Chinese Opera

Last Update: 2008-10-13 3:26:00; By chinatravelservice

Edition History Edit Introduction:

Table of Contents

Beijing Opera
View 1 photos, or upload your photo.


Greek tragicomedy, Indian Sanskrit drama, and Chinese opera are indisputably the three most ancient forms of drama in the world. In China, opera has traditionally been the main source of theatrical drama; it is the Chinese counterpart to what one in the West terms "theatre", as in "Shakespearean theatre". Yet the English language notion of opera does not fully capture the true essence of opera in China, as anyone even vaguely familar with Chinese opera would agree. In fact, the term, "Chinese opera", is itself not a bad jumping off point for talking about the phenomenon of opera in China, since the term suggests - and rightly so - that there is something about opera in China that sets it apart from the Western notion of opera.

The Chinese word for opera is xiqu, which is roughly translated as "theatre of song", or possibly even "a musical", yet neither of these terms accurately captures the essence of Chinese opera, while they may even create associations that are in contradiction to the essence of Chinese opera. What constitutes the essence of Chinese opera is a matter for scholars to debate, and of course one must recognize that since 'there is nothing new under the sun', xiqu did not suddenly emerge 'out of the blue' as a full-blown opera form - it gradually took shape through the absorption of a variety of theatrical currents and practices that had preceeded it. But at some point in this evolution one can rightly speak of a dramatic form that is sufficiently developed to set it apart as a discipline in its own right.

It is this stage in the development of Chinese opera that is of interest here as a starting point from which to construct a simple picture of what Chinese opera is really about, without having to resort to hair-splitting semantical discussions. In the following, the main outline of the historical development of the dramatic medium in China that has come to be known as "Chinese opera" will be presented, including its various regional origins as well as its most popular current styles. But first, what constitutes xiqu?

According to scholars (not to imply that all scholars of Chinese opera are in agreement, but there seems to be a general consensus in this case), to qualify as xiqu, the art form in question must possess the following elements:

1. The action, or drama, must involve a plot,

2. It must rest on a written script replete with stage instructions,

3. It must involve a cast of actors/ performers who impersonate characters (this to distinguish xiqu from a narration),

4. The plot must unfold via a mixture of dialogue, action, and singing ("dancing" - including leaping and other dramatic movement associated with martial arts - may occur, but this is strictly optional),*

5. There must be a combination of "makeup" (not the same as the Painted Face**) and costumery,

6. There must be musical accompaniment from start to finish (not just musical accompaniment during certain passages during the drama, as in the American genre calling itself a "musical"),

7. There must exist well-defined role categories (the tragic figure, the jester, etc.), and finally,

8. The xiqu performance must be the main event itself, not a warm-up act or an intermezzo for another event.

* In the West, opera usually has little or no action, while drama - except in the case of the musical, which is a recent theatrical innovation, comparatively speaking - usually has no singing.

** The Painted Face role, or jing, is a feature unique to Chinese opera, and is a crucial element in identifying the character's specific role (there are four jing roles, as will be discussed below). The Painted Face involves not only facial makeup, but also headdress as well as a specific costume to fit the specific role of the character. The Painted Face no doubt originated as a device to disguise a male actor as a female, but from there it was expanded to the jing role, and as such provided important symbolic information to the audience. From the concept of the Painted Face to the idea of changing masks is a very small step, however (it is of course much easier to change a mask than to remove makeup and re-apply it in a different pattern). 


The main developments in Chinese opera are:

Southern China - Song period Nanxi: the original Chinese opera, or xiqu, emerges

· Northern China - Yuan period Zaju: poetic drama & acrobatics are set to music

· Central China - Ming period Kunqu: the fully-blossomed romantic opera of the royal court appears

· Peking Opera - A fully developed Chinese institution by the middle of the 19th century, with roots a century earlier in kunqu, Peking Opera becomes an opera school throughout China that continues to this day

Huangmei Opera - Originally from Hubei province, Huangmei Opera is transformed in neighboring Anhui Province into a more standard opera, albeit, one with a distinctly non-mainstream style

· Yueju Opera - China's youngest "old" opera, Yueju Opera becomes a fixture on China's cultural landscape, though Yueju Opera differs radically from all other Chinese opera forms


TOPSong period Nanxi: the original Chinese opera, or xiqu, emerges

Chinese opera seems to have originated in southern China during the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty, and oddly enough, it seems to have originated there as a true folk theatre, in contrast to Chinese opera's later development, which was performed mainly for the pleasure of members of the royal court.* Whereas the later, classical Chinese opera of the royal court was restricted to formal, or classical, Chinese language, nanxi (meaning "southern drama") performances were characterized by the use of the vernacular. Friendship, love, loyalty and betrayal were everyday themes common to nanxi.

Nanxi performances accordingly attracted very large crowds, although it was more than the operatic performances of the nanxi showmen that attracted such large crowds. Part of the attraction was the many other marketplace activities that took place under the same roof as housed the nanxi opera, such as Vaudeville-like slapstick comedy, acrobatics and magic (sleight-of-hand), not to speak of the myriad of tea houses and brothels and other small shops and stands housing fortune tellers, gamblers and other creative entrepreneurs offering their special wares or services, all of which was part and parcel of this medieval Chinese folk tradition, where everything from food & drink to texts & textiles - as well as other, more mundane pleasures - were hawked. These circus-like marketplaces were called Waziyuepeng ("amusement center") in Chinese, though sometimes referred to as Washa.

Nanxi developed a number of well-defined role categories, or role types: the sheng was a heroic male character; the dan, a heroine (note that in Chinese opera, the female role was for centuries played by a male made up to resemble a female); and there was a string of other role types of which we know little today, except for their names, due to the fact that much of the official record has been lost. In fact, due to the fact that nanxi employed colloquial language and an unsophisticated literary style, this important people's theatre was overlooked by contemporary chroniclers of Chinese theatre, with the result that much of the theatre's material presumably disappeared completely. Only 20 odd plays still exist, though more recent historians have discovered an additional 260 or so titles. The sheng and dan role types, however, became standard fixtures in the Chinese opera that was to continue for centuries after nanxi made its appearance during the Song Dynasty.


* Earlier forms of "opera" (not xiqu, or real opera) of course existed prior to the emergence of nanxi (eg., the Pear Garden "opera" - see Kunqu under CENTRAL CHINA below), but these were mainly for the benefit of the royal palace. It should also be noted that there are competing claims regarding the original xiqu, with some scholars insisting that kunqu, not nanxi, was the first real opera form as defined above.



TOPYuan period Zaju: poetic drama & acrobatics are set to music

A modern-day neutral observer (a neutral observer of the historical record, that is) is sorely tempted to conclude that the emergence of the Chinese theatrical genre, zaju, occured not with the blessings of the ruling Mongols of the Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty, but in protest to this "foreign" rule after the Mongols had definitively toppled the Jin (CE 1115-1234) Dynasty in northern China, which unwelcome rule had resulted in the abolition of the Civil Service Examination, much admired by Chinese scholars, that had been established in 1237 under Han Chinese rule as part of a general reform of Chinese society away from it's feudal past, where nepotism and cronyism, not merit based on intellectual prowess, had determined the individual's relative position of power and wealth.

How ever it arose, the new artistic genre zaju was an innovation as it combined poetic drama with acrobatics, set to music (the name zaju is derived from this combination of artistic forms), yet it clearly qualifies as xiqu (Chinese opera). Paintings from the period suggest that the artistic community that participated in zaju included more than just actors and acrobats, as scholars, physicians, astrologers, and other educated folk were depicted alongside common laborers, peasants, and other artists such as magicians and soothsayers - and even prostitutes - which oddity in itself only fuels speculation as to whether this unlikely group of disparate types were not brought together by the perceived need to do common cause against what was felt to be a foreign influence, perhaps also because many of these individuals no longer had access to well-paid jobs, having been deprived of the very vehicle which had earlier paved their way to such jobs, the Civil Service Examination.


TOPMing period Kunqu: the fully-blossomed romantic opera of the royal court appears

As an opera genre, kunqu (literally, "songs of kun", "kun" being the shortened form of "kunshan", where "shan" means "mountain") - also known as kunshanqiang - evolved as a refinement of the earlier kunshan diao theatre which had originated in Kunshan, near Shanghai, in the coastal province of Jiangsu. While nanxi and zaju had been more folk-oriented operas, that is, operas which received their impetus primarily from the bottom up, as it were, kunqu (pronounced "kwin chu") was more of a top-down inspired opera genre. That said, it would be unfair to compare kunqu with earlier forms of "opera" commissioned by the royal court.

Whereas earlier forms of song-and-dance exhibitions such as the Pear Garden "opera" troupe commissioned by Emperor Xuanzong (CE 712-755) of the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty could be considered as somewhat effete royal demonstrations, far removed from the lives of ordinary people, the Chinese opera of the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty - given the advancements of Chinese society away from its feudalistic past (there was a burgeoning administator and merchant class in China during the period) and given the special circumstances of the migration of massive numbers of Han Chinese peoples southwards as a consequence of warring in the north during the Jin Dynasty and in response to the comparatively harsh Mongol rule (compared to the previous rule) of the Yuan Dynasty - was something of a cultural renaissance for what was believed to be the cradle of Chinese culture, i.e., central China. It was in this much more complexly socially-stratified Chinese society - compared to the more feudalistic Chinese society of the Tang Dynasty - with its spirit of renewed hope and vitality, that the refined, scholarly-directed romantic drama of kunqu opera saw the light of day.*

A leading member of the culturati of the period, Wei Liangfu (1522-1573, circa), dramatist and author of the book, Rules for Kunqu Tunes, collaborated with a number of other dramatists to standardize the rules of rhyme, tone, pronunciation and notation of earlier forms of xiqu, from nanxi to kunshan diao, and in the process created the new romantic theatre that would be known thereafter as kunqu opera, although the performances were strictly intended for royal audiences. The most famous kunqu dramatist and playwright was Tang Xianzu (1550-1616), dubbed 'the Shakespeare of China' by later chroniclers of Chinese opera. Tang Xianzu refined the harmonic structure of the kunqu song style, rendering it even more "romantic", a feature that was especially popular with female members of the royal court.

So popular were the romantic musical arrangements of Tang Xianzu, in fact, that his style became the standard for romantic opera for generations to come. The romantic themes of kunqu opera, combined with kunqu's refined, classical language, its subdued dancing sequences and the restrained manner in which kunqu plots unfolded appealed especially to cultured audiences.

Kunqu opera became the dominant dramatic form throughout China, having spread, by the end of the 16th century, to the rest of China (kunqu, or kun, developed Northern Kun, Xiang Kun, Chuan Kun and Ning Kun branches as a sort of precursor to the later "schools" of Chinese opera), where it would remain the most prestigious form of Chinese drama for the next 200 years. It should be noted that kunqu remains alive and well in today's China (indeed, it is considered as the most sublime literary form of Chinese opera ever created, which automatically places kunqu in an elitist, non mass-consumption category), where it is performed in major theatres round about the country, including in Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou, Nanjing, Chenzhou, Wenzhou and Hangzhou, as well as in the capital of Taiwan, Taipei.

* As indicated, some scholars of Chinese opera insist that kunqu was the first genuine xiqu, and indeed, the UNESCO Proclamation 2001 on Kunqu Opera, which recognizes kunqu as "one of the oldest forms of Chinese opera still performed today", though it stops short of claiming that kunqu is the original and first example of xiqu, suggests that kunqu is at least a valid competitor to that title.


A fully developed Chinese institution by the middle of the 19th century, with roots a century earlier in kunqu, Peking Opera becomes a thriving opera school throughout China>

An offshoot of kunqu opera introduced into the capital city of Peking (Beijing) in the middle of the 18th century by theatre troupes arriving there from Anhui Province farther to the south eventually developed into Peking Opera, having in the process absorbed influences from other local opera styles such as Hopeh, Shansi, and Wuhan on the one hand, and, on the other hand, having merged with the so-called Han opera from the Hanshui River area in Hubei Province, also newly arrived in Peking, during the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty Emperor Qianlong's reign (1735-1796).

The melding of the Han opera with the offshoot kunqu opera was more than happenstance, however, as there had been many and frequent exchanges between the Hanshui and Anhui opera troupes prior to their meeting in Peking, therefore it was only natural that the newly arrived Han opera would join its old comrades from Anhui in a common cause, rather than establish a separate opera genre in the capital city. The new opera style was eventually known as ching hsi, or "capital (city) play", which is synonymous with "Peking Opera" in the English language. Its major tunes, the xipi and the erhuang, were borrowed from the Hanshui opera that had been absorbed into the new joint capital city opera.

Chinese opera in general had developed four main character types: the male (sheng), the female (dan), the painted face (jing), and the clown (chou). The jing was generally a male figure, typically a warrior, a statesman, an adventurer or a demon (as indicated, the difference in makeup, headdress and costume would identify the specific jing figure in question). Peking Opera scripts included passages for song, poetry, dance and allusive martial arts movements, all choreographed to the accompanying music. To aid the audience in navigating a play's storyline, Peking opera troupes made use of a series of conventions, or cues, whose complexly layered meanings were expressed in time with the accompanying music.

The costumes of the Peking Opera, at least those for court performances, were colorful and elaborate. The troupes which made up the Peking Opera in the capital city performed namely on the sly in local tea houses, though most likely not dressed in full regalia, as they often lacked adequate halls in which to rehearse their official performances. In this fashion, Peking Opera was introduced to ordinary people already at an early stage in its development, as those who frequented the tea houses in question began to appear specifically to see the troupes rehearse. The theatre troupes continued to earn their living solely via the income paid them by the royal palace, at least officially, though one naturally wonders whether some establishments, notably, those which changed from being simple tea houses to perhaps establishments serving alcoholic beverages as well as a solid meal, did not perhaps offer a compensation to the artists in question for "services rendered".

It was perhaps a not very well-kept secret that ordinary people were thus able to see theatrical performances intended for the royal palace. In any case, the practice was eventually accepted by the palace, and it may even have evolved into a commercial theatre in the sense that the public paid admission to see the regular performances, not just rehearsals, though no concrete evidence of this exists. One can also readily imagine that members of the royal circle who were highly appreciative of the performances of the opera troupes may have come to feel that part and parcel of the creativity of the artists in question was dependent on the troupes' interaction with a more ordinary public, who no doubt also appreciated these theatrical performances.

In general, Chinese society was evolving rapidly, with wealth and status being spread far and wide, not only in the capital city, since many purveyors to the royal court as well as administrators, scholars, artists and artisans, etc., were from the provinces, to which they eventually returned with their accumulated wealth. Indeed, as earlier mentioned the very artists who jointly formed the original Peking Opera were from two such provinces, namely, Anhui and it neighboring province, Hubei.

Peking Opera has continued up to this day, and is not likely ever to disappear, given its status as a standard-bearer for Chinese culture worldwide. Peking Opera has namely become an institution and a "school", or opera style, with a select few, albeit major, Chinese cities boasting their own "Peking Opera", such as the Tianjin Peking Opera Theatre and the Shanghai Peking Opera Theatre in mainland China, and the Taipei Li-Yuan Peking Opera Theatre on Taiwan. In addition, Peking Opera troupes exist in Japan and in the United States.

(To learn more about Peking/ Beijing Opera - specifically, the roles, the costumes, the music and the instruments used in the opera's lavish productions, as well as the opera's most famous actors and actresses down through history - go to China Facts > Chinese Arts > Chinese Opera > Beijing Opera, on this website.)


Originally from Hubei province, Huangmei Opera is transformed in neighboring Anhui Province into a more standard opera, albeit, one with a distinctly non-mainstream style

Huangmei Opera started as a local song-and-dance repertoire in Huangmei County in the tea-growing region of Hubei Province (the same province that gave birth to the Han opera that would join forces with an offshoot kunqu opera group from Anhui Province, famously becoming the Peking Opera) known as Lanyang Plateau, and in roughly the same time period in which Peking Opera was born. The repertoire of Huangmei Opera consisted of the short ditties that were sung by local laborers as an accompaniment to tea picking ("caicha"), which is why Huangmei Opera was also known as "Caicha Opera".

The story goes that before the government of the People's Republic of China came to power, the rivers and lakes of many parts of China, including the region surrounding Huangmei, often burst their banks, causing widespread flooding. It was during one such flooding period that the Huangmei opera troupe ended up in neighboring Anhui Province, where it established itself as a new form of song-and-dance entertainment in the city of Anqing, the then capital of Anhui Privince, albeit, initially only during festivals and on other special occasions, but eventually developing into a somewhat more standard opera with more elaborate costumes and more polished roles for its actors, although, with respect to costumes and role types, Huangmei Opera cannot be compared to more traditional Chinese opera forms (and may not even qualify as xiqu).

The uniqueness of the early Huangmei Opera lay in the fact that its songs were very high-pitched - the singer quickly reached a high pitch and remained there for the duration - a feature which put exceptional demands on the performers, since not everyone is capable of such sustained, high-pitch performances. The uniqueness of Huangmei Opera's caicha tunes set this opera style distinctly apart from all other extant Chinese opera styles of the period. Huangmei Opera, like nanxi opera before it, was truly a folk opera, performed by and for ordinary people. The short operas often obliquely poked fun at the upper classes by portraying the "problems" faced by the privileged, which "problems" were of course of a completely different caliber than the stark, existential problems faced by ordinary people.

Huangmei Opera has continued to define itself in a separate category compared to mainstream Chinese opera. Accordingly, the "costumes" seen at Huangmei Opera performances today might resemble the everyday dress of a simple housewife, a factory worker, or a secretary. The emphasis is on the acting/ singing and the music - and here the genres are much more wide-ranging than in traditional Chinese opera - rather than on the visual impact. Moreover, during the first ever China Shakespeare Festival in 1986, the Anhui Provincial Huangmei Opera Troupe staged a Chinese adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing.


China's youngest "old" opera, Yueju Opera becomes a fixture on China's cultural landscape, though Yueju Opera differs radically from all other Chinese opera forms

Yueju Opera (alternatively, Yue Opera) came into being in 1906 on the origins of a much older (800 years old, circa) opera tradition that called itself Luodi Changshu Diao and which was popular in the city of Shaoxing in present-day Shengzian County, Zhejiang Province (Luodi Changshu Diao is sometimes also referred to as Shaoxing Opera, and occasionally as Shaoxing Clapper Opera, due to the opera's use of sandalwood clappers, which, together with drums, created the original opera's simple "didu" music). The most impressive fact about Yue Opera is that it has become the second-largest opera form in China, after Peking Opera, though maintaining such a prominent position is a constant struggle.

Initially, Yueju Opera was composed of males only, i.e., all female roles were performed by males. Today, the inverse applies: Yueju Opera is composed strictly of females, with male roles being performed by females. The songs of Yueju Opera are soft and melodious, and delivered in a restrained, refined style. The opera, which continues to adapt to modern influences in order to remain relevant to its evolving audiences, reformed itself in the 1950s, incorporating elements of drama, kunqu, and even Western music.

The earlier sketchy plays which were only loosely constructed (the actors ad-libbed within the rough outline of the sketch) were replaced by standard plays with detailed scripts and with a director to manage the rehearsals and stage the finished product. In 1938 women actors replaced the all-male crew, and special costumes harking back to Chinese opera's traditional past were introduced, albeit, together with modern stage settings, lighting, and orchestral arrangements often played on Western musical instruments. All of these diverse initiatives have helped to make Yueju Opera popular with both Chinese audiences as well as with tourists and official visitiors.

As of 2005 there were 112 private Yueju opera troupes registered in Shengzhou, the original and current hometown of Yueju Opera. These troupes give some 36,000 performances each year, including road performances. However, it is generally recognized that if Yueju Opera had not left Shengzhou in search of work opportunites in nearby Shanghai, Yueju Opera would either have disappeared altogether, or would have been reduced to a small, countryside opera. The artistic challenges and opportunities that a major metropolis like Shanghai offered the Yueju opera troupes at the time transformed Yueju Opera into the vibrant and resilient opera form that lovers of Yueju Opera enjoy today.


There are a number of lesser-known local folk operas in China. These currently include the following non-exhaustive, alphabetical list:

· Fangshan Drum Dance - not an opera form per se, it consists of allusive movements and costumes representing the sparrow as it spreads its wings, pecks, sits on its eggs, etc., to the accompaniment of drums, gongs and cymbals

· Gaojia Opera - also an older opera-like form from Fujian Province that was famous for its clown role, but transformed itself into a more traditional opera style under the influence of Hui Opera and Peking Opera, as well as under the influence of the music of the city of Yiyang, Hunan Province

· Hebei Bangzi ("Wooden Clapper") Opera - apart from the oddity of the music, this opera style is close to that of Peking Opera

· Huaguxi Opera - also known as China's spicy opera, since it deals with problems of gender as well as with social satire and the class struggle

· Hunan Flower-Drum Opera - with a large repertoire of folk-opera pieces that are especially popular during lantern ceremonies and the like

· Huju Opera - the opera of Huju, a smaller city near Shanghai, is performed mainly at private weddings and the like, being sung/ recited in Shanghai dialect

· Min Opera - a 300-year-old traditional opera style from Fujian Province, sung/ recited in the Fuzhou ("of Fujian") dialect

· Sichuan Opera - it is heavily laden with acrobatics and mask-changing sequences

· Qinqiang, or Luantan, Opera - a rural opera from Shaanxi Province which, like the opera in Hebei, specializes in bangzi, or the wooden clapper

28 people have added this page to their favorites. Click here to add this page to your favorites.

Help us improve our web site by Editing This Article.

Topics about Chinese Opera

Topics Topics
Beijing Opera
Contribute a New Article


There are 1 questions about Chinese Opera:




Become our volunteers

Adervertising With Us!

|About Us |Site Map |Contact Us |FAQ|Copyright | Terms & Conditions | Privacy Policy |

| Links & Resources | Advertising With Us | China Travel Tools |