“For Pleasure, Pure and Simple”: the History of Chinese Opera

Artist performing cultural dance at Chinese new year festival at Tumbalong park, Darling Harbour, Sydney 2019.jpg
Artist performing cultural dance at Chinese new year festival at Tumbalong park, Darling Harbour, Sydney 2019. By Ashishlohorung – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

In “Civilization of China” (1911), Herbert Giles wrote that “for pleasure pure and simple, independent of gains and losses, the theater occupies the warmest place in every Chinaman’s heart”. The fact that the Chinese theater is also known by the name guo cui (“quintessence of the nation”) solidifies its prestige as the most important form of entertainment in China where it has been for centuries.

Chinese opera is one of the three oldest dramatic art forms in the world—the other two being ancient Greek’s theater and Indian Sanskrit opera. The roots of Chinese opera go back to the early periods in China and gradually evolving over more than a thousand years, reaching its mature form during the Song Dynasty in the 13th century CE and becoming fashionable in the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911 CE). It was popular among ordinary people who would watch performances in tearooms, restaurants, and makeshift stages.

Bundesarchiv Bild 137-004763, China, Tsingtau, Chinesische Theatervorstellung.jpg
By Bundesarchiv, Bild 137-004763 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

These days, local operas are found in every part of China where they are performed according to local musical styles and in regional languages. Indeed, the staging itself is simple: actions occur on a bare stage except for a backdrop and simple props. A table and several chairs can indicate a throne, wall, mountain, or many other locations. The actors’ costumes and makeup identify standard character types which are immediately recognizable even to foreigners. However, behind this simplicity lies decades of training, strict visual etiquette, and layers of symbolism.

The development of Chinese Opera through history

According to Liji (“the Book of Rites”), a collection of texts describing the social forms, administration, and ceremonial rites of the Zhou Dynasty (1046 – 256 BCE), children at the age of thirteen had already learned to dance and sing. Most forms of Chinese opera owe their performance styles and their plot-lines to the musically fertile Shanxi province. Plots in Shanxi Opera often deal with fighting oppression, wars against the northern barbarians, and issues of loyalty. Some Shanxi Opera productions include special effects such as fire-breathing or acrobatic twirling, in addition to the standard operatic acting and singing. An early form of Chinese opera, originating from the Later Zhao Dynasty (319 – 351 CE), was a simple comic drama involving only two performers who are thought to be the forerunners of the comic characters of later Chinese opera.

Actors of the Chinese Theater in Costume. Beijing, 1874 WDL1933.png
Actors of the Chinese Theater in Costume. Beijing, 1874

During the Han and the Tsin (265 – 420 CE) Dynasties, new dances were introduced. Evidently, the new dances were proven to be popular as they gradually became an artistic achievement enjoyed by high society. Ming Huang, Emperor of the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE) acquired a concubine name Yang Yuhuan who soon learned to dance many pieces that delighted him. The Emperor then decreed that a group of boys should be trained in the li yuan (“the pear garden”) of the inner court to do choral dances with girls from the palace. After that, the name “li yuan” was used to refer to the theater, and líyuán dìzi (“Children of the Pear Garden”) became the general name for actors and actresses. To this day, Emperor Ming Huang himself is worshiped as the patron of Chinese opera.  

During the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 CE) and the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911 CE), the northern traditional singing and dramatic style from Shanxi was combined with melodies from a Southern form of Chinese opera called Kunqu. This combination led to many of the most famous operatic repertoires that are still performed today, including “The Peony Pavilion”, “The Peach Blossom Fan” and adaptations of “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and “Journey to the West”.

By Saad Akhtar from New Delhi, India – DSC01601, CC BY 2.0,

Characters through Colors: Decoding the colors in Chinese Opera

The art of facial makeup in Chinese opera also has a long and dramatic history. In the Spring and Autumn period (770 – 476 BCE), people in the two kingdoms of Wu and Yue, two warring states in the lower reaches of the Yangtze, dyed their faces and skin with various colors wore animal hides and birds’ feathers and blackened their teeth. These decorations evolved into masks worn at war or at festivals to worship gods and drive away monsters. In the Han Dynasty (207 BCE – 220 CE), actors wore beast-head decorations in operas.

Opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back and instead of bleeding he sings - Robert Benchley

 Due to the new training “school” at the li yuan, performing skills in operas greatly improved during the Tang Dynasty. Historical records even indicate the continued use of masks and facial makeup. In the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 CE), two basic categories of “clean-faced” makeup and “colorful-faced” makeup came into being so that image and emotion could be vividly illustrated.

 In operas of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368 CE), a clear division of character roles among actors were developed, and the facial makeup of those jing (male leads) and chou (clowns) developed from plain mono-color to more striking colors, enabling the audience to immediately recognize the categories in which the actors or actresses belonged. This kind of colorful facial makeup became, to a large degree, the base for facial makeup in later operas.

Bundesarchiv Bild 137-027999, Deutsche Aufführung eines chinesischen Lustspiels an der Reichsuniversität.jpg
By Bundesarchiv, Bild 137-027999 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

Masks and Make Up in Chinese Opera

Facial makeup, itself a special art in Chinese operas, distinctly shows the image of certain roles by combining artistic exaggeration and symbolism. A specialized use of lines and colors reveals the character’s disposition, moral quality, age and distinguishing features. Through the centuries, actors and actresses in folk operas have created numerous types of facial makeup for characters, to express their praise or condemnation as well as their sympathy and attachment, so that the audience would immediately know whom to love and whom to hate—even though the performers might not have any dialogues to say.

Although these days the variety of facial makeup in modern Chinese opera has been markedly reduced, traces of the older facial makeup are still found in bearded characters such as Zhao Kuangyin, the first emperor of China’s Song Dynasty, and in acrobat and warrior characters such as the Monkey King, Gao Deng, and Jiang Wei. 

Chinese Drama (4267663533).jpg
By Jeffrey Ma – Chinese Drama, CC BY 2.0,

In the ancient world, masks were widely utilized in hunting, war, drama, and funeral. In China, the earliest record of mask wearing dates back to the Chou Dynasty (1122 – 255 BCE) during which masks were worn when stories about ghosts and gods were performed. On the opera stage these days, there are only a few occasions that actors wear masks; one occasion is to celebrate the Chinese New Year when a mask is used for the character of the god of fortune. Wearing a smiling white mask, the character does a short pantomime dance as an overture to the regular performance; This is called Tiao Cha Kuan (“Dance for Promotion”).

In Chinese opera, there is a large variety of facial makeup patterns. Actors give prominence to the complicated characters in a play by painting their faces in a variety of colors. Colors are used to quickly connect the audience to each character’s traits. In fact, by clever use of a combination of colors, the audience often feels such an instant and intimate understanding that you might even say that the colors are the characters.

Hand coloured photo of a Cantonese Opera Male Dan performer as Hua Mulan in 1927, Hong Kong.jpg
Hand coloured photo of a Cantonese Opera Male Dan performer as Hua Mulan in 1927, Hong Kong. By Jennychan1968 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Combining Masks, Colors and Dresses in Chinese Opera

The color red in an opera symbolizes positive traits such as intelligence, heroism, integrity, and loyalty.

The color purple conveys the same positive perception but with the added attributes of respect, sophistication, nobility, and a sense of justice.

A black face represents characteristics like impartiality with a hint of altruism (commonly used for authority figures). A black face suggests an upright and just person such as Pao Kung, a prime minister during the Sung Dynasty who, according to legends, could descend to the underworld and give back life to those who had died innocently through betrayal or other causes. Add in traditional bravery and a bit of stubbornness and the character would be depicted by the color blue, which represents a level of vigor and audaciousness in an opera.

A face painted in black and white denotes a courageous but careless person. For bandits and evil spirits, the color green is the dominant color.

1962-03 1962年 京剧 四进士 周信芳扮演宋士杰.jpg
1962 Peking Opera Zhou Xinfang as Song Shijie

Yellow portrays characteristics like treachery and ferociousness.

Monsters and gods are represented by the metallic colors, silver, and gold. 

No opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible - W.H Auden

The lack of color is also found in the ‘petty’ mask, a mask is painted only in black and white and covering only half of the face of the actor wearing it. Being only half hidden behind a mask, this character’s presence is detached from the others on stage, therefore visually leading the audience to suspect ambiguous intentions. Because of this, the petty face can represent secrecy, mistrust, while at the same time allowed to convey humor and wit to win the audience’s affection.

The Chinese opera costumes are based primarily on the dress worn in China during the Ming dynasty with some elements of fashions from the Tang, Sung, Yuan, and Ching dynasties. Exaggerated, flowing sleeves and pheasant feathers used on headgear were added to heighten the dramatic effect of the stage choreography. These extra touches give further emphasis to gestures and highlight the rhythm of movement on the stage.

Like facial makeup, costumes tell the audience much about the character wearing them. Therefore, also like facial makeup, the Chinese opera costumes are very specific. There are four principal kinds of costumes:

1962-03 1962年 京剧 徐策跑城 周信芳扮演徐策.jpg
1962-03 1962 Peking Opera Xu Ce Running in the City. Zhou Xinfang plays Xu Ce

The Hsueh Tzu is an ordinary dress, usually black, with two long, white sleeves.

The P’ei, usually worn over a Hsueh Tzu, is an embroidered garment for high-class people. The P’ei is full length for men but for women, it is three-quarters length and worn over a skirt.

The Mang, worn by emperors, empresses, or top-ranking officials and their wives, is embroidered in gold and silver threads.

The Kuan Yi is an official robe, plain in color, with only an embroidered square panel on the chest.

The K’ao is an armor in separate parts, worn by warriors and generals.

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By xiquinhosilva – 62208-Beijing, CC BY 2.0,

A minor costume consists of a suit of a jacket and skirt or a jacket and trousers. The former is worn by young maidens or women of dubious reputations and the latter is for girls from poor families. The character who wears a jacket and trousers also wears a wide silk-lined belt hanging over the middle to cover the front part of the trousers.

Soldiers and low-class characters wear black suits.

Operatic artists were required to be skilled in many fields. According to Tao An Meng Yi (“Recollections of Tao An”) by Zhang Dai, performers had to learn singing and dancing, and how to play various musical instruments before they were taught acting.

Apprentice actors for the opera were recruited at age seven or eight, and went on to undergo years of rigorous gymnastic and martial art training as well as singing and acting. Lessons started very early in the morning. They learned these skills mainly by imitation, aiming to accurately copy the moves of their master.

Alexander Yakovlev 'Opera in Peking. 1918'.jpg
Opera in Peking, painting by Alexander Yakovlev, 1918

Emotional as well as physical training was also required by using a ying-yang balance in performance between gentle graceful moves and energetic acrobatics. In a few years, it would become apparent which type of role a student actor was suited to—whether it was male or female, villain, comic or hero.  Students with little acting talent often became opera musicians. They might also serve as the supporting cast of foot soldiers, attendants, and servants that were present in every opera troupe—and they would play only characters of that role type for the rest of their acting career. As the repertoire is fairly limited and well-known to most of the audience, the performer would need to put extra emphasis on their individual interpretations, rather than the story, to make their performances memorable across the ages.

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