The history of Peking opera
Peking opera has a history of only about two hundred years. There are other Chinese opera genres that came into existence much earlier, such as Kun opera which emerged as far back as the 14th century. It is said that Peking opera was born in 1790, when four opera companies from the province of Anhui came to Beijing to perform on the occasion of the 80th birthday of the Emperor. Soon afterwards, some other theatre companies from the region of Hubei followed. Over the years, Peking opera was formed through the combination of various music and performing techniques. In essence, Peking opera has never been an exclusive art form; from its very beginnings it was enjoyed by both the imperial court and the common people, so a wide range of audiences from all social classes was generated. Initially, exclusively male performers were allowed to participate in a performance. It was only from the 1870s onwards that women were permitted to appear on the stage. Despite that, however, male performers continued to be highly popular in dan roles.
From the capital to the rest of China
From 1860 onwards, numerous travelling companies spread Peking opera all over China. By the end of the 19th century, Peking opera had become the most acclaimed form of opera in China. Beijing was the centre of the theatre world. The Qianmen area in the south of the Forbidden City had developed into a flourishing commercial centre packed with theatres, tea houses and restaurants which hosted all kinds of artistic activities and where Peking opera became a part of daily culture. It became the home of a multitude of famous Peking opera artists. New structures were introduced for managing theatres and Peking opera companies. From teahouses to theatres
Peking opera was originally performed in a xiyuanzi, meaning a “tea courtyard”. Back then, people sat on benches facing one another and customers paid only for the tea, not for the performances. Peking opera was just some kind of “side show”; performances sometimes lasted as much as twelve hours. This changed with the introduction of so-called “old style theatres” in which all benches were installed facing the stage. Until 1931, the audience was separated; the men sat in the stalls and the women in the balconies. During the period of the Republic of China (1911-1949) theatres transformed and became comparable to western stages.
Peking opera in the world
One of the most outstanding figures of Peking opera, Mei Lanfang was the first Peking opera actor to perform with his company outside China. His interpretation of dan roles is legendary, and a whole new performing school developed from his style. From the 1920s onwards Mei Lanfang visited countries including Japan and the USA, where he achieved extraordinary success. Since then, Peking opera has been shown throughout the world and has been at the forefront of cultural exchange. In 2010 Peking opera was included on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
The performance of classical plays
Some of the classical plays written during the Qing period could hardly be performed today. Many of them consist of more than twenty-four acts; to rehearse them would take years and to stage them would take several days. The epic play Shengpingbaofa (The Precious Raft of Exalted Peace) – commissioned by the Peking opera-fan Emperor Qianlong – tells the story of a monk and his three companions travelling to the West in search of Buddhist scriptures. The play was adapted from the tale Journey to the West, one of the four great classical Chinese novels, and consists of no less than two hundred and forty acts!
Today, audiences generally watch Peking opera in concentrated form, the zhezi xi which is a one-act performance of a play that originally featured multiple acts. It is the highlight of a drama that people never get tired of watching. As a basic rule, a successful full-length opera contains one or two acts that can be staged separately as a zhezi xi.
Peking opera plays can be categorised as either “civil plays” (wenxi) or “martial plays” (wuxi). Civil plays focus on the relationships between the characters, and tell stories of love and intrigue. In these types of plays it is principally dan and older roles that appear on the stage. One famous excerpt from a civil play is, for example, Farewell My Concubine which portrays the last moments of a conqueror and his favourite concubine. Martial plays generally focus on action, acrobatics and martial arts; young sheng, jing and chou used to be the main characters. At the Crossroads, a highly entertaining piece which features blind combat, is a fine example of a martial play.