Of the approximately 360 kinds of theater in China, Peking opera remains the most infamous. Originating in Shanghai rather than Beijing, the style is thought to have become formalized sometime between 1790 and 1860. And yet, the neatness of the English term “Peking opera” masks the historical difficulty of delineating its canon. As Joshua Goldstein observes, the artform has three Chinese names (jingju, jingxi, and pingju) and points to a patchwork genre that includes “several dozen melodic themes otherwise known collectively as pihuang”. Patronized by the Qing court in its infancy, Peking opera was performed by troupes that could include more than a hundred people, from stagehands and musicians to costumers and actors, in order to put on six to ten hours of scenes per day. Training schools sprang up across the nineteenth century, concentrated in Beijing, creating well-known stars and tabloid forums to discuss their lives in intimate detail. Merging song, dance, dialog, martial arts, and acrobatics, Peking opera, in David Rolston’s words, was “one of the most important ways that people in China for most of the last two centuries imagined the world.”
The colorful images below, courtesy of the MET, were painted by an unidentified artist sometime around the turn of the twentieth century. These portraits on silk each represent a particular character from one of nine plays. Like most operas of this style, the characters hail from diverse sources — literature, military history, and myth — but play stock parts. There are four basic roles in traditional Peking opera: sheng, dan, jing, and chou, each of which have numerous subtypes. Sheng and dan are male and female leads (historically both played by men), jing is a villain, and chou, the clown. As Mei Chun details, complex personas were to be avoided. “The flatness is deliberate. Flatness in characterization contributes to the effect of moral contrast while rounder characterization could lead to ambiguity and disorder.” The characters’ painted makeup, known as lianpu, tracks back to masks worn by dancers during the Tang dynasty, and is mainly used for jing and chou roles. The colors and expressions convey moral qualities that were easily legible to audiences of the opera.
Personifications of virtue and vice, these characters evolved alongside changes in Chinese society across time, representing, in various periods, the ideals of Confucian, Buddhist, nationalist, and even revolutionary beliefs. (Yangbanxi, or “revolutionary Peking operas”, were formed under the supervision of Jiang Qing during the Cultural Revolution.) Like various theatrical forms the world over, Peking operas allowed audiences to experience and imagine forms of being that were not always possible in daily life. At the beginning of the twentieth century, for example, dan actors specialized in either qingyi or huadan roles — the former obedient, virtuous, and pedigreed; the latter young, flirtatious, and bawdy. When Mei Lanfang rose to fame for his dan parts during the Republican era, he merged the two subtypes, writes Goldstein, presenting “curvaceous figures of elite women and goddesses, often in sexually charged scenarios”. In doing so, he displayed a kind of complex femininity that was rarely performed during the Qing dynasty. This was partially possible due to the safeguard of sex. “On the stage, the ideally virtuous and beautiful woman was, necessarily, a man.”