A Day at the Chinese Opera

Chinese Opera, A Ópera Chinesa, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

I am fortunate enough to have visited a number of wonderful exhibitions in my time, but only a few of them have had a profound effect on my life.  This one on Chinese Opera at the Museum of the Orient is in my top five most influential exhibitions.  On the back of it I have actually seen an performance by Peking Opera of The Fantastic Journey of Sun Wukong in Geneva.

The exhibition captures the magical, skilful, beautiful and charming aspects of Chinese Opera through costumes, props and plenty of footage of the actors performing.  Those acquainted with Japanese theatrical forms will find aspects familiar – the males playing female roles, the use of stylised gestures, the formalised mode of speech delivery, the use of music and dance – but the Chinese have some real kick-ass moves that are pretty unique and extremely awesome.

It’s also cool because the collection’s creator, the Hong Kong based Kwok On, was a huge fan of opera and as well as singing songs from it, he actually made his own wooden puppets and musical instruments.

So, in a naive way I thought that maybe I could write a really informative piece on Chinese Opera, but clearly that was never going to happen.  Nevertheless I hope to try and share my new-found enthusiasm for this fascinating theatrical tradition.

A Super-Short History of Chinese Opera

First of all, to call the art form ‘opera’ isn’t very accurate – this is not the world of Verdi or Puccini where consumptives die at the end of five minute arias.  The Chinese word for their ‘opera’ is ‘xiqu’ which translates better as ‘sung theatre’.  This also happens to be a more accurate description of the performance, where the music acts as a support rather than the driving force of the story.

Nevertheless, for the convenience of writing this post, I will still refer to it as opera.

The route of theatre into China has traditionally been attributed to Ancient Greece.  It then moved out into India – so the theory goes – in the wake of Alexander the Great, and got adopted by Buddhists to help disseminate their hagiography in India.  Via the Buddhist monks, the art entered China, and took root.

The earliest depiction of performers in China are on the engraved stones dating from the Han dynasty (206BC-220AD) which show jugglers, acrobats and dancers.

Print made from Han period stones showing Mountebacks and Acrobats, 19th century, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Print made from engraved stones showing a Banquet Scene, Han Dynasty, Cheng Du Monastery, Sichuan, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Print made from engraved stones showing a Banquet Scene, Han Dynasty, Cheng Du Monastery, Sichuan, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

There were, naturally enough, many different theatrical forms that existed in China, some more focussed on storytelling, others using dance to tell their tales.  The history of the emergence of Chinese Opera is complex and, by what I’ve read, slightly controversial, in that there are various theories concerning its creation, so I’m sticking to what was written in the exhibition’s book.  Basically the most important thing is that the modern opera is the child of multiple regional traditions of China, and regional operas still exist.

A link is also seen between the theatrics on stage for entertainment, and the important religious role of ritual exorcisms.  In pre-classical China, exorcisms were regularly performed to dispel ghosts and demons, which involved nocturnal processions.  Even at funerals a masked character, Kaishan, the opener of Mountains, led the funeral cortege.

In the province of Guizhou, they have masks called dixi, which demonstrates another type of exorcism.  Each community has its own company of amateurs who perform the same piece at New Year – it’s designed to protect the community as well as to entertain.  The stories are historical, with real characters (who are usually reincarnations of stars or planets) and when an actor dons the mask, he is inhabiting the spirit of that character – he’s a temporary reincarnation of that great man.  In this mode they go around the community, from house to house, bringing the occupants peace and prosperity.  At the end, a character ‘sweeps the scene’ and thus dispels whatever evil ghosties have remained behind.

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Masks used in exorcist theatre, from different eras, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Masks used in exorcist theatre, from different eras, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

It was in Quanzhou in Fujian Province that Chinese Opera began. Quanzhou was home to a large maritime port that saw considerable international influence in the 11th century – including Tamil traders who built a temples to their gods.  It is therefore relevant that one of the oldest known operas is drawn from Kalidas’ Shakuntala (within a Chinese context), demonstrating the Indian theatrical influence on China.  Soon the opera spread through other provinces and became codified, entering a golden period in the late 1300s.

Only 160 operas have survived from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), but what they show is the sheer range of subjects: police investigations and ghost stories were played alongside historical dramas and the legendary escapades of deities.  The tales were diverse, but the types of characters that existed in each play were basically the same: you have the sheng, the main male role, the dan, the female, the jing, who are forceful, painted-faced male roles, and chou – the male clown.

The training that the actors have to undertake is intense: they have to sing, act, do acrobatics… and they work in a field where they must learn everything just right, according to tradition.  They speak in an artificial voice which is carefully codified, and they have, for example, 27 types of laugh to learn.  Yes, 27.  That covers everything from a laugh at stupidity to a laugh at betrayal.  Then there are the moves: each one has its own name, and each is specific to the type of character the actor plays.  Naturally, the costumes and make-up are also important, being strictly defined and expressing their own meanings.  Watching actors paint their faces is sort of riveting – if you’re interested, Youtube is full of lots of videos, but click here for one which I found amazing.

Anyway, let’s get on with looking at the collection.  I think it gives a fair overview of the range of amazingness on show.

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Figures for the Theatre Entrance, c1972, Guangdong, polychrome glazed terracotta, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal. The figures were placed in front of a temporary stage to signal the performance.

Hua Guang, god of Cantonese Opera, Guangdong, c1940, wood, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Hua Guang, god of Cantonese Opera, c1940, Guangdong, wood, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Musical instruments used in Chinese Opera, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Make up Models, c1972, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Make up Models, c1972, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Bamboo Costume, early 20th century, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal.  Mei Lanfang designed this to help protect the costumes from sweat.

Bamboo Costume, early 20th century, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal. Mei Lanfang designed this to help protect the costumes from sweat.

Manchu Shoes, c1920, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Manchu Shoes, c1920, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Headdress, c1950, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Headdress, c1950, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Headdress for aScholar,  c1973, Guangdong, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Headdress for a Scholar, c1973, Guangdong, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Headress for an Empress, c1973, Hong Kong, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Headress for an Empress, c1973, Hong Kong, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

View of the gorgeous displays on Chinese Opera at the Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

View of the gorgeous displays on Chinese Opera at the Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Back of the Mang costume, c1970, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Back of the Mang costume, c1970, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Mang costume, c1970, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Mang costume, c1970, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Young Lady Costume, c1960, Guangdong, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Young Lady Costume, c1960, Guangdong, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Detail of a Young Lady Costume, c1960, Guangdong, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Detail of a Young Lady Costume, c1960, Guangdong, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Fugui Yi Costume, c1970, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Fugui Yi Costume, c1970, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Kao costume for a Jing Warrior, c1970, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Kao costume for a Jing Warrior, c1970, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Chou Costume, c1980, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Chou Costume, c1980, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Dan Costume, c1980, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Dan Costume, c1980, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Bagua Yi ceremonial costume for the character of Zhuge Liang in The Three Kingdoms, c1960, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Bagua Yi ceremonial costume for the character of Zhuge Liang in The Three Kingdoms, c1960, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Ceremonial Mang costume, c1970, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Gongzhuang Costume, c1990, Sichuan, Chengdu, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Gongzhuang Costume, c1990, Sichuan, Chengdu, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Chen Miaochang and a boatman from Autumn River, c1970, c1980, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Evocative paintings of characters on panels in the Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Evocative paintings of characters on panels in the Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

A section on Mei Lanfang (1894-1961) was pretty cool.  He was a famous actor who specialised in the female roles (dan) and he was one of the first to successfully tour the world with his Chinese Opera group.  He is obviously a real legend of the genre, so it was nice to introduce him to us newbies through a charming display of his personal items.

The 'dressing room' of Mei Lanfang, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

The ‘dressing room’ of Mei Lanfang, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Dressing table of Mei Lanfang, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Dressing table of Mei Lanfang, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Mei Lanfang's self-portrait, Beijing, unknown date, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Mei Lanfang’s self-portrait, unknown date, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Fan painted by the actor Mei Lanfang on stage, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Fan painted by the actor Mei Lanfang on stage, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Fan painted by the actor Mei Lanfang on stage, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Fan painted by the actor Mei Lanfang on stage, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Fan with Painted Peonies painted by the actor Jiang Miaoxiang on stage, 1948, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Fan with Painted Peonies painted by the actor Jiang Miaoxiang on stage, 1948, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Book of Sketches for an Opera, c1956, Guangdong, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal. Exercise book of sketches by the Cantonese opera musician Chen He, with illustrations of characters participating in the performances. The book-libretto was produced in manuscript form by the author at the age of 92 and comes with a preface by Kwok On.

Rod puppet heads, c1950, Guangdong and Hong Kong, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Rod puppet heads, c1950, Guangdong and Hong Kong, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Masks from Sichuan, 1992, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Masks from Sichuan, 1992, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Mang ceremonial costume and mask, Jiaguan character,  c1970,Sichuan, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Mang ceremonial costume and mask, Jiaguan character, c1970, Sichuan, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Mang ceremonial costume and mask, Jiaguan character,  c1970,Sichuan, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Mang ceremonial costume and mask, Jiaguan character, c1970, Sichuan, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Detail of a model of the Legend of the White Snake, c1970, Siu Hip Lee Company, Chaozhou, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Detail of a model of the Legend of the White Snake, c1970, Siu Hip Lee Company, Chaozhou, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Rod Puppet of Xu Xian from White Snake and Blue Snake, c1950, Guangdong, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Rod Puppet of Blue Snake from White Snake and Blue Snake, c1950, Guangdong, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Rod Puppet of Blue Snake from White Snake and Blue Snake, c1950, Guangdong, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Detail of the Rod Puppet of Xu Xian from White Snake and Blue Snake, c1950, Guangdong, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Sun Wukong Statue, c1930, Beijing, wood and feathers, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Characters from the Journey to the West, (Zhu Bajie, Monk Xuanzang, Sun Wukong and Shaseng), c1980, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Sun Wukong from the Journey to the West, c1980, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Rod Puppet character of Shaseng, from Journey to the West, c1970, Shaanxi, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Characters from the West Wing Pavilion (Maid Hang Niang and the Mother of Yingying), c1970, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Characters from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Zhuge Liang, Liu Bei, Guan Yu, Cao Cao and Zhang Fei) c1970, Sichuan, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, c1970, Sichuan, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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The costume for Guan Yu from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, c1970, Sichuan, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Costume for the character of Zhou Yu from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, c1970, Sichuan, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Costume for the character of Zhou Yu from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, c1970, Sichuan, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Puppets seen from behind for the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, 1930, by Ti Tian Lu, Taiwan, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Detail from the engraving of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, c1920, Tianjin, Yangliuquing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Engraving of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, c1920, Tianjin, Yangliuquing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal. Zhao Zilong saves his master Liu Bei.

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Domestic Shrine for Guan Yu, c1960, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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The Tiger from Water Margin, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Print of the scene Wu Song combats the Tiger from Water Margin, c1960, Feng Xiang, Shaanxi, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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A scene from Chinese opera, 1989, Wang Yishi, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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A scene from Chinese opera, 1989, Wang Yishi, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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A scene from Chinese opera, 1989, Wang Yishi, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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A scene from Chinese opera, 1989, Wang Yishi, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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A scene from Chinese opera, 1989, Wang Yishi, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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A scene from Chinese opera, 1989, Wang Yishi, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Three Kingdoms Wall Hanging, c1993, Sichuan, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Detail of the Three Kingdoms Wall Hanging, c1993, Sichuan, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Detail of the Three Kingdoms Wall Hanging, c1993, Sichuan, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Detail of the Three Kingdoms Wall Hanging, c1993, Sichuan, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Detail of the Three Kingdoms Wall Hanging, c1993, Sichuan, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Detail of the Three Kingdoms Wall Hanging, c1993, Sichuan, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Toy, 20th century, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Toy, 20th century, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

The opera went through a bad period after the Communists came to power in 1949.  This was not helped by the fact that Jiang Qing, Chairman Mao’s wife, was a failed actress.  She persecuted actors with bitter hatred, leading to many of them getting to beaten to death or committing suicide.  She also saw to it that the ‘immoral’ works that had previously been in the repertoire were banned and replaced by appropriate revolutionary pieces.

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Paper cuts showing scenes from The White Haired Girl Ballet, c1960, Hupei, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

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Glove Puppets for The Red Lantern, c1970, Beijing, Museum of the Orient, Lisbon, Portugal

Fortunately after the death of Mao, the opera was able to resurface, but because of the persecutions, there weren’t many people with the necessary skills to perform.  Schools have been opened up to train actors and so hopefully the tradition will continue to flourish, even if in its home country it isn’t as popular as it once was.  The old-fashioned language is apparently off-putting, which is incredibly sad given how engaged an audience in Switzerland was able to be in spite of the surtitles.  Let’s hope all that changes as the young start to re-engage with their culture and heritage.

So In Summary

As I said at the beginning, this was a fantastic exhibition.  It was beautifully curated, thoughtfully arranged, amazingly displayed… it gave such a perfect overview of the art that you really got to understand its history and its major themes, as well as its visual splendour.   Alongside the displays were videos that allowed you to hear and see various operas in performance, which was useful because there is so much to the genre that you really need to watch a performance to start to get it.  I was so lucky in being able to see the Peking Opera quite recently and it made sense of a lot of what we’d been introduced to in Lisbon.

Thank you Mr Kwok On for your awesome collection, but thank you the curators of the exhibition for doing it such justice.

 

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