A Short History of Chinese Opera

In 1790, theater companies from all over China arrived in Beijing, to perform for the Qing Emperor Qianlong’s birthday. Here begins the history of the various opera forms as we know them today in China…

Four theater companies from Anhui arrived in Beijing, and their fresh styles of music and theater electrified the capital and eventually came to replace the Kunqu Opera style that had been pre-eminent in the capital for the past two hundred years. Characteristics from other forms of opera, such as Hopeh, Wuhan, and Shansi, were incorporated into the Anhui style.

After a while this form of opera became known as Ching Hsi, or ‘Capital Play.’ Ching Hsi is what we know today as Peking Opera. Because of its long history, Peking Opera encompasses a wide variety of drama, and a wide variety of styles of acting. It emphasizes historical and military plays and can be quite patriotic, and so quite popular. But it is not the only style of opera still extant in China — many regional Opera styles still exist. Some references list more than 300 regional opera styles in China. Among those still popular are Cantonese Opera, Hebei Clapper Opera, and Yue Opera.

Although there are many different regional styles, they all share many similarities. Each have the same four role types: the female, the male, the painted-face, and the clown. Performances consist of singing, poetry, music, dance, and gesture. Emphasis is on costume and makeup rather than props or scenery. The operas often tell the same stories, though with various regional differences, such as alternate endings or additional characters. The information described within this article will, unless otherwise noted, pertain to Peking Opera specifically, and the regional operas more generally.

Toward the end of the Qing dynasty, tea-houses began to double as theaters. Originally, the acting troupes used the tea houses as a place to rehearse plays, since their homes were too small. Business in the tea-houses carried on as before, except the patrons could enjoy the performance during their drinks and conversations. After a time, patrons began frequenting tea houses specifically to see the theater, and in some of these establishments the character for ‘tea’ was dropped from their name. The acting troupes earned their livelihood through performances for the court, though, and not through public performance. At first, actors had to bribe the eunuchs to ensure that word did not get out that they were performing publicly, because the court frowned on such activity. But performance in public tea houses over time became the common and accepted practice.

Chinese opera has many strong female roles, though for most of its history, no females to play them. Women in China, especially of the upper class, had to observe very reserved and controlled conduct, and for the most part confined themselves indoors. A woman who paraded herself on stage would be considered no better than a prostitute. Instead, men would play the female roles. At certain times in opera history, these female impersonators were the greatest stars of the stage. Their peak in popularity occured in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, the best among them widely acknowledged to be Mei Lanfang, whose performances both at home and abroad in Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States, influenced such famous dramatists as Berthold Brecht and Stanislavsky. He also met with and performed for famous actors such as Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. In addition to his mastery of over 100 roles, he also advanced Peking Opera by making significant changes to the costumes, staging, make-up, and texts, in effect creating a number of new plays, including his most famous, Farewell My Concubine.

Beginning in the 1930s, it became acceptable for women to perform in the opera. This led to the gradual disappearance of the female impersonator role, so that now, women almost always play the female roles, even though the mannerisms, vocalisms, and styles of the role were developed when meant to be played by men.

Chinese opera survived the passing of the centuries, the coming and going of dynasties. It survived the end of the Qing dynasty and the warlord era. It survived the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, but not without some famous actors performing for the Japanese and so becoming blacklisted later, their careers destroyed. It even survived the communist revolution — almost.

Jiang Qing, chairman Mao’s wife and a former film actress, denounced the traditional opera for not serving the needs of the masses. No traditional opera was allowed to be performed. Instead, the party promoted what it called the “eight model plays,” which featured the common workers, in plain modern dress and naturalistic sets, promoting communism. When the infamous Gang of Four finally fell from power, traditional opera was restored, though it had lost much of its audience. Many opera schools, facing decreasing returns, were forced to close, and the opera stars entered film, to act and do stunt work.

But even today, traditional opera has a place in modern China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. It tells the stories common to all the Chinese people: the legend of the Monkey King, the epic tales from The Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the countless fairy tales and ghost stories. These timeless tales still resonate today, and ensure that the traditional opera will continue to have its place in modern life.

The Four Opera Character Types

In the Chinese Opera, there are generally four main categories of roles: sheng (the male roles), dan (the female roles), jing (the painted face roles), and chou (clowns). Each category is further subdivided into distinct types. An actor typically trains for a single type of role within one category. Actors who can play multiple types of roles within a single category are considered especially talented. An actor almost never plays roles outside his or her category.

Sheng: There are three main male roles that an actor trains for. The first is Lao Sheng, a middle-aged or old man. The Lao Sheng are dignified and refined. They may be high level scholors or officials, and wear a black hat with fins on either side to denote rank, or a general in a military play, wearing armour. In either case the Lao Sheng wears a beard (black or grey, depending on age). The second type of role is Hsiao Sheng, or young man. The Hsiao Sheng sings in a warbling voice to indicate adolescence, and does not wear a beard.

The third type of role is Wu Sheng, or acrobat, who performs much of the most exciting elements of Chinese Opera. A special Wu Sheng role is that of the Monkey King, featured in a number of operas based on the famous story A Journey to the West.

Dan: There are twice as many female role types as there are male. They are divided according to character, status, and age. Lao Dan is the old woman role. The costume is subdued, no make-up is worn, and the singing voice is natural and therefore lower than that for the other Dan roles. The Wu Dan is the female acrobat, and is equivalent to the Wu Sheng role for the men. A Qing Yi actress is the noblewoman, of good quality and character. She is the model or ideal of the Chinese woman. Faithful, proper, shy, graceful. The Hua Dan, however, is of a lower social status than the Qing Yi, and represents a more feisty, flirtatious young woman. A young woman from a wealthy family, set apart from the world in the family mansion, is called the Gui Men Dan. This character is still young, and will one day grow up to become either a Qing Yi or a Hua Dan. Finally, there is the Dao Ma Dan, or warrior woman. This character typically wears full armour and great peacock feathers in her hat. The famed military heroines of China are all played as Dao Ma Dan. The story of Peking Opera Blues, featuring three extraordinary women heroes, is actually titled ‘Dao Ma Dan’ in Chinese.

Jing: The Painted Face role is the most recognizable part of Chinese Opera. This part is reserved for high-ranking army generals or bandits, warriors or officials. All Jing characters have their faces painted elaborately, the colors on the face indicating the personality and temperment of the character. A white face means treachery, black means uprightness, red indicates courage and virtue, blue denotes cruelty or wild temperment. A mix of multiple colors indicates a more complicated personality.

Chou: The clown is the only role that can break the ‘fourth wall,’ so to speak, and reference current or local events and speak in colloquialisms. Male clowns are easily recognizable because they all wear a distinctive white patch of make-up around the nose and eyes. This same make-up is sometimes used for mean-spirited villains as well. Female clowns do not have the white make-up patch but instead have a reddened face with black eyebrows.


Costumes and Props

On the Chinese Opera stage, scenery and props are sparse. Often, only a table and chairs are set on the stage and to signify various thrones, mountains, and so on throughout the story. A character committing suicide by jumping down a well may in performance simply be stepping off a chair and walking off stage.

In Chinese Opera, it is the actor that must convey the story, through voice, movement, and gestures. Each character, furthermore, wears a distinctive and traditional costume and makeup which cues the audience about their status, and sometimes, about their personality.

Armour: The armour, or K’ao is worn by high military officials. It is a very stiff costume, with brilliant colors and often a design such as a tiger’s head or dragon across the front. A fully armoured actor wears four pennants on their back. Without the pennants, the actor is only partially armoured. The Jing (Painted Face) role often wears armour, and it is also seen on Wu Sheng (Male acrobat) and Dao Ma Dan (Female Warrior) actors.

Hats: There are many different kinds of hats worn in Chinese Opera, in general, these do not stand out from the costume as a whole but rather compliment it. Sheng actors who are portraying scholars or officials will often wear a simple black crepe hat with two fins coming out from the sides. This fins denote an actors character or rank: oblong, almost rectangular fins are worn by high officials, round fins are worn by Ch’ou or comic actors, and diamond or oval shaped fins are worn by treacherous characters (if only it was this easy to tell in real life). Another type of crepe hat has long, thin fins. This type is only worn by prime ministers.

Some of the more striking types of headgear include great pheasant plumes, two of them, of sometimes nearly six or seven feet in length, sprouting from the actors head like antennae. Originally, these were used to indicate that the wearer was an insurgent chief or a minority nationality. But because of their beauty, they were soon adopted by many types of military stage characters.

Sleeves: Sometimes, when watching Peking Opera, I wonder if there were no good tailors in ancient China. At least, they had trouble measuring arms. But no! In fact, the extra length on the sleeves of many of the costumes are Shui Hsiu — water sleeves. Water sleeves are long strips of white silk. These sleeves are flicked to emphasize a point, shaken when angry, stretched out in dance. Typically, all of the high officials costumes have water sleeves.

Of props, there are very few save for the arms of combat such as swords and spears. An umbrella is sometimes carried in an important person’s entourage. Another common prop is the horse whip. Whenever an actor holds out this whip, it symbolically indicates he is riding a horse. The color of the whip sometimes indicates the color of the horse. A duster is often carried by the most exhalted of characters, such as gods, priests, and celestial spirits, whose stories are often told on the opera stage.

Superstition, the Supernatural, and a Fellow Named Meng

In western theater, a number of superstitions have grown up among performers. Many words and phrases are avoided backstage, as they are said to cause bad luck. For example, actors never say “Good Luck” to each other, they say, “break a leg.” Whistling backstage is also said to bring bad luck. As is, most curiously, saying “Macbeth.” When one wishes to discuss Macbeth in the theater, one should always refer to it as “the Scottish play.” In Chinese Opera, similar superstitions exist.

The words Meng and Keng are particularly important. One should never say Meng at the back of the stage, nor Keng at the front of the stage. These prohibitions stem from the story of Yu Meng, a legendary jester who is said to have impersonated a famous scholar at the court as long ago as 403 B.C. The king was so impressed by the impersonation that lavish favors were bestowed (though respectfully declined).

Another superstition involves the doll that Chinese Opera troupes use to represent babies on stage. These dolls possess the soul of the child they represent. Before and after each performance with these dolls, the actors would pay their respects to it. During the performance, it was always left facing the sky, and afterwards, it was always packed facing the earth. The film Attack of the Joyful Goddess explores this superstition in violent, bloody detail.

Since the Opera often concerns itself with the supernatural world, it’s players must be ever more respectful of the laws of that world, and ritual and ceremony must be performed properly and with respect. Tales like the one which begins Hocus Pocus are often told of Chinese Opera troupes who visit a remote town and give a performance, only to find in the morning that the town did not exist and that they were entertaining ghosts. It is traditional that during some Taoist ceremonies, and especially during the Ghost Festival in the seventh month, an Opera Troupe would perform in front of the shrine, to entertain the spirits of that place. Ultimate Vampire begins with a performance of this type. These days, a TV may often be seen facing a shrine to provide similar entertainment to the gods. Though if I were an angry spirit, I can only imagine the suffering I would inflict on anyone who decided to set up a TV in front of MY shrine.

The Patron Saint of Chinese Opera is T’ang Ming Huang. A figure or tablet of T’ang Ming Huang is set up in every theater, and incense was burnt to him before every performance. He was believed to have the power to make each actor perform well or badly. Military actors typically honor another tablet, representing the spirit Wu Ch’ang. This spirit was believed to possess special abilities, including the cruelty needed to wage a successful campaign. Four famous generals from the Warring States period were said to have this spirit’s ability bestowed upon them.

Opening a new theater is a special occasion for ceremony, to ‘purify’ the stage, and drive away devils and harmful spirits. The stage must be doused in dog’s blood or chicken’s blood, while actors appear on the stage dressed as spirits, carrying whips, tablets, and masks. This ceremony thus drives away the devils, placates them, and ensures that they do not appear on stage again.

Chinese Opera in Film

The ties between the Chinese Opera and the film industries of Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan are so so thick and so complex that an entire book could be written on this subject alone. The very first film made in China was an adaptation of a Cantonese opera, Zhuangzi Tests His Wife, in 1913. Since then many different popular operas have been filmed over and over again though the years, hundreds of times. These adaptations of Chinese Opera to film are only the most visible aspect of their symbiotic relationship.

More importantly, many of the most famous actors and stuntmen working in show business were trained in the opera before coming to studios such as Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest to work. The list is a veritable who’s who of Hong Kong cinema: Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, Sammo Hung, Yuen Wah, Yuen Woo-Ping, Lam Ching-Ying, and countless others found their training in the opera prepared them well for a career in the movies. Painted Faces dramatizes the childhood of Jackie and Sammo in Master Yuen’s opera school. It’s a rare Hong Kong movie from the fifties, sixties, seventies, or eighties that does not have at least one current or former opera player in its cast.

In addition, there arefilms in which the Chinese Opera is featured as an important part of the story. Two themes predominate in these tales. The first is the supernatural. As Lam Ching-Ying says in Hocus Pocus, “We are always portraying ghosts and demons in our plays, therefore we must be especially respectful to them.” Indeed, many operas feature spirits of the dead, and Chinese ghost films draw heavily on the opera traditions and conventions.

The second theme is the blurring between life and art, whether by the audience or by the performers. Too often, a powerful patron of the opera is charmed by the leading lady of the troupe, whether she be played by a man or a woman, and goes to great lengths to possess her. Because of their money and their influence, they would get their way, or dire consequences would result. This problem was not unique to China, nor was their attempted solution. Because the performance of a woman on stage would inevitably lead to her rape, theaters were seen as dens of prostitution. To prevent this, women were no longer allowed to perform, and men performed the female roles. The same laws were enacted in Elizabethan England and in Tokugawa Japan. With the same result — the young men selected to play the female roles were raped anyway, and theaters were still seen as dens of prostitution. Thus the audience could not distinguish between the character and the actor, and even today we become likewise infatuated with movie actors and actresses, only now it is the actor who commands the authority and has the money, while the spectator can only look on and dream.



Additional sample on mask or face-painting:

Facial makeup of Xiahou Dun in Peking Opera Mount Dingjun. The blue base tone is used to reflect his upright and courageous personality.



GibbonGibbon with is a wise old ape found in the story Birth of the Stone Monkey who advises the Monkey King to learn Taoism. The Monkey King then goes to the Kunlun Mountains where he meets a supernatural being who teaches him the 72 metamorphoses and how to somersault through the clouds. He returns and strangles the Devil King who occupied his home in the Flower and Fruit Mountain during his absence.

RocRoc symbolizes a monster in the story Lion and Camel Ridge. A guardian of the law at Buddha’s side, he sneaks away to make trouble on earth but is captured and brought back by the Buddha.



Deer ChildDeer Child is a fairy in the story Stealing the Magic Herb. On the Dragon-Boat Festival one year, Xu Xian offers his wife, the White Maid, some magic wine. Unable to resist, she drinks too much and is transformed back into a white snake. Her husband drops dead from terror and she hurries to the Kunlun Mountains to steal a magic herb to revive him. Two guardians of the mountains, Deer Child and Crane Child discover her but she fends them off. They report to their master, Old Fairy of the South Pole, who comes and arrests the girl. But when he learns of her plight, he takes pity on her and gives her some of the life-restoring herb, with which she returns and revives her husband.

Zhongli ChunZhongli Chun has a distinctive blue broken flower on her face and is from the story Banquet on the Xiang River. Zhongli Chun. the wife of King Xuan of Qi of the Spring And Autumn period accompanies her husband to a banquet given by the King of Wei on the bank of the Xiang River. The banquet is a trap to kidnap King Xuan, but Zhongli Chun cleverly foils the plot and helps her husband to escape.

Han Zhongli


Han Zhongli has a red fairy face and is one of the eight immortals in Eight Immortals Cross the Sea.


Xiang YuXiang Yu is the leading character in the story The Prince Bids Farewell to His Favorite. During the wars between the Chu and Han, Prince of Chu was defeated by Liu Bang and trapped at Gaixia. Hearing his enemies singing songs of Chu on all sides of Gaixia, the Prince realizes he his end is near and bids a sad farewell to his concubine, Yu Ji. After performing a sword dance to comfort him, Yu Ji commits suicide. The Prince then fights his way through the enemy and reaches the bank of the Wu River, but feels he can go no further. Defeated and disgraced, he is too ashamed to return home, so instead of crossing the river he kills himself.

Chong GongdaoChong Gongdao with an old clown face is a leading character in Escorting the Woman Prisoner. An old prison guard and a kindhearted man, he escorts a female prisoner/ex-prostitute who is wrongly accused of murder to Taiyuan. Learning of the prisoner’s bitter experiences, he does his best to console her along the way. Eventually he adopts her as his daughter and accompanies her to Taiyuan to help her clear her name.

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