The Chinese Opera is considered an ancient art form with a charm that’s endured all these years. Even today, foreigners visiting China, don’t fail to attend a performance, especially opera lovers.
what is chinese opera?
Known as Xiqu in Chinese, this form of art is considered one of the world’s three oldest dramatic art forms. The roots of this form of musical theatre can be traced back to the earlier periods of Chinese history. An opera school by the poetic name Liyuan which translates to Pear Garden was opened during the Tang dynasty by emperor Taizong. Performers who attended the school were referred to as the disciples of the Pear Garden. By the Yuan dynasty, Xiqu had become a traditional art form for court officials and emperors and in the Qing dynasty, it became fashionable even to the ordinary people.
Even today, Chinese opera is considered a national essence and an important part of Chinese culture and tradition. To help you better understand Chinese opera, this post will cover, what its purpose is and what is involved in the performance. We will also share with you the different types and how Chinese opera and how it differentiates from western opera.
What Is the Purpose of Chinese Opera?
What started as a simple song and dance performance has slowly evolved. For the most part, Chinese Opera was performed for entertainment purposes. It however also carried Chinese culture and traditions since the performances were derived from Chinese legends and folklore.
The earliest form of Xiqu was Canjun opera. It was a simple comic drama involving only two performers, the corrupt officer Canjun and the jester who ridiculed him called Green Hawk. During the six dynasties, more various songs and dances came up. In the Northern Qi dynasty for example the song and dance dram included masked dance and was called the King of Lanling, performed in honor of Gao Changgong who went to battle wearing a mask. Other song and dance dramas at the time included Botou, the story of a grieving son who sought to avenge his father’s death by seeking the tiger that killed him. The dancing singing woman was a story of a woman beaten by her alcoholic husband.
By the Tang dynasty, these dramas became more complex with more dramatic twists and now involving at least four performers. This was around the time the earliest known Chinese opera troupe. Given that the opera was in classical Chinese, it was initially only performed for the emperor’s entertainment and the royal court. During the Yuan dynasty, performers singing or speaking in the Chinese vernacular tongues became more popular. As such even the commoners began to understand and enjoy Xiqu.
Throughout the years from the Yuan dynasty until the Qing dynasty and even after the establishment of the Republic of China, Xiqu continued to evolve. It had now become an amalgamation of many art forms including, dance, music, acting, make-up design, and costumes. This marked the beginning of the Cultural revolution from 1965 to 1976. During this period, opera was banned and troupes were disbanded with performers being persecuted. Only the eight model operas were allowed to be performed. The rest were seen as poisonous weeds that prevented the Chinese from progressing. It wasn’t until 1976, after the fall of the Gang four when opera began to be revived again.
Even today in the 21st century, Chinese opera is rarely performed publicly, only in, formal opera houses. Although, Xiqu may be presented during the Chinese Ghost festival on the lunar seventh month to entertain the spirits and the audience. Still, Chinese opera is considered an important part of Chinese history and traditions.
What Is Involved with Chinese Opera?
As mentioned before, Chinese opera is a type of musical theater that’s an amalgamation of various art forms that evolved over many centuries. It came from dances and folk songs to combining art, music, and literature into one performance on stage.
Today, Chinese opera involves various exaggerated facial make-up styles and elaborate costumes. These were used to symbolize a character’s personality, role, and fate in the performance. A red face, for example, represented loyalty and bravery, a white and yellow face meant duplicity. A black face, on the other hand, symbolized valor, while golden and silver faces represented mystery.
Xiqu is also accompanied by traditional instruments like the gong, lute, and erhu. It also involves unique melodies and beautifully written dialogue. Another fascinating accompaniment in the performances is the acrobatics. When a performer acts as a spirit, they may sometimes spray fire out of their mouths or squat and gallop while acting like a dwarf. This increased the authenticity of the performances.
Difference Between Chinese Opera and Western Opera
When comparing the Chinese opera to the Western, you’ll realize that the Chinese opera is uniquely different from it. Although both are an interpretation of life and representation of their respective cultures and stories, the number of differences set them apart. To begin with, Xiqu is at least 1,900 years older than any Western opera including Mozart and Wagner. The following are some of the main differences:
When it comes to performance, the Chinese opera has a rigid style of a symbolic visual show. For instance, to imitate riding a horse, the performer will tie a horsewhip on its wrist and wave it around as if riding a horse. For Chinese opera, the performance is more than stylized singing, even the actions are important in telling the story. In contrast, Western opera focuses more on emotional expression and powerful singing. Their performance style is more fluid and life-like as well as self-explanatory.
When it comes to determining the roles played, Chinese opera has four fixed roles that performers are grouped under. These roles are heroine, hero, comic, and Jing (painted face). The performers then train their voices to fit these particular roles. In Western opera, however, there are a variety of roles that are determined by the voice pitch. That means that the customary role is determined by the performer’s vocal range.
Another thing is that in Chinese opera, a heroine can be played by a man and a hero by a woman. In Western opera that rarely ever happens.
For Chinese opera, the stage required can be a simple platform or even a make-shift stage. Usually, for Xiqu performances only one side of the stage is shown to the audience, unlike the Western opera stage. Theirs include various props that are vivid. Hence a Western opera performance requires a complicated stage set-up.
Vocal Acrobatics and Musical Instruments
In Western opera, the vocal of the performer includes sung melodies that are clear and strong. This is usually accompanied by a full orchestra. With Chinese opera, a unique singing technique is required for each role, and may sometimes involve droning and crooning of a syllable with a startling pitch variation. This is accompanied by traditional Chinese instruments like gongs and drums.
Like the performance style, the make-up styles used in Western opera are simple and life-like. Chinese opera make-up styles are a bit more complicated. It’s usually thick, unnatural, and heavily dependent on color. That’s because the color is used to symbolize the role of the character.
Different Types of Chinese Opera
Over the years of evolution, Chinese opera today exists in various forms based on regional local traits and accents. There are over 300 regional Chinese opera styles but, in this post, we’ll focus on the four main ones which are as follows:
Also called Peking opera, it is considered the perfect example of Xiqu, which originated from Beijing but has since spread across the country as a symbol of Chinese culture. It is characterized by vivid make-up, complicated plots, and a beautiful stage set-up and costume.
The plots are usually about political affairs more than romance. They include stories of historic and even supernatural beings who existed centuries ago. Compared to other Chinese operas, Peking has a stricter requirement when it comes to songs, costumes, makeup, and performance.
This type of opera is based in South China and some Chinese communities overseas that was first performed during the Ming dynasty. You’ll mostly find it performed in Hong Kong, Guangdong, Malaysia, and other Chinese-influenced countries in the West. While this style incorporates older Chinese opera forms and instruments it also incorporates western instruments like the violin and saxophone as well as some western play tunes.
Cantonese opera is also characterized by its elaborate make-up styles that use different color shades and shapes to represent the state and traits of the character. This style is also subdivided into two kinds. Mo (martial arts) performances are fast-paced and about bravery war and betrayal. Mun’s (intellectual) performances are slower and more passive. They use vocals, flowing water sleeves, and facial expressions to express complex emotions. Most of the stories are about romance, ghosts, and classic Chinese myths and tales.
This style is also known as Huju opera and it came about around the same time as Peking opera. Unlike Beijing opera, this version uses Wu Chinese dialect and the folk songs are based on Huangpu River regions.
Huju opera is characterized by simple make-up and costumes that are almost like ordinary people’s streetwear from the pre-communist era. Many of its performances seem to have some western influence.
Also known as Qingqiang opera that first appeared in the Qin dynasty and became popular in the Tang era. The singing, acting styles, melodies, and plot lines mostly come from the Shanxi province. During the Qing dynasty, when Qingqiang was introduced to the Beijing court, it became incorporated into the Peking opera because the imperial court enjoyed it so much.
Like Huju opera, this style is also divided into two. There is the joyful tune, Huan Yin, and the sorrowful tune, Ku yin. Most of the story plots are about fighting ad lack of loyalty. Some performances included special acrobatic effects like twirling and breathing fire.
Guangdong, Hong Kong, Macau, southern Guangxi, North America, Southeast Asia
Eastern Guangdong, southernmost Fujian, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia
Lufeng (eastern Guangdong)
Leizhou Peninsula (southwestern Guangdong)
Haikou (northern Hainan)
Nanning (southern Guangxi)
Although most of these Chinese opera varieties were a buzz in the earlier periods, there is fear of the fate of these art forms. What’s more, art is competing with modern films and TV shows for their audience’s attention. That is why the Chinese government is making effort in preserving this art form, by offering grants to encourage young artists to participate and keep it alive.
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