Chinese Opera: A glorious tradition

A male performer in the Beijing Opera in Beijing. Photograph by Saad Akhtar.

My grandfather, a stately man of the cloth who spent many years as a missionary in China during the last imperial dynasty, had a passion for Chinese opera. Long after he returned to Canada, he would entertain his grandchildren on special occasions by donning a brightly embroidered Chinese robe, painting his face red and singing falsetto through his nose while waving his long arms and hands in wildly exaggerated poses. We all screamed with laughter, but he sternly reminded us that in China the opera was a very serious matter.

Chinese opera is a form of traditional theater that combines, singing, dance, mime and acrobatics. It began in the Tang Dynasty with Emperor Xuanzong (712-756), who founded the Pear Garden opera troupe that performed for the emperor’s personal pleasure. To this day, operatic professionals are still called Disciples of the Pear Garden. There are many operatic forms all over China, but the Peking Opera (now Beijing Opera) became dominant and evolved into a popular entertainment.

By the time my grandparents arrived in the interior province of Hubei in 1891, during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Peking Opera was regarded as one of China’s cultural treasures. Beginning in 1894, the notorious Empress Dowager Cixi, who later during the Boxer Uprising tried to kill all foreigners, became a regular patron of Peking Opera and constructed elaborate theaters for the imperial court. My grandparents, the Ronnings, took their children to see the Pear Garden operatic troupes perform on a square outdoor stage that could be viewed from three sides. The musicians with traditional instruments, usually directed by a percussion player, were visible on the front part of the stage. The Ronnings sat with the common viewers on the south side of the stage. North is the most important direction in Peking Opera and as the performers entered from the east they immediately moved to “center north.” The characters always entered from the east and exited to the west.

My foreign family watched in awe and wonder as the actors, decked in dazzling costumes and symbolic masks in all colors, used unique skills of speech, song, dance, and traditional martial arts to perform the musical extravaganzas. The repertoire of Peking Opera now includes more than 1,400 works based on folklore and historical novels or traditional stories about civil, political and military struggles. Grandfather’s favorite was the well-known story of the Monkey King (Sun Wukong) inspired by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) classic legend “Journey to The West” by Wu Cheng’en. It tells of the trials and tribulations of the Buddhist Monk, Xuanzang, who journeyed to India in 630 to bring the Buddhist scriptures back to China. The climax comes when the mischievous Monkey King stirs up trouble in Heaven and kicks over the oven that was baking pills to cure immortals. Burning charcoals fell from the sky and formed the Flaming Mountains (Huoyan Shan). When the pilgrim was returning to China, the white monkey cooled the Flaming Mountains with a palm leaf so Xuanzang could pass.

I know this is the fiery truth, because I have seen the Flaming Mountains with my own eyes. The red tertiary sandstone mountains stretch some 60 miles along the edge of the Taklamakan Desert (Desert of No Return) in modern-day Xinjiang Province and while riding over the “Singing Sands” between the furry humps of a Bactrian camel, I saw the mountains burst into flames at sunset.

The opera stories are symbolic and suggestive rather than realistic. The performers adhere to a variety of stylistic movements and conventions that help the audience navigate the intricate and complex plots. Although the Ronning children could not understand the archaic grammatical form of classical Chinese or colloquial speech used onstage, they soon learned that Peking Opera did not aim to represent reality accurately but was based instead on allusions that everyone could understand. Character types were determined by conventional gestures, with hand and footwork used to signal particular actions to the audience. For example, walking in a large circle symbolizes traveling a long distance, and a character straightening his costume and headdress alerts the onlookers that an important character is about to speak. A whip is used to indicate a horse and an oar represents a boat. Ribbons and other props embody fire and brimstone.

At that time, Peking Opera was an exclusively male pursuit. The Qianlong Emperor had banned all female performers in 1772 and the ban was not lifted until 1912, although males continued to play female characters and sang falsetto. A majority of songs, usually sung in nasal tones, are within a range of an octave and a fifth. High pitch is a positive aesthetic value, so performers try to pitch songs at the very top of their range. The Chinese make extensive use of vocal vibrato during songs in a way that is slower and wider than vibrato used in Western performances. Vocal production is composed of “four levels of song,” with a sliding scale of vocalization that, when done well, creates a smooth continuity between songs and speech. (When Grandpa attempted to vocalize a dramatic aria, it always sounded more like the siren of a fire engine.)

When I first went to China in 1946 as a student at Nanking University, my favorite entertainment was Chinese opera. But after the Communists came to power, Peking Opera became a focal point of identity for both the Nationalists and the Communists, who had fought the Civil War. Shortly before the Communists captured Nanking, I was evacuated and the newly formed government moved to bring culture, including the opera, into line with Communist ideology and “make art and literature a component of the whole revolutionary machine.” As a popular art form, traditional opera has usually been the first of the arts to reflect changes in Chinese policy. In the mid-1950s, it was the first to benefit under the Hundred Flowers Campaign, with the birth of Jilin Opera, which was later attacked. Similarly, the attack in November 1965 on Beijing Deputy Mayor Wu Han and his historical play, “Hai Rui Dismissed From Office,” signaled the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.

By the time I returned to China as a journalist for The New York Times during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), most operatic troupes had been disbanded, performers and scriptwriters were persecuted and all dramatic works without Communist themes were considered subversive and banned. Western-style plays were condemned as “dead drama” and “poisonous weeds.” Mao Zedong’s ambitious wife, Jiang Qing, a former Shanghai actress, used Chinese opera as a tool to transmit Communist ideology. She produced eight, extremely boring “revolutionary operas” that became compulsory entertainment for reluctant factory workers and “special foreign guests.” She claimed her “model” operas expressed Mao’s view: “Art must serve the interest of the workers, peasants and soldiers and must conform to proletarian ideology.” But the night I attended “The Legend of the Red Lantern,” Madame Mao swept imperiously into the front row just as the curtain was rising, tossed the corner of her red opera cape over her shoulder and gave the audience a royal wave.

After the fall of the Gang of Four in 1976 and the suicide of Jiang Qing, Peking Opera enjoyed a revival. Both old and new works appeared. Revised and banned plays from China and abroad were reinstated in the national repertoire although many strained the limits of creative freedom and were alternately condemned and commended, depending on the political atmosphere. In modern China there has been a steady decline of audiences and patrons of traditional opera, which is attributed to both inferior performance quality and an inability to capture modern life. The influence of Western culture has left the high-tech younger generation impatient with the slow pace of traditional opera, but a modernized version is still drawing huge audiences abroad.

Audrey Ronning Topping’s new book, “China Mission: A Personal History From Imperial China to the People’s Republic” (Louisiana State University Press), is available on

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