There are four main characters roles in the Peking opera. They are : shêng(male character), tan (female character), ching (painted faces), ch’ou(jester). To make the role more specific prefixes are added. Some important prefixes are wu (warrior), Lao (elderly person), siao (young).
Shêng are usually dignified, or heroic characters. There are three types of sheng: wushêng, laoshêng, and xiaoshêng. Wushêng are usually warriors, and heroes, while laoshêng are scholars, officials, and advisors, and siaoshêng are lovers and young scholars (Wichmann 7).
The tan roles are female roles, and were often played by men until the communist era. The five types of tan are “blue cloth tan” (quingyi), and “flower tan” (huatan), laotan , wutan and ch’outan. Blue cloth tan are demure middle-aged women distinguished by their light blue trimming on sleeves, while flower tan are flirtatious women , typically of low status. Laotan are older women, wutan are war heroines, and ch’outan are ugly humorous women of low status (Wichmann 9).
Ching are easy discerned by their elaborately painted faces, and usually have some sort of supernatural power. There are three types of ching the great painted face (dahaulian), supporting role ching (fuching) and warrior ching (wuching) (Wichmann 10).
The ch’ou is a clown character. They are usually of lower status and are the only characters that use slang and improvise speeches. The three types of ch’ou are military ch’o (wuch’ou), civil ch’ou (wench’ou), and female ch’ou (ch’outan) (Wichmann 11).
The Training of a Peking Opera Actor
For many years jingju was not considered a “distinguished” art form. Actors were viewed as dirty and dishonest vagabonds at the bottom of the social ladder (equal to slaves and prostitutes), and were prevented from achieving higher social status by edicts that restricted them from taking civil exams. Because of these limitations, the actors bonded and became families.
Trainees were either born or sold/adopted into these jingju families. They would begin their training at ages 7-8, where they would be split into training schools based on the role (see role Characters in the Peking Opera) that they were best qualified for. Once trained in a role, a performer would spend the rest of their career in vigorous training in order to perfect the various skills attributed to that character. An actor would only change their character if they were physically unable to continue. Thus, puberty was vital to determining if a boy’s voice would be “suitable for performing” (Riley 37). If a child was not able to perform his role, they had to be transferred to another (such as servant) or made a stagehand.
Students learned the trade from a laoshi (or master), who was usually be an experienced actor in their role. When training with a laoshi the students were expected to pantomime their instructors every movement and acrobatic feat without variation or question. This type of training was vital to the opera because it ensured that that particular school of acting was passed down, and the performance of that role was left pure.
This style of training is continued when the students take to the stage themselves, as their performance will mimic that of their master’s as well as other performers before them. Moreover, the Chinese patrons found it delightful to know exactly what the characters will do without variation. However, this method does not mean that the play is stagnant, instead actors bring an individual spark to their role which keeps the plays fresh.
Unfortunately, the laoshi/student relationship ended after the Proletarian Cultural Revolution because the experienced actors were too old to teach and the instructors young enough were too inexperienced, thus signaling the demise of this venerable tradition. In 1949 the government created the Chinese Drama School.
Modern Opera Training
Modern Peking Opera training still bears a lot of similarity to the past. At the Beijing Opera Art’s College, young students are trained in the art of jingju. The students begin their schooling at age 10 and are placed in a generalized class for a year. After generalized training students are split into different classes to receive specialized instruction in specific talents. These talents are Chang (singing), Nian (speaking), Zuo (acting, and Da (combat) and prepare the students for their future roles (Dan, Chou, Sheng, Ching) (Beijing Opera Art’s College). The classes are usually small (less than ten students per class) and the students are of similar age and skill level.
Similar to the laoshi/master relationship before the Cultural Revolution, the students learn from a experienced actor in their field through mimicry. Often during Nian classes the teacher will say a phrase or perform a move and the class will repeat it, making sure to match the enunciation and tone and movement. The students are immensely focused, and practice even during breaks. Although each class focuses on a specific skill, the students practice them all as a Peking Opera performance can not be achieved with just one (Beijing Opera Art’s College).
In the classroom, the students dress in outfits similar to the costumes they will one day wear on stage. They also use props to enhance their performance. In one chang class, young girls performed a journey song, using riding crops to symbolize the crops.
Although the Beijing Opera Art’s College teaches Western forms of dance (such as ballet), the students learning the traditional Peking Opera classes are usually fully funded by the government. While training, the students live at the school, training in the morning and taking classes in the evening. Many of the students prefer the Peking Opera training as they have more freedom to choose their school electives.
Numerous of the customs of the traditional Peking Opera training schools are still visible in the Beijing Opera Art’s College, showing that the tradition still lives on.
One of the most famous actors to play women’s (tan) roles was Mei Lanfang. He is known for many roles including his portrayal of Yang Kuei-Fei in The Drunken Concubine (see plays and stories for more information).
Born in 1894 to a theatric family, Mei Lanfang was destined to be a star. He was the grandson of Ch’iao-ling (1841-1881) founder of the Ssu Hsi Pan acting troupe, and raised by his uncle Yü-t’ien a musician. Trained as a tan actor, Lanfang first became famous after he performed in Shanghai in 1913. He received many accolades including being honored by Emperor Hsüan T’ung (1923) and voted China’s most popular actor (1924) before performing in Japan, the United States, and Russia between 1919 and 1956. He has been regarded as an honorable figure in Chinese culture and integral in bringing Chinese culture to the world. Mei Lanfang was an expert in both K’un- ch’ü and the Peking Opera, and also broke the mold of actors being only proficient in one role by becoming an expert in tan, wu-tan, and ch’ing.
Even after his death in 1961, he is still seen as one of the most famous and groundbreaking actors in the Chinese theater.