Chinese OperaBeijing Opera

Chinese Operas were based on old tales of heroes and the supernatural. Today the stories often deal with heroes of the communist revolution or with great historical events of the recent past. The variety of Chinese Opera known as Beijing Opera is the most familiar in the west. It was developed in the 19th century as a synthesis of earlier provincial forms.

Beijing Opera, which is also known as Peking Opera, has existed for over 200 years. It is widely regarded as the highest expression of the Chinese culture. It is perhaps the most refined form of opera in the world. Although it is called Beijing Opera its origins are not in Beijing but in the provinces of Anhui and Hubei. It was originally staged for the royal family and was introduced to the public later. Beijing opera was regarded to as one of the rare forms of entertainment. There are thousands of opera pieces covering the entire history and literature of China.

The development of the art of painting faces is closely related to that of dramatic art, although the earliest painted faces, or their precursors appeared long before Chinese drama took shape.

As Chinese dramatic art developed, the drawbacks of wearing masks became increasingly evident, for masks prevented the actors from showing their facial expressions. A vividly painted face however enables audiences to see expressions clearly.

In the beginning only three sharply contrasting colours - red, white and black were generally used in facial make up. The earliest painted faces were simple and crude but within time the designs became more elaborate and ornamental.

Chinese Opera Gibbon with a symbolic face in Birth of the Stone Monkey, adapted from an episode in Pilgrimage to the West that tells Monkey Sun Wukong, or the Monkey King, was born. Gibbon is a wise old ape. He advises Monkey Sun WuKong to learn Taoism. Monkey goes to the Kunlun Mountains and there meets a supernatural being who teaches him the 72 metamorphoses and how to somersault through the clouds. He returns and strangles the Devil King who occupied his home in the Flower and Fruit Mountain during his absence.

Face painting Roc with a green symbolic face, a monster in Lion and Camel Ridge. A guardian of the law at the Buddha's side, it sneaks away to make trouble on earth but is captured and brought back by the Buddha.

Chinese traditional opera Deer Child with a green symbolic face, a fairy in Stealing the Magic Herb, adapted from an episode in the Legend of Leifeng Pagoda. On the Dragon-Boat Festival one year, Xu Xian offers his wife, the White Maid, some realgar wine. Unable to resist her husband's persuasion, she drinks a bit too much and is transformed back into a white snake. Her husband drops dead from fright and she hurries to the Kunlun Mountains to steal a magic herb to revive him. Two guardians of the mountains, Deer Child and Crane Child discover her but she fights them off. They report to their master, Old Fairy of the South Pole, who comes and arrests the girl. But when he learns why she is here, he takes pity on her and gives her some of the life-restoring herb, with which she returns and revives her husband.

Drama Zhongli Chun with a female blue broken flower face in the Banquet on the Xiang River, adapted from Tales of Heroes and Martyrs, a historical novel. Zhongli Chun was the wife of King Xuan of Qi of the Spring And Autumn period. In the operabshe accompanies her husband to a banquet given by the King of Wei on the bank of the Xiang River. The banquet is a trap to kidnap King Xuan, but the clever Zhongli Chun foils the plot and helps her husband to escape.


Han Zhongli with a red fairy face, one of the eight immortals in Eight Immortals Cross the Sea, an opera based on a Chinese fairy tale.

Chinese Opera Xiang Yu with a black cross and steel fork face, the leading character in The Prince Bids Farewell to His Favorite, adapted from an episode in Popular Romance of the Western Han. During the wars between the Chu and Han, Xiang Yu (232 - 203BC), Prince of Chu, was defeated by Liu Bang and trapped at Gaixia. In the opera the prince, hearing his enemies singing songs of Chu on all sides of Gaixia realises the game is up bids a sad farewell to his concubine, Yu Ji. The latter, after performing a sword dance to comfort him, commits suicide. The prince then fights his way through the enemy and reaches the bank of the Wu River, but feels he can go no further. Defeated and disgraced, he is too ashamed to return home, so instead of crossing the river he kills himself.

Chinese Opera Chong Gongdao with an old clown face, a leading character in Escorting the Woman Prisoner, adapted from the story in General Sayings to Warn the World. Ching Gingdao, an old prison guard and a kindhearted man, is given the task of escorting a woman prisoner to Taiyuan to be retried. Learning of the prisoner's bitter experiences, he does his best to console her on the way. Eventually he adopts her as his daughter. This opera is actually an act in the opera Yutang Chun and the prisoner is the prostitute Yutang Chun, wrongly accused of murder. The court in Taiyuan absolves her of the crime.

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