A Wave of His Sleeve

When foreigners say “Chinese theatre”, what they mean is “Peking Opera” (Jingju), the quintessence of Chinese culture, intricate and mysterious like a hieroglyph.    It is one of the youngest cultural phenomena of the Celestial Empire. It is a little over two hundred years old, whereas the history of China’s dramatic art dates back nearly a thousand years.  

Gifts to the Emperor

Like many other metropolitan achievements, opera took its roots in the province.  Then in 1790, the country’s best theatre companies came from there to Beijing for the celebration of Emperor Qianlong’s 80th birthday.  The Emperor liked four of those companies, natives of the Anhui province, so much that he ordered the artists to stay in the capital.   The Guangdelou Theatre, which means as much to the Chinese as the Paris Opéra does to the French or La Scala to the Italians, was opened in 1796 on Dashila’r Street.  Although, it was only in the 19th century that this genre received its official name – jingju or opera of the capital.   Peking Opera absorbed the traditions of the Hubei, Kunqu, and Shaanxi opera, dramatic roles, plots, musical instruments, masks, and elements of martial arts. 

A little over a hundred years later, a brilliant female role performer Mei Lanfang went on his first foreign tour to Japan.  Beijing beauties learned from Mei Lanfang how to be ideal women, while Chinese men would say: if you want to have a happy marriage, find yourself a wife like Mei.   And only once did Mei Lanfang put aside his art – in protest against the Japanese occupation, he grew a moustache and did not perform for eight years.  

The exotic theatre’s triumphant procession across the world began with his tour in 1919, and another sixteen years later our very own Stanislavski marveled at Mei Lanfang’s art during the Chinese actor’s guest performance in the USSR.  Now the Peking Opera’s Grand Theatre bears the name of Mei Lanfang.  

Weeping Hands and Pheasant Feathers


For foreigners Peking Opera is something of an exotic wonder, for the Chinese it’s an open book.  One only needs to know how to read it.  As a rule, the good in this book triumphs over evil.  Love is tested by the affinity of souls and the years spent living together, rather than by passion.   The mundane gets along easily with the supernatural, “truth has a tinge of deception, and deception – a tinge of truth”. Everything is assigned its own place, and nobody doubts the logic of this complex hierarchy and world order. 

A child’s dramatic type is determined as soon as he or she crosses the threshold of the Peking Opera School.  Depending on the beauty (or, conversely, the comicality) of a child’s appearance, the timbre of his or her voice and other qualities, that child becomes Sheng (a positive male character), Dan (a female character), Jing or  Dahualian (“painted face” or what we would call a “character actor”), Chou (a clown; a prestigious role that was, at one time, even performed by Emperor Li Longji himself of the Tang Dynasty) or Mo (a secondary character or a supporting role actor, as we would say). There can be no broadening of a dramatic type – one can only strive upwards, toward perfection.  It is made up of four skills.  Singing (the range of a Chinese actor can cover almost three octaves), recitation, transformation, and body language.  And four methods: play of the hands, play of the eyes, play of the body and the gait.  The stealthy tread of a tiger in the language of Peking Opera means a good soldier, while small steps without lifting one’s feet off the ground signify a venerable matron.  

The usual interior of Peking Opera includes a combination of a table and chairs.  If the chairs are behind the table – be ready for a ceremonial reception or an audience; if they are in front of it – you’ll see idyllic scenes from the life of a simple family; if they are on the sides – be ready for guests.   A flying golden dragon on the tablecloth signifies a palace, while orchids on a light-blue or light-green background, for example, signify a scientist’s office. 

The props are no less expressive.  Thus, a small flag tucked behind a military commander’s belt means nothing less than a ten thousand strong army standing behind him.  The waves of the long sleeves (homage to male performance of female roles – arms, after all, cannot be made up, they can only be hidden) are likewise endowed with meaning.  Sleeves thrown in front of oneself imply anger; their trembling means fear; dusting imaginary dirt off the sleeves of another signifies infinite respect.  

But the most fascinating is the makeup.  The incredibly rich culture of Chinese masks that is already 3500 years old manifests itself in the several thousand different makeup versions.  Neophytes will read the colors: red – loyalty and justice, purple – straightforwardness and self-control, white – cunning and treacherousness, black – inexorability and unselfishness, blue – courage based on astuteness, and green – stubbornness and unrestrained impetuosity.  A more sophisticated audience will focus on the complex drawings painted on the faces for clues to the subtleties of the character.  Ideally, based on the pattern on the face the audience should be able to figure out which of the one thousand three hundred opera varieties they are about to witness.  A change of a psychological state (where confusion, for instance, is replaced by anger) is a whole separate trick.    Where European actors would start making lots of effort with their faces to the extent of their talent, a Peking Opera actor would masterfully switch masks in the midst of swift turns.  

Art, as is well known, requires sacrifice, and especially the art of Peking Opera.  Thus a typical wusheng (soldier) comes on stage wearing a skull cap that painfully pulls up the eyes (for the Chinese consider outer corners of the eyes that are turned upward to be the height of beauty), oil-based makeup, and a ten-kilogram costume. And that is not counting a weapon that he is required to handle artfully and with ease.  

From Kindergarten to the Academy


These days, actors for Peking Opera are trained primarily by the National Academy of Traditional Performing Arts of the People’s Republic of China.  Normally a master has no more than three students in his class.  Mastery is passed from hand to hand: a master performs a line from an aria, then gets his students to copy him perfectly, then adds gestures, facial expressions and eye movements to the singing.  However, despite such strict adherence to canon, nobody abolished the role of personality in Peking Opera.  There is a reason why the most famous schools that emerged in the early 20th century were founded by prominent artists: the Méi School (Mei Lanfang), the Shang School (Shang Xiaoyun), the Cheng School (Cheng Yanqiu), and the Xun School (Xun Huisheng). 

The Academy teaches about two thousand students at one time.  They are not deterred by the high cost of the education (the cost usually exceeds a young artist’s salary), nor by the competition, nor the absence of assurance that they will be in demand in Peking Opera itself.   Although, admittedly, degreed artists have no problem finding employment.    They are readily hired for various shows (including those based on the martial arts), filmed in countless TV-series and soap operas that are mainly based on historical subjects, stories from the lives of the ancient dynasties. A perfect example of such “provision of employment” is the career of Jackie Chan, who never did get admitted onto the stage of Peking Opera. 

School day at the Academy begins at seven o’clock in the morning and goes deep into the night.  Young men and women receive the same study load – male.  This is homage to a theatre tradition that did not intend to have women on stage.  This is the price of theatre “emancipation”.   “Education by the rod” flourishes to this day, but there is no cruelty behind it, only… a specific purpose: a strike of the rod corrects a wrong movement and, in the end, can save an actor from injury.  

A child needs to start learning the arts required for Peking Opera at the age of six or seven years old.  But the so-called early development made its way into this genre as well.  Thus Harbin became home to a specialized “Jing Miao” kindergarten (the Peking Opera sprouts), which is incredibly popular with parents.  Contrary to the popular belief that Chinese education is based on extreme severity, the accepted norm here is to encourage and reward the little ones as much as possible and criticize them as little as possible.  

Peking Opera and Socialism


Despite all of Peking Opera’s efforts to remain a clean art form, the winds of time penetrate there as well.  And the Cultural Revolution nearly destroyed this oriental flower altogether.  Many artists lost their ability to practice art and were sent for “reeducation through manual labor.”  Others stayed in the profession, but could only perform in shows based on the new “exemplary” plays about the lives of workers and peasants, approved by the wife of Mao Zedong Jiang Qing, who was also an actress in the past. Gender equality ideas brought women onto the stage. Today Peking Opera has almost no male virtuosos capable of creating the image of a Beautiful Lady,   a heavenly vision of a woman that you would never encounter on Earth.  One of those few is the son of Mei Lanfang.  

The economic reforms that took place after the death of Mao Zedong are impossible to imagine without the revival of Peking Opera. These days Peking Opera is facing a new challenge – globalization.    Many theatres in China are showing export versions of Peking Opera -- fragments from popular productions, where acrobatics that foreign audiences love so much predominate over singing (the Chinese do not consider this genuine Peking Opera).  Time will show whether or not Peking Opera survives under the pressure of globalization, whether or not it is able to evolve or whether it becomes frozen forever.  



* There are over three hundred sixty local opera styles in China, but Peking Opera is its brightest phenomenon. Peking Opera’s most famous theatre in Beijing is the Liyuan Theater, which is located in the Beijing Qianmen Hotel and welcomes up to three hundred thousand visitors per year.   The productions there are performed with simultaneous translations into English and Japanese.  In addition, the audience is given access to the dressing rooms prior to the start of the show.  

* Peking Opera has four basic dramatic types: Sheng, Dan, Jing, and Chou, which differ in the conventions of their stage performance, their makeup, their costumes, and their place in the plot of the story.  Each type, in turn, is subdivided into subtypes.  For example: Guimen Dan (Dan in a dark robe, a virtuous middle-aged or elderly woman), Hua Dan (a lively young girl),   Daoma Dan (a young female warrior), Wu Dan (a female acrobat), Lao Dan (an old woman).   Or Sheng: Lao Sheng (an older man), gauze-hat Sheng (a court official), fan Xiao Sheng (scholar using a fan), pheasant-feather fan Sheng (a talented young man), poor Sheng (an unlucky scholar, who has to sing falsetto), or the mysterious Sheng Qing Ru Yan, which means a character that appears younger than he is due to his vigorous movements. 

* The most famous actor and instructor of Peking Opera in China and abroad is Mei Lanfang, who became interested in opera when he was still a child, thanks to his uncle.  To honor the memory of that great artist, who died at the age of 67, the Chinese created the Mei Lanfang Memorial Museum.   Beginning in 1995, this museum began hosting the China Peking Opera Art Festival, which brings together fans and experts of the genre.  

* Everything in Peking Opera is unconventional, even its fans, Piao You.    During the performance of a difficult aria or an acrobatic piece they yell “Hao!” (good).  They dedicate all of their free time to the opera: they get together somewhere in a park in the morning to perform their own shows and sing in every kind of weather.  The most talented of them are sometimes allowed to go on a professional stage.  


  Olga Foux


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