with Greek plays and Indian Sanskrit opera, is one of the oldest dramatic art forms in the world. Watching a Chinese opera performance is a very rewarding experience, as the art incorporates music, song, dance, martial arts, acrobatics, and costume artistry, all rolled into one. To say Chinese opera performers are multi-talented is a bit of an understatement! Here’s a look into the history, forms, and meaning behind this quintessential bit of Chinese culture.

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Background of Chinese opera

Also known as xiqu, the art of Chinese opera reached maturation in the thirteenth-century Song dynasty but was already present in an earlier form called Canjun opera during the Later Zhao dynasty circa 319 to 351. These earliest pieces of Chinese musical theatre were simple song-and-dance numbers—an example is a masked dance called The King of Lanling, featured in the 2014 hit drama series The Empress of China, starring Fan Bingbing—which were the precursors to later, more sophisticated forms of Chinese opera.

During the Tang dynasty, traditionally considered the greatest age for cultivating the arts, Emperor Xuanzong founded the Pear Garden (梨園), the first such academy of music, specifically to train up musicians, dancers, and performers. These artists formed what could be considered China’s first opera troupe, though they mostly performed for the imperial family. This is why to this day, Chinese operatic professionals are still referred to as ‘Disciples of the Pear Garden’ (梨園弟子).

From the Song to Ming dynasties, other concepts such as rhyming schemes, specialised roles, and performing lyrics in the vernacular tongue were gradually assimilated into Chinese opera. Various prefectures in China would have their own versions of the art, but by the Qing dynasty, the best known was Beijing opera, or Peking opera. Cantonese opera, the version performed and enjoyed in Hong Kong, is thought to be an evolution of the performances in Hangzhou theatres in the twelfth century. To this day in Hong Kong, opera is not referred to by the Mandarin Chinese name of xiqu, but rather as yuet kuk, meaning Cantonese opera.

The majority of Chinese operas are set in seventeenth-century China or before because the plotlines are mostly derived from traditional folklore or old works of literature. For centuries, this was the main form of entertainment for Chinese folk both urban and rural. During the latter half of the twentieth century, however, its popularity suffered a sharp decline due in large part to the Cultural Revolution. Mao posited that traditional values and culture were part of the “backward thinking” that was holding Chinese civilisation back from modern progress, and unfortunately, Chinese opera fell into that category as well. Theatre artists and performers were persecuted for disseminating unwanted values, resulting in a generation with no exposure to Chinese opera, unless in the sharply altered form of Communist propaganda. In contrast, the British colonial government largely ignored this art and allowed Cantonese opera in Hong Kong to flourish as it will.

Now into the twenty-first century, people realised the cultural value of Chinese opera, and efforts were made to preserve it as part of intangible heritage, but by then, almost half of China’s regional genres of xiqu had been eradicated. In 2009, Cantonese opera was added to the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It may no longer be a part of modern Chinese popular culture, but Chinese opera remains a favoured form of entertainment for the older generations, who enjoy it for the sense of nostalgia and cultural identity that it evokes.

Understanding Chinese opera

To the non-Chinese viewer, xiqu will most likely just be a spectacle of colours, elaborate costumes, and the occasional acrobatic routine. This is because a large element of Chinese opera relies on visual cues that tell the audience about characters’ personas, actions, emotions, and motivations, without having to overtly express it in speech or song. Additionally, the storylines often originate from Chinese folklore, so unless the viewer has a basic understanding of the legend, it may be difficult to follow the plot. Luckily, having some knowledge of the nuances can go a long way in understanding and enjoying this art, so here’s a guide on the subtleties behind Chinese opera.

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Characters

Before the 1930s, roles in productions would be dependent on the story, but by the 1950s, these were whittled down to six major categories. The wenwusheng is a male scholar-warrior who features in all operas regardless of historical period, usually civilised and righteous; the xiaosheng is a more youthful male character who usually has a romantic storyline, differentiated from the wenwusheng by lighter make-up; the zhengyin huadan is the female lead, usually a maiden with a bright and forthcoming personality; the erbang huadan is a supporting female character, such as a handmaiden or a maternal role; the chousheng is the comic character, who could either be warm and wise or sinister; and finally, the zhengyin wusheng is a male warrior typically involved in battle scenes and martial arts sequences.

The styles and characteristics of Chinese opera that make it so recognisable are based on four key concepts. Chang is singing, in which the lines and intonations of each character are delivered differently, specially developed so the voices can be projected over large audiences; zuo means acting through exaggerated body movements, hand gestures, and facial expressions; nian refers to recitation because spoken segments of Chinese opera are narrated to particular rhythms; and da is acrobatic fighting. These key concepts are also the basics that every xiqu performer needs to do well.

Traditionally, all roles—female dan roles included—were performed by men. This came about because the Qing imperial court prohibited women performing on stage, seeing it as detrimental to public morality. As a result, it was men who originated the female roles, singing in falsetto and developing a characteristic quick-footed gait meant to imitate walking on bound feet. Of course, this gendering is no longer the case, but the most famous dans of Peking opera are still Mei Lanfang, Cheng Yanqiu, Shang Xiaoyun, and Xun Huisheng—all men who specialised in playing female roles.

Photo credit: oss.adm.ntu.edu.sg

Costumes

There’s no doubt that the flashy garments are a big part of what makes Chinese opera so visually arresting. But what the uninitiated may not realise is that the clothing is also indicative of each character’s role, gender, and social status.

In the earlier days of xiqu, there were no conventions governing performance costumes. It was only until after the Qing dynasty, when there was a lot more exchanging and blending between Cantonese and Peking opera, when the costumes became much more striking, with sequins, bright colours, beads, or even tiny light bulbs galore. Embroidered costumes are mainly used now.

There are many types of Chinese operatic costumes, but they can mostly be grouped into two categories: mun and mo. Mun costumes are usually less intricate, and either buttoned or tied to the side. These are worn to represent more casual or day-to-day environments, such as a scholar having a conversation within his study. Mo costumes are what audiences typically envision when thinking of Chinese opera, consisting of elaborate pieces with ornaments to match. These are worn by characters under special circumstances, such as battles, weddings, or important missions.

A particularly attention-grabbing part of the mo costume is a highly ornate headpiece with five-foot-long pheasant feathers. Characters who wear this headpiece are generally zhengyin wusheng warriors in charge of troops, but it can also be used to portray emotions. For example, the actor will jerk their head sharply to make the feathers twitch, called “nodding the feathers,” to signal surprise. Dancing with the feathers is done to display anger and determination, and will often be seen in a sequence where the character is about to go into battle.

Another great example of Chinese opera costumes is water sleeves, the name for the silk extensions on garments’ sleeves worn by both male and female characters. These can be used to signify a variety of emotions and transitions and is a technique that takes years to master. Water sleeves can show male and female greetings, anger, the hiding of emotions, running, weeping, and even more specific points, such as sending people away, or a character making their mind up. When not in use, skilful performers need only flick their wrists a few times to have their long water sleeves folded and resting neatly on their forearms.

Photo credit: ‘Peking Opera’ by Colin Mackerras

Make-up and representation

Similarly to the cacophonous singing style, make-up in Chinese opera is designed to be bold and dramatic so even audiences situated far from the stage are able to make out the actors’ facial expressions. In the early days, stages were not well-lit either, so facial features were drawn on and exaggerated to make up for the poor lighting using tones of high contrasts—the OG contouring make-up, if you will!

Each role has its own make-up style which showcases their characteristics and personalities. All actors apply their own make-up, which can be considered an art all its own. The standard Chinese opera make-up style is a face of white foundation, with red starting under the brows and fading down the cheeks and the sides of the nose, paired with bright red lipstick.

More dramatic colours are also used on roles with more distinctive characteristics. As an auspicious colour in Chinese culture, when red make-up is used, it signals that the character is brave and loyal. In contrast, white symbolises evil and treachery, so villains usually have white faces; the larger the area painted white, the more malicious the character. Comic characters are also recognisable because they always have a large white spot in the middle of their faces.

Additionally, the staging of Chinese opera is also very deliberate because the actors have to work with very limited space on stage. As a result, gestures, costumes, and props are used to abstractly represent movements through time and space. For example, a tasselled stick is used to represent horses, which actors wield to signal horseback-travel and galloping. Taking short strides and fast steps in a circle signify travelling long distances.

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Famous Cantonese opera performers

Considering how small Hong Kong is, there are a surprising number of Cantonese opera singers who have gained much prominence locally, in China, and other parts of Asia. One of the most famous names is Bak Sheut-sin, whose major works include The Peony Pavilion and Tai Nui Fa. Much lauded for her emotive singing, in 2001, Bak received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hong Kong Film Awards. Yam Kim Fai is another popular name, who often partnered with Bak Sheut-sin in productions. Yam was able to sing in a lower register, which allowed her to play both male and female roles in her career.

Actress Liza Wang Ming-chuen is also a Cantonese opera performer, having made the jump after a stint in stage musicals. In fact, she met her long-term partner Law Kar-ying through opera. Wang is a firm advocate of preserving this art and personally fought for causes such as preventing theatre closures and proposals for new Cantonese opera centres. Another well-known opera singer is Koi Ming Fai, who specialises in playing male roles. She has also done television roles, and still occasionally performs Cantonese opera.

Photo credit: Ternalpetrom (Wikicommons)

Cantonese opera in Hong Kong

Mainly performed by roving opera troupes, Chinese opera never had permanent established bases in Hong Kong. Performances would be held on temporary bamboo stages, with the troupes travelling around China on their iconic red boats. Most of these boats were destroyed during the Japanese Occupation and were phased out by the early 1950s.

By the twentieth century, Chinese communities saw a growing demand for leisure and entertainment, which facilitated the theatre business. In 1904, the Tai Ping Theatre was opened in Hong Kong Island’s Western District, followed by Ko Shing, Chung Hing, and Kau Yue Fong Theatres. Popularity then spread east, and Hong Kong Grand Theatre and Lee Theatre were also built before more were established on Kowloon side as well.

However, once the film industry started to gain traction after World War II, the demand for live Cantonese opera performances dropped drastically, with many opera performers even switching to the silver screen. After the television was popularised in the late 1960s, the opera business declined further, and theatres began to cease operations.

Nowadays, there are only a handful of Cantonese opera theatres in Hong Kong that are still up and running. They are the famous Sunbeam Theatre in North Point, the Lyric Theatre in Wan Chai, Yau Ma Tei Theatre, the Hong Kong Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui, the Ko Shan Theatre in Hung Hom, and the latest Xiqu Centre that’s part of the West Kowloon Cultural District.

Hopefully, this guide has helped demystify some of Chinese opera and dispel the myth that it is a bit of an inaccessible art. Grab some snacks and head to one of the theatres listed above (our favourite is Sunbeam) and soak in the historical and cultural relevance of this traditional Chinese art form.

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Catharina Cheung

Senior editor-at-large

Catharina has recently returned to her hometown of Hong Kong after spending her formative years in Singapore and the UK. She enjoys scouring the city for under-the-radar things to do, see, and eat, and is committed to finding the perfect foundation that will withstand Hong Kong’s heat. She is also an aspiring polyglot, a firm advocate for feminist and LGBTQIA+ issues, and a huge lover of animals. You can find her belting out show-tunes in karaoke, or in bookstores adding new tomes to her ever-growing collection.

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