WildChina > WildChina > Unveiling Peking Opera

Before I came to Beijing, I remember hearing the word “opera” and associating it with the beautiful arias of Italian singers and world-famous artists like Pavarotti. After going to the Laoshe Teahouse my whole perspective changed! Opera in China is an entirely different, more amazing and way more colorful way to describe the opera genre… it is Peking Opera.

Peking Opera

As I was walking into the Laoshe Teahouse, I didn’t really know what to expect after seeing the distinct feng shui-like decorations in the foyer. I do, however, remember thinking how perfect everything was set up. After listening to a little quartet play, I made my way to the main hall where I was seated in a group table and served some delicious little snacks and their famous green tea (which I downed in about two seconds and proceeded to ask for more).

When the first act opened, I was still unsure about what was coming. The depiction of the tea ceremony was so detailed, but my favorite part was the face changing. This man, all done up in the traditional Peking opera costume, would dance around and change his mask fifteen times in a matter of nanoseconds. How he did it? I have no idea, but it definitely peaked my interest to go look it up. And when I did, I learned this is a form of art that takes about ten to fifteen years to master. Incredible!

What also surprised me is that this was not only a place built to attract foreigners, but several Chinese locals were there too, having a grand old time with their friends, laughing and talking while sipping their tea. I will admit that I was a little sad when the show ended, but I promised myself that I would visit again and bring some friends with me, so that they could experience what I did (right after I went into the gift shop and bought about 5 packs of jasmine, green, and flower teas!).

With its colorful costumes, fascinating characters, intensity, and unique music, Peking Opera is a vital part to China’s culture and people. As stories unfold and the characters tantalize, the audience (including you!) can find themselves enchanted and never forget this wonderful experience.

Some History

Peking Opera has an incredible 200-year-long history, with its music originating from Xipi and Erhuang in Anhui and Hubei.

It is believed that Peking Opera gradually came into being after 1790 when the famous four Anhui opera troupes came to Beijing. Peking Opera underwent fast development during the reign of Emperor Qianlong and Empress Dowager Cixi, eventually becoming more accessible to the common people.

**Interesting Fact**

The Qianlong emperor had also banned all females from performing (which is definitely not the case now!) Female performers began to impersonate male roles and declared equality with men. They were given a venue for their talents when Li Maoer, a former Beijing opera performer, founded the first female Beijing opera troupe in Shanghai.

Peking Opera was performed mostly on stage in the open air, teahouses (like the Laoshe Teahouse), or temple courtyards. Since the orchestra played loudly, the performers developed a piercing style of song that could be heard by everyone. The costumes were a wild and loud collection of sharply contrasting colors to stand out on the dim stage illuminated only by oil lamps. Peking Opera is a harmonious combination of the Grand Opera, ballet and acrobatics, consisting of dance, dialogue, monologues, martial arts, and mime.

It mainly consists of an orchestra and percussion band, with the orchestra frequently accompanying peaceful scenes while the percussion band provides the right atmosphere for battle scenes.

Commonly used percussion instruments include: castanets, drums, bells and cymbals, while the orchestral instruments include the Erhu, Huqin, Yueqin, Sheng (reed pipe), Pipa (lute) and other instruments. The band usually sits on the left side of the stage, while the actors perform, making this a simultaneous performance!

Facial Painting

It is said that this special art derived from Chinese opera has different origins. But no matter what its origin, facial painting is worth appreciating for its artistic value and the amazing (and sometimes eerie) expressions it gives the face. The following colors are used:

Red face depicts heroic bravery, uprightness and loyalty;

White face symbolizes a sinister, treacherous and guile character

Green face connotes surly stubbornness, impetuosity and lack of self-restraint.

Yellow face: fierceness, ambition, cool-headedness

Blue face: stauchness, fierceness, and astuteness

Purple face: stands for uprightness, sophistication and cool-headedness).

Unveiling Peking Opera

Changing Faces (my favorite!)

Peking Opera performers mainly have two types of facial decorations: masks and facial painting.

Changing faces is a difficult technique in operatic performance. It is considered to be a stunt that can only be mastered after extensive training. Face changing is also a special technique used to exaggerate inner feelings of characters, portray their dispositions, set off the atmosphere and improve effects. Facial changes expressing sudden changes in a character’s feelings are done in four ways:

Blowing dust: The actor blows black dust hidden in his palm or close to his eyes, nose or beard, so that it blows back into his face.

Manipulating beard: Beard colors can be changed while the beard is being manipulated — from black to gray and finally to white — expressing anger or excitement.

Pulling-down masks: The actor can pull down a mask that has previously been hidden on top of his head, leaving his face red, green, blue or black to communicate happiness, hate, anger or sadness respectively.

Mop: The actor mops out the greasepaint hidden in his sideburns or eyebrows, around his eyes and nose, to change his facial appearance.

Costumes (Xingtou)

Peking Opera costumes are called Xingtou or, more popularly, Xifu in Chinese. The origins of Peking Opera costumes can be traced back to the mid-14th century! Since each dynasty in Chinese history had its own unique operatic costume, the number of costumes was too great for performers to master. Hence, artists and costume designers worked together to create costumes that would be unwieldy on stage and acceptable no matter when or where the action was supposed to take place. Costumes include:

– Toukui: opera headdress: crown, helmet, hat and scarf

– Mang: the informal robe, or Pei; and the armor, or Kao, for soldiers

– Xue: Opera shoes and boots

Audiences can distinguish a character’s sex and status at the first glance by the type of headdress, robes, shoes and baldrics associated with the role.

Unveiling Peking Opera

Main Roles in Peking Opera

Roles fall into four categories: Sheng, Dan, Jing and Chou. The roles have the natural features of age and sex, as well as social status, and are artificially exaggerated by makeup, costume and gestures.

1) Male Role (Sheng) or () civil, military;

– Lao Sheng (old man with a beard: dignified, polished, official, scholar)

– Xiao Sheng (young man, shrill voice, young warrior, young man of society, stature, elaborate dress)

– Wu Sheng (acrobatic male, extremely agile and physically skilled).

Unveiling Peking Opera
Wu Sheng

2) Female Role (Dan) or ()

– Qing Yi (modest, virtuous)

– Hua Dan (flirtatious, playful)

– Gui Men Dan (young, married girl)

– Dao Ma Dan (strong woman, female general)

– Wu Dan (female acrobat)

– Lao Dan (old woman)

Unveiling Peking Opera

3) Painted Face Male (Jing) or () – facial colors symbolize the type of character: red (good), white (treacherous), etc.

Unveiling Peking Opera

4. Comedy Actor or Clown (Chou) () – dim-witted, amusing, rascal, occasionally slightly wicked

Unveiling Peking Opera

Interested in going to a Peking Opera show?

1) Beijing Huguang Guildhall (3 Hufangqiao, Xuanwu District) (7:30AM – 8:40PM)

Tel) +86 10 6351 8284

Price:180-380 yuan

Targeted to: Opera aficionados, locals

Details: A combination of museum/theater, Huguang has a beautiful adorned stage and has a connection with Beijing Opera since 1830.

2) Chang’an Grand Theatre (7 Jianguomennei Dajie) (7:30 AM – 9:30PM)

Tel) +86 10 6510 1155

Price: 60-800 yuan

Targeted to: Everybody, from locals to foreigners who especially enjoy Peking Opera

Details: The theatre has 800 seats and has boxes for VIPs on the second floor. The front rows in the stalls comprised redwood chairs and tables, on which are teapots with hand-painted images of children, which recreate the atmosphere of a Ming of Qing-dynasty theatre.

3) Liyuan Theatre (175 Yong’an Lu, Qianmen Hotel, Xuanwu District) (7:30 AM – 8:40PM)

Tel) +86 10 6301 6688, ext. 8860

Price: 40-680 yuan

Targeted to: Foreign tourists

Details: Gives you a small bite-sized version of Peking Opera, throws in a little bit of everything in a span of one hour (acrobatics, singing, dancing)

4) Laoshe Teahouse (Qianmen Xi Dajie 3) (7:50PM – 9:00PM)

Tel) +86 10-6303-6830

Price: 40-130 yuan

Targeted to: Foreign and Chinese tourists

Details: A great place to take in the diverse opera culture, from face changing and the preparation of tea to dancing and singing. Smaller than the usual opera house, it is more of a teahouse that serves opera.


Experience this unique art form on Beijing private tour.

Photo credit: Wikipedia, China Daily, Luciana B. Veit, China Tourism, Kristin’s Theatre Blog, Tryna China, and  Moskowitz   

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