Birth of Peking Opera

Peking Opera has a history of only about 200 years. There are other Chinese opera genres that came into existence much earlier, like Kun Opera for example, that was developed already in the 14th century. It is said that Peking Opera had its birth in 1790, when four opera troupes from the province of Anhui came to Beijing to perform on the occasion of the 80th birthday of the Emperor. Soon afterwards, some other theater companies from the region of Hubei followed. Over the years, Peking Opera was formed through the combination of various music and performing techniques. Basically, Peking Opera never has been an exclusive art form, from the beginning it was enjoyed both by the imperial court and the common people, so a wide range of audiences from all social classes was generated. Initially, exclusively male performers were allowed to participate in a play. Only from the 1870ies on, women made appearances on the stage. Even though, male performers continued to be highly popular in Dan roles.

From the capital to the rest of China

From 1860 on, numerous mobile companies spread Peking Opera all over China. By the end of the 19th century, Peking Opera had become the most acclaimed opera form in China. Beijing was the center of the theater scene. The Qianmen area in the south of the Forbidden City had developed into a flourishing commercial center packed with theaters, tea houses and restaurants which hosted all kinds of artistic activities and where Peking Opera became a part of daily culture. It became the home of a multitude of famous Peking Opera artists. New structures were introduced for managing theaters and Peking Opera companies.

From teahouses to theaters

Originally Peking Opera was performed in a xiyuanzi, which means "tea courtyard". Back then, people sat on benches facing one another and costumers paid only for the tea, not for the shows. Peking Opera was just some kind of side entertainment; performances sometimes had a duration of up to 12 hours. This changed with the introduction of the so-called old style theaters where all benches were installed in a way facing the stage. Until 1931, the audience was separated; the men were sitting in the stalls and the women on the balconies. During the period of the Republic of China (1911-1949) theaters transformed and became comparable to Western stages.

Peking Opera in the world

One of the most outstanding figures of Peking Opera, Mei Lanfang, was the first Peking Opera actor to perform with his company abroad. His interpretation of Dan roles is legendary and from his style a whole new performing school developed. From the 1920ies on Mei Lanfang visited countries like Japan and the United States, where he achieved extraordinary success. Since then, Peking Opera has been shown throughout the world and has been at the forefront of cultural exchange. In 2010 Peking Opera was declared Intangible Cultural Heritage by the UNESCO.


Classic Plays

Some of the classic plays written during the Qing period could hardly be performed today. Many of them consist of more than 24 acts; to rehearse them would take years and to stage them several days. The epic play called Shengpingbaofa ("The Precious Raft of Exalted Peace"), commissioned by the Peking Opera-fan Emperor Qianlong, tells the story of a monk and his three companions travelling to the West in search of Buddhist scriptures. The play was adapted from the tale "Journey to the West", one of the four great classic Chinese novels, and consists of no less than 240 acts!

Today, audiences usually view Peking Opera in a concentrate form, the zhezi xi, which is a one-act performance of a play that originally included multiple acts. It is the highlight of a drama, which people never get tired of watching. As a general rule, a successful full-length opera contains one or two acts that can be staged separately as a zhezi xi.

Peking Opera plays can be distinguished in 'civil plays' (wenxi) and 'martial plays' (wuxi). Civil plays focus on the relationships between characters, and tell stories of love and intrigue. In these types of plays principally dan and older roles appear on stage. A famous excerpt of a civil play is, for example, "Farewell my Concubine", which describes the last moments of a conqueror and his favorite concubine. Martial plays generally focus on action, acrobatics and martial arts; young sheng, jing, and chou use to be the main characters. "At the Crossroads", a highly entertaining piece which features a blind combat, is a good example of a martial play.

Stage & Props

In Peking Opera, audiences are given great room for imagination; the props traditionally included only "a table and two chairs". In modern plays, a painted stage-curtain is often set in the back picturing the location where the scene takes place. While performing, actors and actresses use many different tools and objects, such as whips, trays, weapons, boxes and others. According to their position on the stage and the way the performer interacts with them, these objects can represent a variety of concrete things and abstract concepts. They are highly symbolic and the participation of the audience is always required in order to understand their function in different situations.

Let's take a table, for example: it can serve as a bed, a support for observing a distant object from a great height, a bridge, a gate tower, a mountain, or even a cloud. Or think of a chair, which could serve as a weapon for characters. So if an actor that holds a riding whip with tassels, what could it mean? Of course, he is sitting on a horse.

Besides real and tangible objects, there are also plenty of virtual props and imaginary tools, whose shape and function are suggested by the mimic movements of the performers. In "Picking up a Jade Bracelet" for example, a girl stitches a cloth shoe sole. While the sole is real and tangible, the needle is imaginary.

Music & Orchestra

Unlike Western operas, which are known by the name of their composer, Peking Opera music is not really created by a composer, but based on sets of traditional codified tunes. The singing mainly follows two sets of tunes, called xipi, used to express an excited mood such as happiness, anger or agitation, and erhuang, used to express a subdued mood such as loss in deep thought, sorrow and melancholy. Words come mostly but not necessarily in five-character or seven-character sentences (each Chinese character corresponding to one syllable).

Differently from Western operas, in which the orchestra is set in the pit, the Peking Opera orchestra is normally placed on one side of the stage and often hidden from the audience's sight. It is divided in two parts called 'divisions': civil division (wenchang) and military division (wuchang). Civil division's main function is to accompany singing; it features instruments like the jinghu, which has the leading role, the yueqin and the pipa. Military division's main function is to accompany acting, dancing and fighting; it features percussion instruments like drums (leader), wooden clappers, gongs and cymbals.



The roles in Peking opera are differentiated into fixed character types: sheng (male role), dan (female role), jing (painted faces), and chou (male clowns). Different singing and acting techniques gave birth to various schools. Each type of character has its own set of performance conventions.


The sheng is the main male role in Peking opera, which has numerous subtypes. For example, the laosheng is a dignified older role with a gentle and cultivated disposition. Young male characters as xiaosheng sing in a high, shrill voice with occasional breaks. The wusheng is a martial character for roles involving combat who is highly trained in acrobatics and has a natural voice when singing.

The dan refers to any female role in Peking opera. Dan roles were originally divided into five subtypes. Old women were played by laodan, martial women were wudan, young female warriors were daomadan, virtuous and elite women were qingyi, and vivacious and unmarried women were huadan. A troupe will have a young Dan to play main roles, as well as an older Dan for secondary parts.


The jing is a painted face male role. Depending on the repertoire of the particular troupe, he will play either primary or secondary roles. Jing will entail a forceful character that has a strong voice and is able to exaggerate gestures. There are 15 basic facial patterns, but over 1000 specific variations of those. Each design is unique to a specific character.

The chou is a male clown role. The chou usually plays secondary roles in a troupe. Indeed, most studies of Peking opera classify the chou as a minor role. Chou roles can be divided into wenchou, civilian roles such as merchants and jailers, and wuchou, minor military roles. Chou characters are generally amusing and likable, if a bit foolish. Their costumes range from simple for characters of lower status to elaborate for high status characters.

Makeup & Costume

The richness of colors and patterns of the makeup and costumes is probably one of the most astonishing features of Peking Opera. Each role has its meaningful makeup and each costume gives fundamental information about the nature of the characters.

The makeup of dan and sheng roles is sometimes regarded as 'beautifying makeup' (junban) and is relatively simple: first a layer of oil-based white make-up is applied; then peach-red rouge is applied by hand starting with the eyebrows and followed by the eyes and cheeks; after that, water-based black ink is used to draw thick black lines around the eyes and eyebrows; finally, the lips are highlighted with color. The entire process lasts less than one hour.

Jing and chou roles' makeup, called 'mask-like facial makeup' (lianpu) is far more complex. What makes especially jing characters such a fascinating part of Peking Opera is the fact that the pattern painted upon their faces can reveal their personalities. Whether brave, loyal or treacherous, an experienced viewer of Peking Opera only needs one glance on the face of a jing to know his true nature.

Jing faces can be distinguished according to their colors: red indicates uprightness and loyalty; black qualifies a rough and forthright character; blue signifies bravery and pride; white marks treachery. Jing faces can be also distinguished according to their facial patterns, including the way eyes, eyebrows, forehead, nose and mouth are drawn. Up to twenty-six types of eyebrows, for example, can be recognized: 'sawtoothed eyebrows', 'duck's egg eyebrows', 'butterfly eyebrows', 'willow-leaf eyebrows', 'bat eyebrows', 'sword eyebrows' and many others.

A typical make-up kit contains brushes, water-based paints, powder and oil-based paints. The facial patterns of a jing character are most often painted with a brush, but they can be applied by hand as well. The face-painter must take into account the individual shape and features of the face upon he is working. Except for famous and respected performers, which have a makeup assistant, the actor who impersonates the jing usually paints his face by himself.

The major costumes can be divided into four main groups: mang, a court robe worn only by imperial family members, prime ministers, or generals; pei, worn as casual clothing by imperial members or upper-class persons; kao, a kind of armor, worn by warriors; zhezi, worn as casual clothes by middle class and ordinary persons. Everything else goes under the umbrella term yi, 'clothes'. Each group actually includes countless sub-categorization and variations, different from one another in terms of colors and patterns. Beside the robes, costumes consist of elaborated and colorful shoes and accessories, such as crowns, helmets, hats, caps, hairstyles, belts and many others. Many costumes are specific for only one character.

Cao Cao, the treacherous warlord of the Three Kingdom period (AD 220-280) wears a mang.


The plain black muslin hat, squared-shaped and with two wings, indicates an influential ruler.
The thick black beard made of yak feather is typical for jing roles, who are often military leaders. The black color suggests that the character is middle-aged. A grey or white beard would belong to an older jing.
Jade belts are used to indicate the status of nobles and high officials, both for female and male characters.
The red color indicates nobility. The mang decorated with "water-spitting dragon" patterns indicates Cao Cao's thirst for conquest. Traditionally, only the emperor would be allowed to have his robe decorated with dragons.
An open overcoat with dragon patterns is worn by military leaders.
The thick-soled boots are a common kind of footwear for both jing and sheng. The ticker is the sole, the higher is the character's status.

Sun Shangxiang, the deft and deadly woman warrior, sister of Emperor Da of Wu Kingdom (AD 182-252), wears a kao.


The fine "seven-stars" diadem consists of three rows of seven pom-poms each. A pair of long feathers is set on the diadem. During the battle, the feathers shake and wave, giving the character an aura of majesty.
The decorative cape, in Chinese named literally "cloud shawl" is worn around the neck and supported by the shoulders. In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), this dress was worn by women of all strata, especially during holidays or weddings.
The "firm" armor, usually adorned with flags, indicates that the character is fully armed and ready for the battle. It can be worn by both male and female characters. Another less elaborated type of armor is often worn by warriors during ceremonies and social occasions.

Xiao Qiao, the devoted wife of general Zhou Yu (AD 175-210), loyal to the rulers of Wu Kingdom, wears a pei.


Crown jewel
Jeweled ornaments
Blue filigree ornaments pins
The datou is the most common qingyi hairstyle with bun. The hairstyle requires many steps to be completed. Firstly, cloth strips are used to stretch the skin of the forehead. Then hairs are attached: some curls at the top of the forehead, and other tufts on the sides of the head and along the cheeks. Hair pins are then inserted. A wig and padding are slipped on and tied into a bun in the back of the head. Finally, additional hair ornaments, jewelry and flowers are fixed.
The pink color and the peony patterns are typical for young dan characters.

Xu Xian, the humble scholar who falls in love with the legendary White Snake, wears a zhezi.


"Duck-tail" cloth hat: hat worn by common people in ancient China. High and narrow in shape, it bends slightly forwards; it has tassels on top representing a duck tail.
Collar with two patterned stripes.
Light-blue zhezi: the lilac gown is often worn by scholars who are from poor families or who have failed many times in imperial examinations.
"Good fortune shoes" with embroidered character shou (long life). Usually worn by elderly commoners (laodan or laosheng), also by the wenxiaosheng.

Skills and Training

Peking Opera and the Western Opera differ from one another in many ways. One of the main differences lies in the skills a performer needs to master, and consequently, in his training. The Peking Opera performer should be well-versed in singing, recitation, acting and acrobatics.

Singing. The vocal music system in the West is divided into tenor, baritone, bass, soprano, mezzo-soprano and alto. It is up to the composer which vocal range he chooses for example for the role of a young man. The vocal music system in Peking Opera is entirely different. Each role has its own particular singing style, and inside each role category, many other different singing patterns can be distinguished. For example with respect to the dan roles, the role of laodan (elderly woman) mainly uses the real voice, whereas the role of qingyi (young woman) uses mainly falsetto. A performer can play any role as long as he or she masters the singing style of that particular role. An actress can play the role of a painted face - a male character, whereas a male actor can play a dan (female) role.

Recitation. Recitation tells the story, whereas singing is more concerned with expression of emotions. The performer speaks in changbai, a speaking technique different from the daily speaking, in which honorific terms abound. The actor rises or muffles his voice and lengthens certain syllables to create a specific rhythm. The goal is never to imitate a conversation in a realistic way.

Acting. The Peking Opera actor possesses fine mimic skills. Without the support of complementary stage design, he has to describe the situation and the environment around him through his gestures. When the actor makes his appearance on the stage followed by a servant holding a light, the audience immediately understands that the scene takes place during the night; he opens and closes a door where there is no door at all on the stage; he mounts or dismounts a horse, boards a ship or leaves it.

Acrobatics. Acrobatics has been for long Peking Opera's most appreciated feature by Westerners. Performers' acrobatic skills are mostly displayed in the form of martial arts. Combats are often the highlight of martial plays; the audience's interest is hold by a crowded punch-up or the reckoning between two bitter enemies.

Since a good Peking Opera performer has to master so many different skills, the apprenticeship can be very rough and challenging. Chen Kaige's famous movie Farewell My Concubine, remarkably described how the hard training for Peking Opera performers looked like at the turn of the 19th century. Pupils were sent away from home to schools, where their teacher trained them during a period of seven years. After the Japanese invasion of China in 1931, the schools were closed down. New schools with a completely different approach to the art reopened in the fifties.

Today as in the past century, performers are first trained in acrobatics, followed by singing and acting. Modern schools teach the art of performance as well as some theory. The education of a Peking Opera performer still consists in face-to-face tutoring; the teacher valuates the students and, assigns them the roles of primary, secondary, or tertiary characters according to their talent. Promising students perform as main characters, while students endowed with less performing talent may serve as musicians.