Play Content/Synopsis

Beijing opera traditional play plots are mainly based on historical stories, legends, myths folk tales and other kinds of local opera (Li 1988: x). Most of the play authors after the Yuan dynasty were unknown (Copland 1983: 6). Additionally and partly the reason for the anonymity was that actors altered the plays to get the attention of the audience and make a point of the opera more obvious. When new text was written music from older plays and traditional melodies would be used. Today Beijing opera singing and speech is rather difficult for Chinese speakers to understand. To compensate many theatres post the lyrics as subtitles next to the stage.

judotube1. 2010. Beijing Opera She Sai Hua 1 with English subtitle [sic]. Feb. 1. Youtube. Oct. 9.

The entire opera is performed with English subtitles. This is the first out of four parts of the opera. To access the other parts go to


  • Copland, Murray. 1983. The Jiangsu Peking Opera Theatre: the classical theatre of China: Australian tour. Sydney?: Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust.

    This is a excellent program with color pictures of actors and descriptions of Beijing opera aspects. Entire play segment dialogs are translated into English as well as discussions of traditions and conventions.

    "Yet these [Beijing operas] are nonetheless true operas, in which the spoken word alternates with recitative and aria, and prose with verse, according to the needs of the dramatic situation" (6).

  • Dong, Chensheng. 1981. Paintings of Beijing Opera Characters. Beijing: Zhaohua Publishing House. (also in Costumes)

    This book contains plot synopses and beautiful detailed watercolor paintings of the plays' characters. An afterword provides a short introduction to Beijing opera including watercolor paintings of different role types from different plays.

    "It may perhaps be said that Beijing opera employs the method of supposition, or impressionism, and for just that reason it is able to present on the stage scenes from real life that otherwise would be impossible to perform" (53).

  • Li, Nianpei. 1988. The Beating of the Dragon Robe: A Repertoire of Beijing Opera Synopses of 100 Most Popular Pieces. Beijing: China Travel and Tourism Press.
  • Watercolor pictures of certain characters in Beijing opera plays start off the book. The pictures are followed by 100 play synopses (with traditional Chinese characters titles along with the English titles) describing the plays plots and characters.

    "Zhong Kui, a scholar of extraordinary talent supposed to have lived under the Tang, is detested by the Emperor because of his ugliness resulting from a disease. Because of this he is deprived of his position as a successful candidate in the imperial examination. In an outburst of indignation, he takes his own life. His remains are encoffined and given a proper burial by Du Ping, a good friend of his" (114) [Zhong Kui Marries Off His Sister play excerpt].

  • Scott, A.C. 1967. Traditional Chinese Plays. Vol. 1. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

    Traditional Chinese Plays serves as an excellent introduction both to Beijing opera elements such as music and role type as well as 2 play scripts and performance gestures. In addition it gives in-depth insight on how the Chinese language affects text and music.

    "The text is here conceived as a kind of plan by which the reader could follow the continuing stage action were he watching the play and by which the performance of demonstrating actors could be explaining to students" (vii).

    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. Accessed on September 28, 2010, from

  • Yan, Liang. 2003. A Primer of Beijing Opera. Beijing, China: Foreign Languages Press.

    This book is a collection of 26 play plot synopses divided into seven categories: moral instruction, loyalty and duty, historical pieces, stories of palace intrigue, legal cases, love stories, and legends of immortals. There are also descriptions of the backgrounds and interactions between the performers.

    "Beijing opera is a unique type of dramatic narrative, that weaves together music, movement, and dialogue to unfold beautiful and moving stories drawn from Chinese history, biography, folk legend, literature" (7-8).

Scholarly Websites

  • Sun, Annie. 2005. Peking Opera. Summer. The Link. 4 Oct. 2010.

    Besides describing the basics of Beijing opera such as characters, makeup, and costumes, this PDF lists eight Beijing opera synopses.

  • Wang, Xu-Ming. 1997. Beijing Opera Arias. Apr. 2. 5 Oct. 2010.

    Six famous play stories are described on this part of Wang's Beijing opera website: Orphan of Zhao Family, Story of the White Snake, Fifteen Strings of Coppers, The Drunken Concubine. The Use of Empty City, and Unicorn-Trapping Purse. Each story has its own page.

Shizhao. 2009. Legend_of_the_White_Snake_in_ Beijing_Opera. Aug. 17. Wikimedia Commons. 4 Oct. 2010.