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What Is So Special About Peking Opera?
by Birgit Schrumpf

This art form originated in the late 18th century and was performed by various troupes as a synthesis of music, dance, art and acrobatics. Beginning in 1884 the Empress Cixi became a regular patron, cementing its status. The popularity of Peking (now Beijing) opera has been attributed to the simplicity of the form, with only a few voices and singing patterns. This allowed anyone to sing the arias themselves. Therefore, it is not actually a monolithic form but contains many different elements.

The actors utilize the skills of speech, song, dance and combat with movements that are symbolic and suggestive, rather than realistic. With their elaborate and colourful costumes they are the only focal point on the characteristically sparse stage. Above all else, the skill of performers is evaluated according to the beauty of their movements. They also have to adhere to a variety of stylistic conventions that help audiences understanding the plot. Melodies include aria, fixed-tune melodies and percussion patterns. Wind instruments, drums and strings accompany the performance. It is told the repertoire of Peking opera includes over 1,400 works, which are based on Chinese history, folklore, and nowadays increasingly on contemporary life.

Peking opera was initially an exclusively male pursuit, all female performers being banned by the Emperor in 1772. The ban on female performers also led to a controversial form of brothel, known as the xianggong tangzi, in which men paid to have sex with young boys dressed as females. Ironically, the performing skills taught to the youths employed in these brothels led many of them to become professional Peking opera performers later in life. Unofficially, the appearance of females began in the 1870s. Women started to impersonate male roles and were then declared equal to men.

In recent years, Peking opera has attempted numerous reforms in response to dwindling audience numbers during the second half of the 20th century. The influence of the western culture left the younger generation impatient with the slow pacing and archaic language used. The reforms are aiming at improving the quality of performance, adapting new elements, as well as performing new and original plays. China makes an effort at looking for its historical roots.