Evolution of the Beijing Opera

Beijing Opera is a traditional form of Chinese theater. It has more than 200 years of history. Beijing Opera or Peking Opera was formed in Beijing and became a major tradition in the culture of China. However, it was not the first opera genre in China. For instance, Kun Opera was founded much earlier, in the 14th century. Talking about Beijing Opera, it combines various types of performance. Among them, there are the following: vocal and music performance, acrobatics, miming, and dance. Moreover, due to the ability to absorb the most popular and famous opera styles that were known earlier in China, Beijing Opera became widely known not only among the Chinese people but also around the world. This paper explores the evolution of the Beijing Opera, its major features, and the contemporary situation. In addition, the essay focuses on the modern challenges, which this national theater art faces and the ways to solve them.

The Rise of Beijing Opera

In 1790, during the celebration of the Emperor’s birthday in Beijing, the first Anhui Opera performance was held (‘The history of Beijing Opera’ n. d.). Afterward, some of the Anhui Opera troupes continued to perform in Beijing. However, it still was not even close to Peking or Beijing Opera. It took its formal shape only in 1840 (‘Peking Opera, China’s time-honored art’ n. d.). The process of the establishment was not very fast, but, as a result, Beijing Opera became the main theatrical art of China.

According to some studies, the imperial patronage granted its wide popularity among the common people. However, I think that the more important element of the Beijing Opera evolution was the ability of Anhui troupes to absorb different styles and techniques known at the time. During their performances three main techniques were widely used: Qinqiang, Kunqiang, and Jinqiang Operas (‘Peking Opera, China’s time-honored art’ n. d.). In my opinion, it was quite wise as it helped them to gain popularity comparatively fast. The reason is that using various techniques, sometimes even repertoires and music from other operas, made the plays of Anhui troupes suitable and interesting for a bigger audience. On the other hand, mixing styles together, at the same time, brought something new to their performances. Moreover, Anhui performers used local dialects and similar clothes usual to Beijing citizens. So, I reckon, it was not only a reason why in the future the theatrical art was called Beijing Opera, but it also was an important feature that helped Anhui troupes be treated so well by the local people.

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The Age of the “Four Famous Dan Actors”

The second notable period of the Beijing Opera evolution was the age of the “Four Famous Dan Actors” in the 1920s. It is really hard to evaluate the importance of that period. In my opinion, it was a time when the Beijing Opera has risen to the peak of its popularity and brilliance of the performances. In general, during this period the role in the Beijing Opera was re-evaluated due to the four gifted actors who had brought female roles (Dan) to a new level and made them the primary ones (‘Peking Opera, China’s time-honored art’ n. d.). Previously, the main attention was paid to the male roles (sheng) (see Figure 1). These changes forced performers to increase their skills in an attempt to bring their roles to the new levels. Consequently, such competition gave a great push for Beijing Opera evolution.

Talking about the age of the “Four Famous Dan Actors,” the contribution of the leading master Mei Lanfang should be mentioned. He was a gifted actor who could perform more than a hundred different female roles and created unique performing techniques. Moreover, he was the first actor who introduced Beijing Opera to foreign countries (‘The first doctor- Mei Lanfang’ 2009). Furthermore, I think that Mei Lanfang was not only a gifted performer but a crucial person in the history of the Beijing Opera. Without him, it is hard to imagine how this theatrical art would have developed.

The Age of “Model Plays”

The next notable period in Peking Opera’s evolution was during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) (‘Peking Opera, China’s time-honored art’ n. d.). However, in my personal opinion, it was the most controversial period in the history of the Beijing Opera. On the one hand, it was a time when the Beijing Opera had a huge audience and was very popular. On the other hand, during China’s Cultural Revolution the fine classic traditions were lost. This period was marked by the appearance of a new type of performance called a model play. According to Jiang Qing, creator of the term “model play,” the modern art had to break old traditions (‘Peking Opera, China’s time-honored art’ n. d.). However, the true spirit of Beijing Opera was broken too. Moreover, it became something new and unfortunately, as for me, not very good. Some of the classic plays were modernized and later all of them were banned. Furthermore, many gifted performers that did not agree with the new ideas were denied permission to play. Eventually, all plays were highly standardized and were almost the same (‘Peking Opera, China’s time-honored art’ n. d.).

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Features of Beijing Opera

Beijing Opera is quite similar to the western one and includes singing, music and literature, dancing, and martial arts (see Figure 1). Beijing or Peking Opera is also called “Oriental Opera”. The Beijing Opera plots are always based on military or political struggles. Usually, the stories for the performances are taken from some historical novels.


There is a strict role division in Beijing Opera. Among the roles that were performed in early times, there were the following: Sheng, Jing, Dan, Chou, Mo, Longtao, and Wuhang (‘History of Peking Opera’ n. d.). After some time passed, the role division in Beijing Opera was transformed into four. Among those four roles, there are the following: Sheng (main male role), Jing (main painted male role), Dan (main female role), Chou (male clown role) (see Figure 2).

Makeup and Costume

One of the most astonishing features of the Peking Opera is a huge variety of patterns and colors used for costumes and makeup. Moreover, every element of makeup and costume has a unique meaning and can give fundamental information about a particular character. Furthermore, makeup in Peking Opera is divided into two main subtypes. These are the following: junban (sort of “beautifying makeup”) and lianpu (“mask-like facial makeup”) (‘History of Peking Opera’ n. d.).
Talking about the costume, it also plays an important role in Peking Opera. For instance, it may attract the attention of the audience or represent some characteristics of a particular character (see Figure 3). In general, the costumes are examples of the every-day clothing in ancient China, in particular, the Ming Dynasty dressing-style (‘History of Peking Opera’ n. d.).

Fading of the Beijing Opera and the Ways of Its Reviving

Unfortunately, nowadays Beijing Opera is fading because of various reasons. However, by analyzing these reasons, the ways to revive this theatrical art may be found. The main problem of the Beijing Opera, in my opinion, is that it has lost its popularity among the common people. Beijing Opera loses approximately 5 percent of its audience every year (Hays 2013). Sadly, according to Qiao Cuirong (a senior professor of the National Academy of Chinese Theater), modern people are not interested in Peking Opera (Bernstein 2010). Moreover, I think that the reason goes beyond the people who are interested nowadays in everything new and modern. The biggest problem is that the Beijing Opera is quite far from the theatrical art of the 19th and 20th centuries. Furthermore, the loss of popularity is a complex problem that includes various smaller reasons closely connected among themselves. For instance, the aging of the Beijing Opera audience causes low attendance. As a matter of fact, the number of performances is reducing, causing money losses for theaters. Additionally, because performers earn less, the prestige of their job is falling and the number of performing troupes is reducing. Obviously, lower-income motivates fewer people to stay working as actors in the Beijing Opera and less young people to aspire to become actors. For instance, the performer earns nearly 2,000 yuan, which is the same as a household employed driver (Hays 2013).

On the other hand, as was said before, modern performances are very far from the original. and, in my opinion, there are two main reasons for it. First, the negative impact the “model plays” period had, when the old traditions were broken. Regretfully, numerous gifted actors stayed without work that was usual for them. What is even worse, they had no possibility to share their performance with the audience and their talent with the following generation of actors. The second reason is that there are no special schools left devoted exclusively to Beijing Opera. I think that it is even more dangerous for the Beijing Opera because the younger generations have no possibility to learn this classic theatrical art and it may cause Beijing Opera to disappear. It is apparent that without such schools there will be neither new performers, nor an audience interested in this art.

Talking about the ways of reviving and preserving Beijing Opera, I think that it would be best to develop a complex decision for solving such a situation. Considering the complexity of the problem, changing only one or a few aspects of the Beijing Opera fading will not bring any success. In my opinion, common people and the government have to join forces to make the classical theatrical art popular again. However, there is a question of whether the Beijing Opera is really needed in the modern world? As for me, the answer is obvious, because the loss of the traditions is the fastest way to losing a nation. Therefore, everyone has to be responsible and do their best to preserve Beijing Opera as the main theatrical art.

As for the government, it should develop various programs that may raise the popularity of Beijing Opera and provide it with support. The activities of the governments may vary considerably, but, in my opinion, all of them are very important. For instance, different competitions and festivals may be held popularizing the Beijing Opera among the citizens. Moreover, governmental channels may broadcast scenes from classic performances. In addition, I think it will not be a bad idea to increase the financing of the Beijing Opera. For instance, it is only $500.000 for the China Peking Opera troupe per and $1 million budget total in comparison with the $16 million budget of the Los Angeles Opera (Hays 2013). Due to better financing, the theaters may be rebuilt, new workplaces may be created, and new performing troupes may appear naturally. However, the rebuilding of the theatres and new actors are useless if nobody will come to watch the performances. Here one can see a connection between the governmental efforts to revive Beijing Opera and the citizens’ ones. Common people have to be responsible for the future of their culture and traditions. They have to know and respect them and teach their children to do the same.


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The other important activity that may at least preserve Beijing Opera from fading is opening special devoted schools. Here, there is a similar situation when neither the government nor common citizens can succeed alone. In simple words, the government has to open such schools, and citizens have to bring their children there. In my opinion, it is a really great opportunity to preserve and revive Beijing Opera, because the younger generation is not only a future audience. Some of them may become performers of the Beijing Opera (see Figure 4). Fortunately, some of the modern Chinese schools already provided studying classical Chinese theater, cultivating interest to it among schoolchildren (Yongqi 2015).


The Beijing Opera or Peking Opera is a traditional theatrical art of China with more than 200 years of history. Unfortunately, nowadays it is gradually losing its popularity among the Chinese people because of several varied reasons. However, it is still far from becoming a relic. The situation with the Beijing Opera may be improved if substantial measures will be implemented. In my opinion, the following should be among them: popularization among the citizens, good financing, reviving the old traditions in theatrical arts, and providing educational programs for the younger generation in Chinese schools.


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