In 1790, theatre companies from all over China arrived in Beijing, to perform for the Qing Emperor Qianlong's birthday. Four theatre companies from Anhui arrived, and their fresh styles of music and theatre 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 theatres. 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 theatre, 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.
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.
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.
(Back to top)