Beijing Opera (Peking Opera) of China is a national treasure with a history of over 200 years. In the 55th year of the reign of Emperor Qianlong in the Qing Dynasty (1790), the four big Huiban (from Anhui Province) Opera Troupes entered the capital. This was the very beginning for Beijing Opera to evolve to be an important branch of Chinese performing arts. For over half a century of combination and integration of various kinds of regional operas including Kun Qu, Qin Qiang and Bang Zi and other local operas, there came into being the present Beijing (Peking) opera, the most influential kind of opera in China.
Beijing Opera Music & Instrument
The music of Beijing Opera combines the Er Huang tune from Anhui Opera, the Xi Pi tune from Hanju (Hubei Opera), and tunes and musical accompaniment of from Kunqu (Kunshan Opera). Typical Chinese musical instruments are used in a Beijing Opera orchestra. The two-stringed fiddles Jing Hu and Er Hu are two of the main instruments. Other instruments include Sheng (reed pipes), Yue Qin (moon shaped mandolin, Pi Pa (the Chinese lute), Suo Na (the Chinese clarinet), drums, bells, gongs, and hardwood castanets.
Springing singing in Beijing Opera consists of a score of many melodies based on Xi Pi and sorrowful feelings. Spoken dialogue is in two forms: Yun Bai, which sounds like the Hubei and Anhui dialects, and Jing Bai, which sounds like the Beijing dialect. The former is used by main and serious characters and the latter for minor and frivolous roles.
Beijing Opera Symbolism
Symbolism prevails in Beijing Opera. The stage of Beijing Opera knows no limit in space or time. It can be the setting for any action. The performer's acting is mostly pantomime. Footwork, gestures, and various kinds of body movements can portray and symbolize the actions of opening a door, climbing a hill, going upstairs, or rowing a boat. When a girl is doing needlework, she has neither a needle nor thread in her hands. When a lady is riding in a carriage, the performer actually has to walk flanked on each side by a flag with colored tassels representing riding a horse. Four generals and four soldiers represent an army of thousands. In a word short, each action of a performer of Beijing Opera is highly symbolic.
Roles in Beijing Opera
The roles in Beijing Opera are divided into four main types according to the gender, age, social status, and profession of the character. Literally Sheng, Dan, Jing, Chou," for instance, are just the terms for four different types of roles. "Sheng" is the positive male role, "Dan" is the positive female role, "Jing" is a supporting male role with striking character and "Chou" is the clown. Every type has its own facial makeup and decoration.
Sheng has some sub-categories, including Senior, Junior, Acrobatic, Junior Acrobatic, Child, Red-face, Poor, Official, etc. These are classified according to the role's characteristics. Male roles are either civil or military. The actors themselves are mainly trained for three main parts: Senior Male Role or Lao Sheng, a middle-aged or old man who wears a beard, Junior Male Role or Xiao Sheng, a young man; and Acrobatic Male Role or Wu Sheng, a man of military tenor, especially skilled in acrobatics.
The Dan or female role can be divided into six main parts which principally indicate character; Qing Yi, modest and virtuous; Hua dan, flirtatious; Gui Men Dan, a young unmarried girl; Dao Ma Dan, a stronger, more forceful character, usually a woman general; Wu Dan, the female acrobat; and Lao Dan, an old woman.
A Qing Yi actress portrays a lady of good and sympathetic character. Usually of a quiet, gentle disposition and graceful in her movements, she is the Chinese ideal of a beautiful woman. As a wife she is faithful, as a young girl a model of propriety. Her good breeding is shown by the graceful, flowing movements of her 'water sleeves'. The Qing Yi's costume is elegant, simple and of good quality, but not as vivid in color as that of the Hua Dan. Her singing is in a pure, high-pitched voice.
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