Hair ornaments such as hair pins, hair clasps and crowns were everyday embellishments of women in old China. During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing Dynasties (1644-1911), women’s hair ornaments expressed traditional Chinese thought and culture in exquisite, sophisticated techniques.
京劇/京剧, or, as it’s known to the west, “Beijing Opera” (I refuse to use the word Peking — it’s absolutely ridiculous), is a form of Chinese opera. Despite its name, which centers it around Beijing, the opera actually developed in the Anhui and Hubei provinces.
The Anhui portion of what makes up Beijing opera was brought to the capital in 1790 for a celebration of the emperor Qianlong’s birthday. The Hubei part was brought in 1828, and when the twain met, they started to form what in 1845 was the fully-developed Beijing opera.
Beijing Opera differentiates itself from the older forms though the use of different instruments, simplified melodies, reduction of vocal demands, and the introduction of true acrobatics into the performance. It became an increasingly popular form in the 19th century, endorsed by Cixi Taihou herself. It overtook even the older, more refined, and established forms, such as kunqu — something which is attributed to the simplicity of the form.
At first, jingju was not readily accessible by women — opera itself being restricted to an all-men art form by Qianlong Huangdi. Thus, it became the norm (and is something that often continues to this day) for men to crossdress in order to play the dan, or female, roles. But women began to unofficially appear in jinju in the 1870s, and Li Maoer, a former opera performer, created the first all-woman jingju troupe in Shanghai, and by the 1890s, the first commercial venues showcasing women in jingju appeared in Shanghai. And though male dan has not been rendered extinct, the ban on women in jingju was lifted in 1912 with the establishment of the Republic.
After 1949, the Communist Party tried to incorporate art into their policy and banned all operas with non-communist themes during the Cultural Revolution. Also during the Cultural Revolution, the “model operas” were established by Mao Zedong’s wife at the time, Jiang Qing, and were meant to “conform to the proletarian ideology.”
Despite its historical popularity, jingju has been on the decline since the latter half of the 20th century, due to the decline in quality of performances and its ability to reflect the realities of day-to-day life. Furthermore, the archaic language hampered enjoyment and the reintroduction of western culture left people impatient with the slow-moving style of the opera. This has lead to a series of reforms in opera — including schools to improve the quality of performance, the introduction of more modern elements into jingju, and the development of new operas — however, lack of funding and an adverse political climate has hampered the effort significantly.
Furthermore, Beijing opera has shifted from a more actor-based development of character to a more western director-based development, and has also started to show “technique for technique’s sake,” two things which are derided by performers.
Training to be an opera performer is an arduous task, one often begun at a very young age. Children are taught acrobatics, singing, and gestures (with a focus on imbuing highly stylised beauty into every movement) and are expected to know four main skills of Beijing opera — song, speech, dance-acting (which includes dance and pantomime), and combat (which includes acrobatics and knowing how to fight with a range of weapons). Training in the past was known to be exceedingly strict — pupils used to be handpicked by the masters and owed a debt to their teachers upon graduation, as their living fees were paid for by their teachers, and expected to pay that back through earnings.
After the establishment of the Republic of China, schools became more formal, and even stricter, with pupils rising as early as five and being beaten with bamboo sticks if a student made a mistake. Prior to the Japanese invasion in 1931, however, more lenient schools began to appear.
Schooling nowadays place a greater emphasis on academics and hierarchy, with teachers splitting students into primary, secondary, and tertiary roles, depending on talent.
Jingju has four main roles: sheng, dan, jing, and chou. Sheng is the main male role in jingju, and are generally civil and cultivated and gentle and sensible. It is divided up into laosheng (older male roles), hongsheng (the only two characters in this role are Guan Gong, the god of brotherhood, loyalty, and righteousness, and Taizu, the first emperor of the Song Dynasty), xiaosheng (younger male characters), and wusheng (the martial male role).
The dan is the female role, and is divided up into laodan (older female roles), wudan (martial female roles), daomadan (young female warriors), qingyi (virtuous and elite woman characters), and huadan (the energetic unmarried female role). Mei Lanfang, one of the most famous dan actors in Chinese history, was instrumental in creating a sixth dan subcategory called the huashan, which combined elements of the qingyi and the huadan.
Jing is probably the most recognisable (to westerners) form of jingju (no, jingju’s name does not derive from this role). It is the painted face male role, and while there are 15 basic faces, there are over 1000 variations. The faces are highly character-specific and derive from traditional colour symbolism and divination. (For example, red indicates loyalty and righteousness, white represents evil and slyness, etc.) These characters are often very forceful and their movements very exaggerated. Three of the main jing roles are the tongchui (song-heavy), jiazi (less singing and more physical performance), and wujing (martial).
Though the wuchou is one of the most demanding roles in opera, the Chou character is a minor character whose existence is derived from the belief that laughter and ugliness (hence the name “chou”) could drive away evil spirits. They are very often likable and foolish, and wear face paint distinct from the jing face paint by a patch of white chalk around the nose. It is divided up into the wenchou (jailer, merchant type characters) and the wuchou (martial characters). It is also the character who is closest to the gu (drums) and ban (clappers), and has traditionally been the role to rely on improvisation, though recent government disapproval has cut back on this aspect. They also tend to speak in the Beijing dialect.
And I have been writing this for the past hour and a half, and I am bored and tired, so for more information feel free to go here.