History/General Information

I view Beijing opera as an opera genre that transmits culture through performing stories, events, and myths that occurred throughout Chinese history. The play story is transmitted through actor's highly structured movements, costumes, face-painting as well as the actions of singing, speaking, dance-movement and fighting (Wichmann 1991:2) (Mackerras 1997: vii).

The first recorded date of a Beijing opera performance was in 1790 for the Qianlong emperor in Beijing (MacKerras 1997: 1) (Xu 2003: 14-15) (Guy: History para. 1). It originated from Anhui troupes that came to Beijing, combining xipi and erhuang music (MacKerras: 1) (Guy: para. 1). Beijing opera slowly grew and gained popularity over the next century (MacKerras: 13). After 1860 it began spreading outside Beijing to all over China (Xu: 16). It had its height in the early decades of the twentieth century (Guy: para. 4). When the Chinese Communist Party took control of the country in 1949 Beijing opera underwent major reform (Guy: History para. 10). In the late 1970s, after the Cultural Revolution and the opening of China to the West, many young Chinese began to lose interest in Beijing opera (para. 13). They instead turned to other entertainment such as television and foreign pop music (MacKerras: 61). Moreover troupe funding from the government has been cut (Guy: para. 13). With limited audiences and money, Beijing opera troupes in China today are having more difficulty surviving and keeping Beijing opera as a living tradition.

star5112. 2006. Pekingoperahousepic4.jpg. Wikimedia. December 16.

"The old-style Chinese style stage was square, with two poles on either side at the front and the audience seated on three sides. Several of these traditional stage survive in Beijing, especially in the Summer Palace and other previously aristocratic quarters, as well as one in Tianjin" (MacKerras 1997:38).


  • Guy, Nancy. 2004. "Beijing opera." In The New Grove Encyclopedia of Music , ed. Stanley Sadie, 2nd ed, 3rd vol, pp. 148-152. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Also on online at:

    Guy, Nancy. n.d. Beijing opera. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com. 17 Jun. 2010.
    (Used in this project's research)

    This concise encyclopedia entry discusses the history of Beijing opera as well as its music. The history goes from its origins as Anhui province troupes performing in Beijing to the status of Beijing opera in the 1980s and 1990s. The second part describes the music, including the structure of the modes and arias and orchestra instruments.

    "Purely percussive music constitutes another important kind of Beijing opera music. Percussion patterns punctuate the actors' speech and movement, provide sound effects and mark the structural divisions of an opera including its beginning, ending and scene changes" (Music: para. 5).

  • Hsu Tao-ching. 1985. The Chinese Conception of the Theatre. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

    Hsu, with a in-depth knowledge of both European and Chinese theatre, provides an introduction to Chinese theater through the Chinese viewpoint. He addresses readers familiar with European theatre on how Chinese view theatre by explaining the means of convention, story, acting, and conventions. He also goes in-depth in Chinese theatre history and a detailed comparison between Chinese and European theatre and through this comparison allows readers to better understand what is theater in general.

    "Most people are inclined to think that only one form of theatre -- the form they know -- is natural because their appreciation of that form appears to be effortless and natural" (5).

    Readers should note that this book is a general introduction to Chinese theatre that is helpful in understanding Beijing opera's background. It is not a specific discussion on Beijing opera. This book uses the Wade-Giles romanization instead of the pinyin. If you want to convert Wade-Giles to pinyin click on the Wade-Giles convertor link below.

    Library of Congress Pinyin Conversion Project. 1999. New Chinese Romanization Guidelines. Library of Congress. May 28. http://www.loc.gov/catdir/pinyin/romcover.html. 28 Sept. 2010.

  • MacKerras, Colin P. 1972. The Rise of the Peking Opera 1770-1870: Social Aspects of the Theatre in Manchu China. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    This book focuses on the historical social context of Beijing opera from 1770 to 1870, mainly the development of Beijing opera musical style, well-known actor biographies, and influence on Chinese society. Appendices consist of on Qing dynasty emperors, information on book collections of the theater of Beijing opera from 1770 to 1870, and a description of some plays already discussed in the book.

    "Naturally, no plans or appointments could be made in advance, and the [acting] companies [from the 16th to the 18th centuries] would turn up unexpectedly in a village or town. They would stay at an inn for a few days, give performances for the common people, and then move on to the next place" (41).

    This book uses the Wade-Giles romanization instead of the pinyin. If you want to convert Wade-Giles to pinyin click on the Wade-Giles convertor link below.

    Library of Congress Pinyin Conversion Project. 1999. New Chinese Romanization Guidelines. Library of Congress. May 28. http://www.loc.gov/catdir/pinyin/romcover.html. 28 Sept. 2010.

  • MacKerras, Colin. 1997. Peking Opera. New York: Oxford University Press.

    This book is a concise introduction to Beijing opera. It covers such aspects as history, content, and the status of Beijing opera in the mid-1990s.

    "In Western opera the categorization of roles generally follows the distinctions of vocal range, with gender implied in those distinctions: soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone, and bass. In the Peking Opera categories, and indeed those of other forms of Chinese drama, vocal range is not a central factor, but the gender of the character is essential, with age, social status, rank, and personality being important as well" (40).

  • Xu, Chengbei. 2003. Peking Opera. Trans. Gengtao Chen. Beijing: Intercontinental Press.

    Inside this book is an overview of Beijing opera, discussing subjects such as Beijing opera history, performance, music, role types, and conventions. Pictures on almost every page bring the opera to life as well as providing another perspective on the opera.

    "Peking Opera performers are a special group of artists. In the past, they did not generally have a high social status" (67).

  • Xu, Chengbei. 2006. An Afternoon Tea of Beijing Opera Tidbits. Trans. Yawtsong Lee. San Francisco: Long River Press.

    This book is divided into thirty-six short chapters followed by a thirty-seventh closing chapter. Each describes different parts of Beijing opera and customs such as the famous Beijing opera actor Tan Xinpei (1847-1917) decision to move from the wusheng (martial male) role to the laosheng (old male) role and payment to actors before 1949.

    "Beijing used to be divided into the Inner City and the Outer City. In the waning years of the Qing dynasty and the early days of the republican era, the opera theaters were mainly located in the Outer City. The opera fans among the nobility of the Qing dynasty used to go from the Inner City to the Outer City to catch the middle part of the show (from 9 or 10PM) which ended round one or two o'clock in the morning. By that time the city gates were already shut and they had to stay at some small inn till the gates reopened at dawn" (195).


Internet Resources:

  • Asian Arts and Culture. 2007. Tales from the Beijing Opera. April 5. http://www.umass.edu. 5 Oct. 2010. (also in Teachers' Resources)

    This study guide, part of a Beijing opera performance called Tales from a Beijing Opera on April 5, 2007 has information about Beijing opera costumes, makeup, performance as well as Beijing opera students and a memoir of actor Zhou Xinlai. Interspersed through this information are discussion questions as well as two class activities that can be done before seeing a Beijing opera performance.

  • Chinaculture.org. 2009. chinaculture [spacing as on the website]. Ministry of Culture, P.R.China. http://www.chinaculture.org/index.html. 9 Oct. 2010.

    This China Ministry of Culture website provides information on Chinese cultural events. Search for Beijing opera and/or Peking opera to find the latest news on Beijing opera performances within and outside China.

  • ChinaCulture.org. 2010. Peking Opera. http://www1.chinaculture.org/library/2008-01/24/content_44014_2.htm. Oct. 9.

    This Chineseculture.org library website has an page of introduction about Beijing opera as well as makeup colors, performance skills, music, role types, and play content. The pages on the original Anhui opera troupes that started Beijing opera as well as the amateur performers (piaoyu and piaofang) are recommended because they cover material in depth that is not found on other internet resources.

  • ChinaReport.com. 2009. The Folk Art of Peking Opera and Kunqu. Jan. 9. www.drben.net. http://www.tourasia.org/ChinaReport/Sources/PekingOpera-Kunqu.html. This website has links to several different Beijing opera introductions, theatres, and Mei Lanfang resources.

  • Chinese Institute for Chinese Performing Arts. 2010. Introduction to Beijing opera. http://www.cicpa-us.org/introduction-to-beijing-opera.html. Oct. 9.

    This web page from a California based Chinese Performance Association gives a short introduction to the character roles, history, symbolism, makeup, and costumes.

  • Cultural Resources. 2010. The Development of Traditional Chinese Opera. Pasadena City College. http://www.pasadena.edu/divisions/language/chinese/cultural/opera.html. Oct. 4.

    This website provides a brief introduction on Beijing opera origins, symbolism, music, character roles, costume, makeup, and the famous actor Mei Lanfang.

  • Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal. 2007. Peking Opera. Oct. 24. http://np.china-embassy.org/eng/Culture/wh/t167626.htm. 9 Oct. 2010.

    Historical origins, plays, role type, performance, costumes, music, and painted faces are all discussed in detail on this web page. Of particular interest is the information on costumes, stage layout, and music.

  • Levine, Wendy. 1995. The Development of Beijing Opera During the Cultural Revolution in China. http://home.earthlink.net/~athenart/opera/boindex.html. 3 Oct. 2010.

    This page contains excerpts from a thesis titled The Development of Beijing Opera During the Cultural Revolution in China. Most of the links are broken but there is an excellent bibliography about Chinese opera and China.

  • National Theatre for the Performing Arts. 2010. Grand New Epic Peking Opera: Red Cliff. http://www.chncpa.org/n457779/n457834/n516566/3965962.html. Oct. 9.

    A 2008 new Beijing opera play: Red Cliff is described on this web page. The names of some contemporary Beijing opera performers, directors, producers and other staff are listed. Pictures of the performers in costume are also included.

  • New World Encyclopedia. 2009. Beijing opera. Jan. 23. Mediawiki. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Beijing_opera?oldid=909874. 6 Oct. 2010.

    This web page article was complied by multiple authors. It contains Beijing opera's history, performers and their roles, performance aspects such as music and costumes, and repertoire.

  • Wang, Ling. 2001. Opera. Dec. http://www.all.umn.edu/chinese_language/Resource/ChnBizCulture/Chinese_Culture/Opera.htm. 4 Oct. 2010.

    A general introduction to Beijing opera including role types, music, masks, costumes, and content is on this website.

  • Wang, Xu-ming. 1997. Beijing Opera. http://www.chinapage.org/main2.html. 8 Oct. 2010.

    In order to find the correct area click on the Beijing opera tab. On the following pages is information about Beijing opera role types, performers, stories, speech and song, and the influence of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) on Beijing. Links to other pages are also found here. Many of the sound recordings are unplayable on most PC computers. An exception is the Aria and Dialogue page with the fourth and following 16 arias playing on Windows Media Player (see Performance page for more details).

  • Wikipedia. 2010. Beijing opera. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beijing_opera. Oct. 5.

    This entry complied by multiple authors continues information on aspects of Beijing opera such as role types, history, music and training. It also has an extensive bibliography and lists some films that incorporate Beijing opera.