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.

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.

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.

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.

I was particularly taken with paintings by an artist named Wang Yishi who created some super images which captured the spirit of various plays.  I tried to find out more, but unfortunately there’s nothing out there on the web (in English, anyway).

A huge display of delicate paper-cut figures was also fascinating.  They were undated, so most of them were presumably from the last forty odd years, but they are just adorable, and very expressive.

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.

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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