Peking opera or Beijing opera is a form of traditional Chinese theater which combines music, vocal performance, mime, dance, and acrobatics. It arose in the late 18th century and became fully developed and recognized by the mid-19th century.
The form was extremely popular in the Qing dynasty court and has come to be regarded as one of the cultural treasures of China. Major performance troupes are based in Beijing and Tianjin in the north, and Shanghai in the south. The art form is also preserved in Taiwan, where it is known as Guoju. It has also spread to other countries such as the United States and Japan.
Peking opera features four main types of performers. Performing troupes often have several of each variety, as well as numerous secondary and tertiary performers. With their elaborate and colorful costumes, performers are the only focal points on Peking opera’s characteristically sparse stage. They utilize the skills of speech, song, dance, and combat in movements that are symbolic and suggestive, rather than realistic. Above all else, the skill of performers is evaluated according to the beauty of their movements.
Performers also adhere to a variety of stylistic conventions that help audiences navigate the plot of the production. The layers of meaning within each movement must be expressed in time with music. The music of Peking opera can be divided into the Xipi and Erhuang styles. Melodies include arias, fixed-tune melodies, and percussion patterns. The repertoire of Peking opera includes over 1,400 works, which are based on Chinese history, folklore, and, increasingly, contemporary life.
Peking opera was denounced as ‘feudalistic’ and ‘bourgeois’ during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, and replaced with the eight revolutionary model operas as a means of propaganda and indoctrination. After the Cultural Revolution, these transformations were largely undone. In recent years, Peking opera has attempted numerous reforms in response to sagging audience numbers. These reforms, which include improving performance quality, adapting new performance elements, and performing new and original plays, have met with mixed success.
Peking opera was born when the ‘Four Great Anhui Troupes’ brought Anhui opera, or what is now called Huiju, in 1790 to Beijing, for the eightieth birthday of the Qianlong Emperor on 25 September. It was originally staged for the court and only made available to the public later. In 1828, several famous Hubei troupes arrived in Beijing and performed jointly with Anhui troupes. The combination gradually formed Peking opera’s melodies. Peking opera is generally regarded as having fully formed by 1845.