Beijing Opera or Peking Opera has a history of over 200years and is believed to of begun in 1790 during the reign of Emperor Qianlong. During his 55th reign the four largest Huiban opera troupes, consisting of 360 individual types of operas, combined. After a century of evolving the Beijing Opera was formed as an opera that best represented all of the operas in China. Beijing Opera became a blend of music, art, acrobatics, dance and martial arts.
With many astonishing characteristics including beautiful paintings, graceful gestures, exquisite costumes and then the support of an imperial follower, Beijing Opera rapidly became one of the most popular forms of theatre for its time. The years 1917 to 1937 was a time of rapid blooming for the newborn opera. However the following decade saw a sad decline in the Opera’s popularity as the People’s Republic of China began. Later on in the 1980’s, Beijing Opera managed to resurrect itself once again to become even more vigorous and entertaining than before.
To the people, Beijing Opera is a national treasure, with the significant richness of repertoire, a great number of artists and a committed audience, I found it easy to understand the deep influence and honor that it holds in the Chinese culture, with one of the world’s most oldest and complex cultures. On my arrival I found China’s lifestyle to be very simple and modest, with the country side mostly rural oriented to accommodate for the 1. 2billion population. The Dramatic Meaning in many traditional theatre groups is a theme, message or idea being represented in a performance.
The dramatic meaning of Beijing Opera is to present the audience with an “encyclopedia of Chinese culture,” (Anonymous) all of which it thoroughly displays. The dramatic languages, in Beijing Opera consist of, skills of performance, elements of drama and styles and their conventions which are used in combination with diverse and socially critical reflections in order to assist in the creation of this dramatic meaning for the Chinese culture. There are strong ideologies depicted in Beijing Opera, as mentioned before, traditions and pride, harmony and balance with nature and simplicity.
Beijing Opera is very basic in it’s conventions of props and staging. Even though its brightly decorated costumes and ancient perfected movements may sound extravagant, the Chinese culture is actually well known for its ideology of simplicity. Because of the large population of people and the small amount of living space, the Chinese don’t live an excessive life, which is why they try to survive with their natural surrounding as much as possible, in their home as well as on the stage.
The convention and elements of drama of symbolism prevail in Beijing Opera as the stage knows no limits in regards to the elements of drama; space and time. The stage has a simple design of a traditional square platform that can be viewed from at least three sides with the stage being divided into two parts by an embroidered curtain or shoujiu and the musicians being visible to the audience on the front part of the stage. A convention of Beijing Opera is that the audience will always be seated south of the stage, as north is the most important direction in Beijing Opera.
Likewise, the actors will always enter from the east and exit from the west. A Chinese ideology and convention of tradition that reflects seven centuries of Chinese performance, is their simplicity of using very few props, which will generally be a table and at least one chair – the setting for any action, thus keeping in line with the highly symbolic convention of nature and simplicity in Beijing Opera. A convention of props used in Beijing Opera is that the presence of large objects will often be signified by minor objects.
The table and chair can be turned through convention into various objects; like a mountain, city wall or bed. The performer’s acting is mostly realized through the actors’ use of footwork, body movements and various types of gestures. This is a convention of Beijing Opera, which combines with the performance skill of movement and element of drama of symbol on stage. If a Chinese women were to be doing needle work for example, she would have neither a needle nor thread in her hands.
If she were to ride in a carriage, she would walk flanked on each side by a colored flag with tassels, thus representing the horse. Four generals and four soldiers in Beijing Opera will represent an army of thousands, these characters are known as longtao or mass performers. A convention of symbolism of Beijing Opera for example is when walking in a large circle it will always symbolizes traveling a very long distance, a technique known as yuan chang, while at the same time a character straightening their costume or headdress will symbolize the intended speech of an important character.
Simpler and more recognizable conventions of pantomimic movement that portray and symbolize are the actions of opening and closing doors, climbing a hill, the ascending and descending of stairs and even the rowing of a boat. Therefore, every action executed by the performers of Beijing Opera involves the traditional convention of simplicity and symbolism. Another ideology which I felt was also being expressed both in the Chinese home and Opera was the ideology of harmony and balance with nature and other people. The Chinese ideology of harmony of nature in Beijing Opera is seen not only in the plays but also in cultural practices.
From what I witnessed from living with my Chinese family, the people live a distinct life from others in the way that they pursue qualities such as the convention of conformity to nature and plain living, as opposed to the Western way of conquering nature and material luxuries. This great interest in nature permeates all aspects of the Chinese people’s life. Even on an outing, I felt the spiritual feeling that they were seeking to integrate themselves into nature and become one with it, by keeping a balance of harmony with both nature and people individually.
Beijing Opera follows the traditional art of emphasizing meaning rather than accuracy. The highest aim that can be achieved by performers is the convention and performance skill of movement in which beauty must be present in every motion. During training, performers are strictly criticized for lacking beauty in their work as they are taught to create harmony and balance between the aspects of Beijing Opera. There should always be an equal balance between the four skills of song, speech, dance and acting, and combat.
Every movement executed on the stage, including sitting down, holding up a hand and taking a step has a rule as to how it must be performed. There are also prescribed sets of movements for actors to follow, which are called chengshi. These include how a general should check his suit of armor before going into battle, the way a soldier moves towards his target, how a horseman should ride and how he should fight, all of which depend on the convention of movement, and the balance and harmony used to display them. Many of the performance skills incorporate behaviors of everyday life, but are stylized with beauty so that they can be erformed on the stage. A significant convention of Beijing Opera that relates to the balance and harmony expressed, is the common stylization convention of roundness. The Chinese, in accordance to harmony and nature, are strongly apposed against sharp angular movements. For example, a character looking upon an object above, will sweep their eyes in a circular motion from low to high before landing upon the object, if a character was to point to the left, he would firstly sweep is hand in an arc from right to left – in order to point to the right.
This method of movement in Chinese culture is to assist in the strong ideology that is kept in keeping balance between the four main skills of movement. The Chinese ideology of balance and harmony is important in creating the convention and performance skill of voice. The singing and spoken dialect in Beijing Opera is very tasteful and delicate, displaying the spirits and soul of the characters in Beijing Opera, with each tone varying between characters, emotions and their status; to depend on the type of language they use.
In order for the actors to sing properly, they must perfect many conventions and techniques to produce a beautiful sound that is in harmony with the rest of their body. It is a necessity that the performer be in complete balance and control of their voice at all times, thus being a convention of Beijing Opera. With so many traditional maneuvers being performed at once, the actors must maintain a strong individual frame of balance and harmony within themselves. In the Chinese way of life, traditions and pride is considered to be one of the most upheld ideologies in the culture and throughout Beijing Opera.
Since the beginning of Beijing Opera, 200 years ago, they have managed to maintain the original costuming that was traditionally used, reflecting the convention of tradition which is so much a part of the Chinese culture. Due to the modest amount of props used in Beijing Opera, the Convention of costumes are considered to be of great importance, functioning to distinguish the status of characters in each play. These costumes can be known as mang or python robes which are costumes for the higher ranks, kuan yi for formal occasions for the lower officials and the chezi gown, for officials on informal occasions.
The convention of Costumes is created through the employment of symbol. Colours distinguish the status of roles; such as yellow for the imperial family, with a traditional dragon embroidered on, red for high nobility, red or blue for upright men and students, brown or olive for old officials, white for the young characters and black for each role. Colours are employed in a symbolic manner which, in western theatre, is an element of drama. Symbolism is used to simplify real things, as a representation of its literal self.
This may be achieved through props, gestures, expressions, costume, lighting and setting. The high ranking official’s robes or mang will have brilliant colors and rich embroidery, to differ between times of the day, and occasion. The Emperor and his family would wear elegantly detailed yellow robes as a convention of symbol for good luck, while the high ranking officials would wear purple robes. The chezi is a basic gown with various levels of embroidery, but without an accompanying purple strap to symbolise rank.
The mang, kuan yi and chezi gowns all wear long flowing water sleeves that can be used to facilitate emotive gestures. There are hundreds of symbolic gestures for using the sleeves; including the hands, fingers, feet and legs. All of these gestures are a convention of Beijing Opera. For the Opera connoisseur it is the execution of these movements, which are skills of performance that create the distinction of greatness for the actors, an example; when an actor flings the two sleeves in one direction while facing the other, they are symbolizing making a decision, or expressing anger.
Detailed hats, with matching embroidery, will also be worn to blend in with the rest of the costume, along with shoes that may have a high or low sole. This development of status allows actors in Beijing Opera to develop human context by establishing roles and relationships, which is an element of Drama. Thus, high soles being intended for the higher characters and the low soles for the lower or acrobatic characters. Besides the gorgeous clothes and headdresses, jewelry girdles for men and traditional Chinese ornaments for women will also be worn in Beijing Opera.
Another striking aspect to Beijing Opera is the traditional facial masks worn to portray various characters. Originally the mask worn by the Beijing actors were solid, this changed however as it was difficult for the audience to perceive the true meaning received through natural facial expressions. The convention and performance skill of symbol is also used in the colour of each of these masks, as individually each mask symbolizes a certain character and his role in the performance. The ideology of tradition is not only expressed through the reat detail of costumes and masks, but in every element of dramatic language and convention of Beijing Opera, including; in the performance skill of movement and voice, styles and conventions of gestures and staging, and in the elements of drama of symbol. From the dramatic languages expressed in Beijing Opera, the audience is able to interpret the pride and tradition that is held within the culture. This exchange program, was a once in a life time chance. I am very fortunate to have been able to travel to China as I have witnessed a very traditional and important aspect of their lives that I never knew existed beyond the non-western world.
Being a part of Beijing Opera, has given me a closer understanding, through the Dramatic Languages of skills and conventions, the elements of drama and the performance skills, that Beijing Opera can capture the true essence of individuality and cultural characteristics of the Chinese people. Bibliography Internet: Searched: Beijing Costuming Site: http://www. einaudi. cornell. edu/curriculum/monkey/opera/#8 Last Updated: N/A Date Searched: 29/10/09 Searched: Beijing Opera Site: http://www. beijingtrip. com/feature/opera. htm Last Updated: N/A Date Searched: 30/10/09
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