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3.1 Chinese Visual and Performing Arts

7 min readjanuary 2, 2023

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Chinese Visual and Performing Arts

Peking Opera

Peking opera, also known as Beijing opera (京剧 jīngjù), is a traditional Chinese form of theater that combines music, vocal performance, mime, dance, and acrobatics. It is believed to have originated in the late 18th century during the Qing dynasty (清朝 qīngcháo), when it was known as "Yang Ban Xi" (秧板戏 yāngbǎnxì). This was a type of variety show that featured skits, music, and dance, and it was popular among the common people.
Over time, Peking opera evolved into a more sophisticated and structured form of theater, incorporating elements from other traditional Chinese arts such as literature, music, and acrobatics. The style of Peking opera that we know today was largely developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it became an important part of Chinese culture and entertainment.
Peking opera has a complex system of vocalization, which involves the use of different pitches and tones to convey meaning and emotion. It also has a distinct set of hand gestures and body movements that are used to communicate with the audience.
One of the unique features of Peking opera is the elaborate costumes and makeup worn by the performers. Peking opera has a wide range of characters, including heroes, villains, and comedic figures. Each character has a specific style of costume and makeup that helps to convey their personality and role in the story. For example, the "painted face" characters (花旦 huādàn) are typically female roles played by male actors, and they are known for their highly stylized makeup and extravagant costumes.
In Peking opera, the colors used in the costumes and makeup of the characters often have symbolic meanings that help to convey the character's personality and role in the story. Here are some common color symbols in Peking opera:
  • White (白 bái): White is a color that is often associated with malevolence and trickery. Characters wearing white are often depicted as sinister, evil, and crafty, and are typically the villains of the story. Examples of a famous Peking opera character who might wear white masks include Cao Cao (曹操 cáocāo).
  • Yellow (黄 huáng): Yellow is a color that is often associated with cruelty. Characters wearing yellow are often depicted as evil, hypocritical, ambitious, or sly. Examples of a famous Peking opera character who might wear yellow masks include Tuxing Sun (荼邪孙 túxié sūn).
  • Green (绿 lǜ): Green is a color that is often associated with violence and impulsive behavior. Characters wearing green may be depicted as lacking restraint or self-control, and may also symbolize a chivalrous nature.Examples of a famous Peking opera character who might wear green masks include Zheng Wun (郑武 zhèngwǔ).
  • Blue (蓝 lán): Blue is a color that is often associated with neutrality. Characters wearing blue may be depicted as stubborn, astute, and fierce, and are often shown as being steadfast and loyal to one side. Examples of a famous Peking opera character who might wear blue masks include Xiahou Dun (夏侯惇 xiàhóudùn).
  • Black (黑 hēi): Black is a color that is often associated with neutrality and roughness. Characters wearing black may be depicted as impartial, integrity, loyal, and upright. Examples of a famous Peking opera character who might wear black masks include Zhang Fei (张飞 zhāngfēi).
  • Red (红 hóng): Red is a color that is often associated with bravery and good fortune. Characters wearing red are often depicted as heroes or other positive characters. Examples of a famous Peking opera character who might wear red masks include Guan Yu (关羽 guān yǔ).
The colors used in Peking opera can help to convey the character's personality and role in the story, and they are an important part of the performance. It's important to note that these are just a few examples, and that the characters and their mask colors may vary depending on the specific opera and the symbolism being used. In general, the colors of the masks can be significant in conveying the character's role and personality in the story.
In a Peking opera performance, the actors use a combination of singing, speaking, and chanting to convey the story and emotions of the characters. The vocals in Peking opera are highly stylized and use a range of techniques, including vibrato, trills, and glissandi, to convey emotions and convey the story to the audience. The music is played by a small orchestra and features a variety of instruments, including percussion, strings, and wind instruments. The music in Peking opera includes both traditional Chinese instruments, such as the erhu (二胡 èrhú), dizi (笛子 dízi), and pipa (琵琶 pípa), as well as Western instruments like the piano and violin. 
Acrobatic fight scenes, also known as wuxia (武侠 wǔxiá), are an integral part of Peking opera and are designed to showcase the physical prowess and martial arts skills of the performers. These scenes often involve complex choreography, elaborate stage effects, and the use of weapons such as swords and spears, to create a sense of excitement and tension. The acrobatic fight scenes in Peking opera are meant to entertain the audience and also help to advance the plot of the story.
Throughout its history, Peking opera has undergone many changes and has been influenced by various cultural and political forces. Today, it continues to be an important part of Chinese culture and is enjoyed by people around the world.
There are many famous Peking operas that have been enjoyed by audiences around the world but here are a few examples:
  • "The Legend of the White Snake" (白蛇传 báishé zhuàn): This is a classic Chinese folk tale about a snake spirit who transforms into a beautiful woman and falls in love with a mortal man. The story has been adapted into numerous Peking opera performances, and it is known for its beautiful music and elaborate fight scenes.
  • "The Monkey King" (西游记 xīyóu jì): This is a popular Chinese myth about a mischievous monkey who gains magical powers and goes on a journey to the Western Paradise. The story has been adapted into numerous Peking opera performances, and it is known for its humorous and action-packed scenes.
  • "The Story of the Western Wing" (西厢记 xīxiāng jì): This is a famous Chinese love story about a scholar and his mistress, who are separated by the scholar's arranged marriage. The story has been adapted into numerous Peking opera performances, and it is known for its beautiful music and emotional scenes.
  • "The Palace of Eternal Youth" (长生殿 chángshēng diàn): This is a popular Peking opera that tells the story of a prince who embarks on a journey to find the Palace of Eternal Youth, a magical place where one can live forever. The story is known for its beautiful music and elaborate fight scenes.

Notable Chinese Actors

In addition to China’s traditional performing arts scene, China has a rich and vibrant film industry that has produced some of the most influential and popular movies in the world. From the early days of Chinese cinema to the modern era, the country has produced a wide range of talented actors and directors who have made their mark on the global film industry. Here are some of the most notable Chinese actors and modern Chinese films that have gained international acclaim.
  1. Jackie Chan (成龙, Chéng Lóng) - Jackie Chan is a Hong Kong actor, singer, and director known for his acrobatic fighting style, comedic timing, and innovative stunts in films such as "Drunken Master," "Police Story," and "Rush Hour." He is one of the most recognized and successful actors in the world, and has contributed significantly to the development of the Hong Kong film industry.
  2. Fan Bingbing (范冰冰, Fàn Bīngbīng) - Fan Bingbing is a Chinese actress, model, and singer who rose to fame in the late 1990s and early 2000s. She has been recognized as one of the most successful and influential actresses in China, and has won numerous awards for her performances in film and television. She is known for her roles in films such as "X-Men: Days of Future Past" and "I Am Not Madame Bovary."
  3. Zhang Ziyi (章子怡, Zhāngziyí): Zhang Ziyi is a popular actress in China 🇨🇳 who has appeared in many films, including "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Memoirs of a Geisha." She is known for her beauty and acting talent and is often considered a style icon in China.
  4. Yang Mi (杨幂, Yáng Mì) - Yang Mi is a Chinese actress and singer who has gained widespread popularity in China and across Asia. She is known for her roles in both film and television, and has won numerous awards for her performances.
  5. Jet Li (李连杰, Lǐ Liánjié) - a Chinese film actor, film producer, martial artist, and retired Wushu champion who has appeared in numerous films, including "Lethal Weapon 4," "Hero," and "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor."
  6. Bruce Lee (李小龙, Lǐ Xiǎolóng) - a Hong Kong-American actor, filmmaker, and martial artist who is considered one of the most influential martial artists of all time. He is best known for his roles in films such as "Enter the Dragon" and "Way of the Dragon."
  7. Zhou Xun (周迅, Zhōu Xùn) - a Chinese actress and singer known for her roles in films such as "The Flowers of War" and "The Equation of Love and Death."
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