History of China Opera: A Vibrant Mix of Tradition and Art

Who doesn’t enjoy watching the thrilling stories of the Chinese opera performed by characters styled and dressed colourfully? From exaggerated face paints to embellished costumes to scary characters, you’d never want to blink an eye. So, how it all started?

A History of Diverse Tradition

China opera or Chinese opera is one of the oldest forms of dramatic arts in the world. Its early roots can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907) under the reign of Emperor Xuanzong. The emperor founded the opera school which he called “Liyuan” or Pear of Garden. During this time, artists of the opera house perform to entertain the emperor. Until today, all Chinese operatic artists are called the “Disciples of the Pear Garden”.

Eventually, the emperor and the court officials of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) supported the Chinese opera. Since then it has become a well-loved traditional form of art in China. Moreover, it has become a popular trend during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). History makes it evident that these Chinese performers were seen in restaurants and other public places.

The history of Chinese opera spans hundreds of years. Time and tradition have developed it into a mix of different types of Chinese arts - songs, dances, and language. And the artistic combination of these forms of art resulted in a public performance on stage.Adding Chinese musical instruments like the traditional Erhu, the stage act creates distinct melodies and beautifully written literature.

Colorful Artistic Features of China Opera

One distinct feature of Chinese opera performers is the exaggerated facial make up which is also a product of an artistic method of painting. Each character’s face painting represents personality and fate which is influenced by ancient beliefs and customs. For instance, pink symbolizes sophistication and calmness while green signifies an impulsive behaviour.

The line is another element of the face painting. A character with a white face painting means the character is wicked. The bigger the white painted area the more violent he is. Also, there are face paintings that cover the whole face and those that cover the middle part of the face only.

The breath-taking gymnastic feats performed by the characters is another attribute of the Chinese opera.They can spew fire from their mouths like a dragon, or squat and jump at the same time.

Local Chinese Opera

The past 800 years has made the Chinese opera influence the locals and branch out according to their customs and beliefs. At present, there are more than 300 vibrant local opera styles. The Peking Opera, known as the standard opera of China is usually performed in Mandarin. It is greatly influenced by local opera styles.Kun opera from the Jiangsu Province highlights mildness and lucidity while the Qinqiang opera from Shaanxi features intensity. Below are other local forms of Chinese Opera:

  • Henan Opera
  • Huangmei Song (or Caicha Opera)
  • Kunqu Opera
  • Sichuan Opera
  • Ping Opera
  • Yue Opera

Watching a Chinese opera is such a wonderfully delightful experience, not only for Chinese folks, but for people from all over the world as well.