by Sherry Jin
The Beijing Opera is a form of traditional Chinese theater, dating back to the 18th Century, where the performers use speech, song, dance, and combat movements to tell stories.
The formation of the Beijing Opera took more than 20 years. In 1790，an opera troupe from the south-China city of Anhui came to Beijing to celebrate the Qianlong Emperor’s birthday, and afterwards the group settled in Beijing. In 1828, another famous opera troupe from the south-China city of Hubei arrived in Beijing and joined with the Anhui troupe. Finally, in 1845, the Beijing opera was formed. As the two troupes were established in Beijing and their stories were about Beijing (and event that happened in Beijing), people called it the Beijing Opera or Ping Opera (in that time Beijing was also called Beiping).
Chinese operas have four classifications about their roles: Sheng, Jing, Dan, Chou. The Sheng refers to men, the Dan refers to women. The Chou and Dan both have masks over their faces, and the Chou always play clown roles in the story. However, during the Qing Dynasty, the troupes did not allow women on stage, because the Qianlong emperor had banned all female performers as women did not have social status in that time. Therefore, men had to impersonate female roles on the stage until 1772, when women performed on the stage and declared equality with men.
Besides the Beijing Opera, there are many other operas in China, such as the Anhui Opera, Hubei Opera and Sichuan Opera. In the Anhui Opera’s shows, every sentence has ten or seven words, and the main musical instruments are suona and erhu. The Hubei Opera’s main instrument is banhu, which looks like an erhu, and sikuaiwa, with four small bamboo pieces which rope holds together). Their melodies are both very fast. The Sichuan Opera does not include singing, and they use special techniques to change their masks.
To distinguish the different types of operas, we could say that the Anhui Opera and Hubei Opera pay more attention to melody, while the Sichuan Opera focuses on masks and technique.
Being the most famous opera, the Beijing Opera has combined other operas’ essences. Beijing opera has the melody of Huibei opera and Anhui operas, and the Sichuan opera’s masks. The Beijing Opera also uses different colored costumes to distinguish people’s social status, for example, light yellow cloth means the emperor, while a darker yellow means a prince.
The main stories in the Beijing opera’s stage talk about Chinese history or some famous Chinese stories (for example, ‘Journey to the West’). The performers use speech, song, dance and combat movements to tell stories. Because it talks about history thing which are boring for young people and some language they can not understand (Beijing opera including Anhui language), so during the second half of the 20th century, Beijing opera witnessed a steady decline in audience numbers.
Nowadays some famous singles change Beijing opera’s melody and added some modern music elements, to gain lots of younger people to listen to Beijing opera.