Have you ever been to an Opera? If yes or not the Opera in China is different from the western Opera. Especially the Beijing Opera is know in the Foreign Countries and is considered as one of the four “musts” to see when travelling to Beijing. It is a special and unique experience that will provide you an insight into Chinese Culture.

Beijing Opera (chin. Jīngjù) is a sort of traditional Chinese theatre which combines music, singing, miming, dancing and acrobatics. It is said that it had its birth in 1790, when four opera troupes of the Anhui province came to Beijing to perform on the occasion of the 80th birthday of the Emperor. Soon some other theater companies from the region of Hubei followed and over the years, Beijing Opera was formed by a combination of various music and performing techniques. It was watched by a wide range of audiences from all social classes from the beginning on. Where at the beginning only male performers were allowed to play, in 1870 also women were allowed to participate.

There are four fixed types of characters in Beijing Opera. Sheng(male role), dan (female role), jing(painted face) and chou (male clowns). The roles can be played by women or men as long as they can manage to learn the specific singing style.

The manifoldness of colors and patterns of the makeup and costumes is probably one of the most astonishing features of Beijing Opera. Each role has its meaningful makeup and each costume gives fundamental information about the nature of the characters.

A lot of imagination is needed as Beijing Opera uses only little visual assistance. An item like a table can be used in various ways such as a bed, a bridge, a mountain or sometimes even a horse. Items can also be indicated by gestures.

There are theaters where the Beijing Opera has been adapted for travelers which mean there are some explanations at the beginning and English subtitles during the play. The play “White Bone Spirit” can be recommended. It is adapted from the tale “Journey to the West”, which belongs to one of the four great classic Chinese novels. The story is about the Monk Xuan Zang and his three disciples Sunwukong, Sandy and Pigsy who made a journey to the west to get the Buddhist scriptures. On their way they have to overcome a lot of danger and demons.

The actual hero of the story is the “Monkey King” Sunwukong who has a lot of magic skills and is extremely smart. Moreover he has the power to see through any disguise and therefore is able to find evil demons. These skills can be seen in the Beijing Opera play “White Bone Spirit” in which a demon desires to eat the flesh of the Monk Xuan Zang. The demon transforms into a beautiful girl and offers the Monk poisoned fruit. But Sunwukong sees through it and kills the demon. The others don’t believe him and scold him for killing the girl. However the demon was not death and returns a second time as an old woman and also a third time as an old man after got killed again by Sunwukong. After having killed the old man, the Monk is very angry and sends Sunwukong away. After Sunwukong left, the demon returns and captures the Monk. But Sunwukong returns and kills the demon finally.

Additional information about Beijing Opera

There has been one foreigner named Ghaffar Pourazar who mastered the difficult training program at The National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts in Beijing. At the time he entered the Academy he was already 32 years old. He especially mastered the role of the Monkey King. Today he is 50 and still lives for Beijing Opera and tries to promote it in the western world and to hold it as a very important part of Chinese culture upright in order to protect it from being forgotten.

In 2010 Beijing Opera was declared “Intangible Cultural Heritage” by the UNESCO. So it is definitely worth do see it and a special part of Chinese culture. Therefore don’t miss to see a play of Beijing opera while travelling to Beijing.

Jack Li

1 Response » to “Get to know Beijing Opera with Journey to the West”

  1. Song says:

    well written. I feel a bit shamed that I know so little about BJ opera than a non-Chinese.

    Thanks for the great work.

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