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Behold The Beautiful Beijing Opera

September 19th, 2008 by

Beijing Opera ExteriorIt has been featured in several Chinese movies and TV shows. It is the place where Jackie Chan and other Hong Kong cinema martial artists got their early training in Kung Fu and acting. It is the Beijing Opera, a traditional live performance which combines martial arts, dancing, singing, and acting to create a truly unique Chinese art form.

The Beijing Opera got its start more than 200 years ago in 1790, when 4 great Anhui troupes came to Beijing. The Opera flourished in the 18th century, developing more than 1,400 repertoires, categorized between civil plays and martial plays. It introduced many firsts in Chinese dramas; the number of repertoires, actors, troupes, and audience. Favorite topics for the opera include military leaders, great artists, beautiful celebrities, and famous emperors.

Performers for the Beijing Opera start their training very young. Their parents lease them to teachers for several years, during which they learn acrobatics, singing, dancing, and finally martial arts. After graduation, the trainees are designated to primary, secondary, or tertiary roles in the opera. Once they start performing onstage, the new graduates will pay off their teachers for several more years for the training they’ve received. Training is very draconian, with an emphasis on the beauty of each movement. The most common stylization method in Beijing opera is roundness: movements occur in sweeping motions, avoiding straight lines and sharp angles.

Farewell My Concubine

The Beijing Opera stage is a square platform, divided into two by a curtain called the shoujiu, and visible on three sides, with very few props. The equipment that is on hand is usually just a table and at least one chair, with smaller items hand-carried by the actors. These items are suggestive and not imitative; they symbolize the larger, main objects that sets up the story. For example, a war fan would mean the actor is portraying a general of a great army. By tradition, the audience is seated south of the stage, while performers enter from the east and exit through the west.

There are four main character types in Beijing Opera:

Sheng – the common name for male roles. There are two types of Sheng: Lao Sheng (the middle-aged bearded man) and Xiao Sheng (young man without a beard);
Dan – the main female role. There are four types: the Zhengdan, the Huadan, Laodan, and Wudan;
Jing – a male figure with a painted face. The role calls for a forceful personality.
Chou - a male clown, distinctively marked with a small patch of white chalk around his nose.

Sun Wukong

Each of the actors’ faces are elaborately painted, with their dominant colors symbolizing their personalities. For example, yellow and white represent cunning, black represent valor and wisdom, and silver and gold represent mystical or supernatural powers.

The Beijing Opera suffered during the Cultural Revolution, when communists cracked down on traditional culture and artistic expressions all over China. It is currently failing to compete with modern forms of entertainment, though organizations like the International Center for Beijing Opera is trying to revive interest by educating the youth about the meaning of each aspect.

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