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A Beginner's Guide To Beijing's Unique Peking Opera
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A Beginner's Guide To Beijing's Unique Peking Opera

Picture of CF Thomas
Updated: 13 January 2017
Peking opera, a popular variation of Chinese opera that emerged out of Beijing in the 19th century, is unlike anything you’ve ever seen or heard. But don’t let that put you off – this totally unique and unusual art form is easily appreciated with just a few simple things to keep in mind.
A female lead (known as the dan, or 旦) performs a monologue.
A female lead (known as the dan, or 旦) performs a monologue.

There are many things in this world that are easy to fall in love with in the first instance. Pizza. Kittens. If you’re under the age of 15, that band One Direction. Kitten memes. The list goes on and on, and yet sadly, it does not, nor will it ever, include Peking opera.

Believe us when we say that withstanding let alone actively enjoying Peking opera is not something that will come as naturally to you as say, mad Candy Crush skills. It’s a challenging art form to the untrained eye and ear, and requires preliminary research and effort to truly understand the narrative and nuance that takes place on the operatic stage. And yet, once that effort is made, Peking opera is a truly unique and culturally breathtaking phenomenon to witness.

And so, in order to both encourage and facilitate an appreciation of this exceptional art form, we’ve put together a crib sheet to sum up everything a beginner might need to know to get through, dare we say even enjoy, a performance of Peking opera.

You will not understand a single word spoken on stage.

This shouldn’t be news to anyone, but Peking (which is the old form of Beiiing) opera is sung in – surprise surprise – Mandarin Chinese. In fact, even native Chinese have considerable difficulty understanding the actual words being sung. That’s because Peking opera actually incorporates a range of vocabulary and pronunciations from different dialects around China, a byproduct of the various styles of Chinese opera that integrated over decades to establish what we now know as the Peking style. Additionally, certain Chinese phonemes that are not easily vocalized and will not carry well across a theater are contorted with added vowels, changing the entire sound of a word or phrase. So don’t take it personally, but even if you’re a fluent Chinese speaker, that probably will not help you at a Chinese opera.

Meaning is everything; accuracy is irrelevant.

Wait, what? Believe it or not, this is kind of the ethos of Chinese art in general. Essentially, it means that every element of the production – the performers, the choreography, the sets, the props, the makeup, the sounds – all exist as a symbol of something more complex than its literal manifestation on stage.

Things like a simple gesture will often serve the purpose of communicating something unspoken yet pivotal to the audience. Walking in a wide circle, for example, indicates a long passage of time. Character traits are similarly expressed via a codified set of colored makeup the performers will wear. A red painted face indicates loyalty in a character, while white is villainous.

Sets are minimalistic, props sparse. One object will be used with incredible ingenuity over the course of a production to convey an array of concepts to the audience, like a chair later serving as a mountain for a character to climb.

Peking opera unapologetically emphasizes beauty over substance, concept over discourse. Basically, just approach the night with the full understanding that not much will be made explicit to the audience.

Homework helps a lot.

By now, you’ve probably realized that it’s extremely difficult to know all the rules and traditions necessary to keep up with a Peking opera performance (kind of like China’s version of a Rocky Horror Picture Show screening). So do yourself a favor and familiarize yourself with the basic storyline in advance so you can focus on the more complex layers of the production. There’s a limited repertoire of about 1,400 stories that opera companies pull from, and they’re all very old stories from Chinese tradition or literature that you can easily read up on. And while these stories are rarely as straightforward as say, Sleeping Beauty, it still helps to have a rough idea of the rudimentary narrative so you can pay close attention to all that symbolism popping off the stage.

A Chinese person helps even more.

Peking opera in its most recent incarnation has been around about 1845, but Chinese opera in general has been around for at least seven centuries, since the Song Dynasty. Those centuries of refining the craft have imbued Chinese opera, including Peking style, with a great deal of cultural nuance that is likely lost on the average laowai (foreigner). If at all possible, bring a Chinese friend who will be happy to explain details or background that might escape you. If you’re worried about appearing rude by whispering, don’t be; the typical Chinese opera scene is far less stuffy than its counterparts in the West (and most audiences can’t understand what’s being sung, anyway).

The counterbalance to the spectacular wardrobes characteristic of Peking opera, however, is the music. Sung in a different style than Western operas, the untrained ear most commonly interprets the Peking opera style of singing as “shrill.” This isn’t entirely a fair assessment – Peking opera singers are wildly talented and powerful, some of the most skilled and prestigious performers in the world. But if you’ve never before been exposed to the style of song or instrumental music (typically a variety of traditional Chinese instruments, like the jinghu or the yueqin), it can be a struggle to adjust your expectations. Don’t expect to love it at first listen – it can sound irregular, high-pitched, and altogether bizarre at points. We can’t promise that will change over time, either. But it’s all part of the wonderfully unique experience of attending a Peking opera performance. So just try to take it all in, for better or for worse. A little effort goes a long way in appreciating this misunderstood but inexplicably captivating art form.

This sums up the most common praise and complaints many non-Chinese audience members will have about Peking opera. If you follow the aforementioned advice and still find yourself hopelessly lost during your opera experience, the good news is that the breathtaking costumes and headdresses will give you plenty to feast your eyes on while you wait for intermission. The ornate brocades, rich colors, and cascading silk are unlike anything you’ll ever see, a real visual masterpiece.