There are a
great number of preconceptions about what ‘Chinese opera’ actually is, which is
not surprising considering the amazing variety of forms which exist today. The overwhelming majority of performances
which provide an impact on the world’s image of this form is the one based in
the Beijing of today and which is commonly referred to as ‘Peking opera’,
although this is not how the Chinese refer to it themselves (being generally
more aware of what the tradition encompasses).
Because the ‘
many, there are actually several hundred types of regional opera, the most
common of which is the above-mentioned
an example from Taiwanese 'opera' where all the main roles are taken by women
an example from Taiwanese 'opera' where all the main roles are taken by women
the introduction above and this description of the structure of the work, the
essay passes directly into a discussion of the cultural and musical history and
philosophy of Chinese culture to provide a backdrop to the Chinese opera
tradition. After this, the early history
of the ‘
So-called Chinese Opera is actually not ‘opera’ in the western sense, but refers to the Chinese notion of the performing arts in general which relies far more heavily on music as a communicative discourse; theatre in China in general is unimaginable without the accompaniment of music, which can be traced back to the earliest notions of human musicality in China which is represented by the ideograph yue. Music in a Chinese sense is related in a to all other aspects of social and cultural existence; it is not viewed as an individual phenomenon on its own but exists in terms of social functions such as banquets, archery and dancing to name a few. As Ling notes “Music in Chinese culture is not an isolated phenomenon, but rather a contextual phenomenon broadly related to all aspects of living” (1981: 12). He also notes that “Extrinsically it pertains to sensuality while intrinsically it embodies all the arts: the performing arts of music and dance, literature, the fine arts, architecture and even the culinary arts as well” (ibid: 11-12). In addition their whole sense of musical timbre is wider than is traditionally understood in the west; ‘music’ is not just the instrument itself but also all the sound it makes in the creation of music: “In this extended state, timbre embodied the recognition not only of musical tones, that is pleasing sounds, but also included non-musical tones, such as the scratching sounds when sliding the finger along the string or the percussive sounds when the finger hits the fingerboard" (ibid.: 24). These attitudes to music were fixed as far back as one millennium B.C. during the Zhou dynasty and help to explain why the totality of theatre is so essential to the Chinese sense of music, just as the broad communicative possibilities of music are so essential to theatre. These beliefs can be traced back to ancient philosophical thought which can be divided into two contrasting schools, each which have had their own influences on contemporary Chinese approaches to music. They were known as the schools of Confucianism and Taoism.
The Confucians were followers of the sage, Master Kong, who lived towards the end of the 6th century B.C. They were primarily concerned with society in the world, and they felt that they knew what it would take for all people to live in harmony together with the absolute minimum of conflict (Merson, 1981: 28). Through the centuries, this, surprisingly to many westerners, developed into a religion which worshipped these apparently sociological beliefs about society. Their impact on music was strong. The Confucian idea of the ‘perfect gentleman’ includes the skill of musicianship coupled with other artistic pursuits (Ling, 1985: 19-20), so this helps to explain the popularity of musical traditions and naturally ching h’si which connects different forms together and often makes direct commentary on society. According to Ling, the Confucianistic ideology on musical judgment “was deeply embodied in Chinese musical behaviour even until the latter part of the 20th century” (ibid.: 20). It is the utilitarianism of music as a function which promotes social content within social institutions which is emphasized by Confucianistic ideology (ibid.: 33). Therefore the ching h’si traditions in all their forms, both musical and sociological, had aspects which were supported by Confucianistic ideology helping to explain its enormous popularity.
The Taoist philosophers stood in opposition to the school of Confucious because they felt that in contrast to the Confucians if people didn’t understand how the inner forces within their bodies worked, they wouldn’t be able to legislate for their society. Instead the investigation of nature and the inner-forces compelling and empowering individuals became the major interest of the Taoists. Some of the major beliefs included the necessity for simplicity and economy of means in life and art. According to Ling: “When one encounters … the mono-syllabic word structure of the Chinese language or the few simple props used in the staging of the much-loved Peking opera, one can not fail to recognize the economy and simplicity of these expressions” (ibid.: 26). Here we come to the economy of semiotic meaning which will be discussed further on and could be said to unite all forms of Ching h’si. On stage, a chair can represent a mountain whereas a sound can evoke a range of emotions based on socially inculcated traditions that are learnt in the process of social existence. In Chinese music in general the concept and practice of economy and simplicity so important to Taoist belief is strongly present; music played is taken from a source of melodies and interpreted personally by a solo performer or an orchestra who know so well the current traditions that they feel naturally the realisation of the melody. Rarely is the same piece performed twice. According to Ling, “the body of standard melodies, collected over many centuries and popularly transmitted, has no specific instrumentation and thus can be freely adopted for any combination of instruments to fit the number of musicians available” (1981: 28).
involved more the outer world of the society, and Taoism the inner world
of the spirit, the two schools were able to exist in harmony and became at one
and the same time social, political and religious forces. The ideology of both schools have also had an
influence on the development of Chinese music and therefore on the development
of the Peking opera tradition; Confucianism explains the enthusiasm for
knowledge of music and its integration in social life, whereas Taoism helps
the researcher to realise the importance of economy and simplicity in music
traditions and the unique semiotic traditions making objects and sounds (i.e.
any signs used on stage) into multi-referential symbols which can mean anything
from an emotion to a physical place to a heavenly body. The complexity of this tradition, however,
cannot be explained by philosophy alone.
As will be demonstrated in the following section, what is now known as
theatre can be traced back to some 3,000 years through a complex set of folk
songs and dances which were used together to create drama-like works. As early as the Han dynasty in the
third century B.C., records show the appearance of people acting on a type of
stage in short plays with plot, script and themes. According to Rubin et. al. some of
these early performances evolved into court entertainments along with singing,
dancing, acrobatics and wresting while other entertainments were given at fairs
for the common people” (1981: 101). The
acrobats and pantomime artists of the street eventually found their place in
the opera as well, which brightened the productions considerably and made them
more accessible to a general public. In
early Chinese history, however, society was based on strict hierarchies and the
performing arts class were positioned practically at the bottom, although
within their own ranks there were also hierarchies deciding who could perform
for which audience. The low social
status can be found again in the origin of the
continued to develop separately in the complex fabric of Chinese society until
in the 16th century specific music-theatre forms developed in the
courts which were to set the stage for the rise of Peking opera: k’un ch’ü,
i yang ch’iang, panz tzu chi’ang, and p’i huang. (Malm, 1977:
160). These were generally performances
for the elite of society, on other words the aristocracy and the very
rich. They were highly esoteric in
nature and differ in many ways from the tradition that was to become ching
h’si. The song was full of language
play and artful literary expression (Wang, 1993: 2). The form i yang ch’iang which
developed in i yang, a city in the Kiangsi province, was to show
more characteristics common to the
In the 19th
century, Ching h’si, the dynamic new style designed for a wide audience,
having something for everyone in a sense, managed to eclipse all existing
theatrical dramas and music-theatre forms then in existence. In contrast with k’un ch’ü, the
twentieth century saw an enormous amount of developments which were to have
repercussions not only for
In the People’s Republic of
The following set of characteristics are a set of sociological, cultural, semiotic and musicological factors that characterise the ching h’si tradition in general and can in principle be applied across the board to many different variations upon the form which found their origin in Peking. This will prove itself to be a little inaccurate when applied to other geographical areas, but it is a good starting place for a thorough investigation towards a full understanding of the form.
characteristics of the Chinese opera can be found in the combination of
different theatre genres. A performance
could involve the combination of intense drama, elaborate fighting scenes with
demonstrations of martial arts, acrobats doing double-back flips across the
stage and intricately choreographed dance all forming a unique unity with the
music. The highlight, however,
especially since it is considered in many ways to be connected to the court
traditions, involves the highly intricate arias of ching h’si. According to Malm there are two general
approaches to arias in the general ching h’si philosophy. The first is referred to as lian ch’ü, which
selects from a body of standard pieces that suit the drama of a given scene,
functioning to appropriate its mood.
Malm states that “this kind of structure is only possible when the text
uses a rather rigid poetical form” (Malm, 1977: 161). It can be deduced form this that the lian
ch’ü were used in the oldest opera forms such as those common during the Song
dynasty around the 12th century and the Ming opera form k’un
ch’ü discussed above. This also
suggests the influence of the new strict poetic forms which came into existence
during these periods, although it has to be remembered that it has not only its
source in the court poetry tradition but also the structure of folk theatricals
(ibid.). The second approach is referred
to as pan ch’ian which uses stereotyped melodies rather than complete
pieces. According to Malm, these
melodies are subject to “extensive variation, depending on the dramatic
situation” (ibid.). This approach became
popular in the Ming dynasty but prevailed most strongly when the clapper
opera tradition flourished. Malm
demonstrates for us a unique example of rhythmic emphasis found in the ching
h’si forms of the Szechwan and
As is typical to folk performance forms present spread across the Asian continent, in both village centres and royal courts, a set of stock characters realise a story which make the plots that much more accessible for a mixed audience. The ching h’si tradition has a similar set of stock characters belonging to four main categories:  the sheng.
or manly roles (for so far as they are not involved in categories 3 or 4); (2) the tan or female roles; (3) the ching or “painted faces”, and (4) the ch’ou or clowns. The Sheng category consists of heroic warriors, immovable bureaucrats, trustworthy servants and the like; they can be good or evil. Acccording to Wang, In the 18th century the emperor Ch’ien-lung forbade on moralistic ground the performance of tan roles by women, and since then until the thirties of the 20th century they were performed solely by men (Wang, 1993: 8). The ch’ing-i performs the role of the good and obedient woman: the parent-loving daughter, the faithful wife or the unjustly rejected concubine. Her opposition is the hua-tan, the symbol of womanly charm and liveliness. Often the hua-tan symbolizes less positives qualities: she is the beautiful seducer, the femme fatale who brings the man to his knees (Wang, 1993: 9). The “warrior tan" (known as the tao-ma tan, the tan with sword and horse) is the Chinese amazon. The role includes both positive and negative characters, varying from noble heroines to sinister demons which have taken female form. The remaining character is arguably the most important: lao-tan, the ‘old lady’. The category of the ching (a technical term which actually means ‘pure’ or ‘clear’) is the most striking visually because of both their costumes and specially their elaborate make-up. Ching roles can be positive or negative: they realize both great heroes and criminals, and some ching are gods or supernatural beings. All these personages have in common is a strong, dominant character, a large amount of vitality and an imposing form of performance. In contrast, the term normally translated as ‘clowns’ is actually restricted, because lots of ch’ou roles are not only comic but also sinister, like the cruel prison guard, the evil mother-in-law or the tricky swindler. Some ch’ou are indeed only laughable, but most of them have also a negative characteristic. Visually the “clown” is always to be recognized by the white fleck around the nose and the eyes, and his or her vocal performance is striking because the ch’ou are the only characters who use the living (and sometimes even vulgar) spoken language, which they also sometimes improvise with. As will be discussed further, these characters are easily recognisable to an ‘educated’ audience through a complex set of social signs which are embedded in the costumes, make-up and movements of the characters, so that in fact without even saying a word they can be recognised.
As mentioned, educated audience members of Chinese opera know the codes to smallest details and appreciate the actors dependent on their ability to bring these traditions and complex codes to life. As mentioned in the opening concerning the philosophical origins of the opera tradition and Chinese music in general, economy of means is a characteristic inherited from Taoist belief. When a chair is placed upon a table, for example, it becomes a mountain, whereas if an actor jumps off a chair, he has committed suicide by flinging himself into a well (Rutherford, 1998: 95) dependent on the particular circumstances of the play and the conventions the audience is familiar with. They have no trouble accepting these somewhat abstract symbols as representation of these objects that do not resemble them at all. To give an example of the complexity of these symbols, a selection of different examples of semiotic codes and the way they are presented which so fascinated the Czech school of cultural semiotics in the first half of the 20th century is included in the examples below:
 If a performer dusts him/herself off, it shows the end of a long journey;
 ornate riding crops with silk tassels tells the audience that the actors are riding horses;
 black pennants carried swiftly across the stage symbolize a thunderstorm;
 a character riding a chariot holds up two yellow banners horizontally about waist high, each painted with a wheel (Rutherford, 1998: 95);
 sailing is symbolised by an old man with a paddle and groups moving in a boat together simultaneously bend their knees (Wang, 1993: 39);
 hand and foot movements can suggest the opening and closing of a door as well as the mounting of a horse or other more complex signs (ibid. 40)
 a set of wooden boxes propped on one another (covered with coloured sheets) can signify a woman’s boudoir; the same structure can be turned into someone else’s house in a matter of seconds behind a closed curtain as the characters move a few steps forward in front of a falling curtain by moving them and covering them with a different coloured set of sheets; and then again a bit later they are transformed into a temple.
Make-up is also a highly important form of signification present across ching h’si forms present across the whole Chinese empire. The facial make-up of the striking ching characters perhaps have the most striking and abstract semiotic associations set up between colours and significations. White generally symbolises ‘cunning, treachery and untrustworthy behaviour’ (Wang: 16), whereas red stands for bravery and trust, blue for bravery and recklessness, and black for integrity and justice (Wang 16-17). Faces with only one colour, or a number of colours in symmetrical patterns signifies a forthright character with a single aim, whereas ‘broken faces’ with wavy patterns signifies a complicated nature (Wang: 17). Green is used for the faces of spirits and gold for that of gods. The recognition—let alone the correct placing of—the painted ‘masks’ is no simple task because there are in total five hundred different patterns (Wang, 1993: 17). Make-up also highlights the important of emphasising the eyes which function to direct the audience to important characters or objects, or to entertain them in a fashion similar to Indian temple dance. Costumes as well are enormously important in distinguishing the different character groups, but are far more complex and represent also a greater range of intercultural influences throughout the history of the development of the form. They also highlight the fact that all costumes have to be beautiful, even for poor or rich characters, although the richer and younger you are the brighter and more striking the colours you wear; poor people, servants and the elderly tend to wear less striking browns and greys. Clothing is one of the most important methods to ‘place’ a personage, and demonstrates then also a large range of role identifying characteristics. Women from foreign origin often wear elaborate costumes and sometimes gigantic hairstyles inspired by Manchu-women, for example. The Manchus were a border folk from the far north east who had by the middle of the 17th century conquered China and formed until 1911 a non-Chinese element in their population The women of this community were especially recognisable by their closely closing jackets and their complex hairstyles (Wang, 1993: 19). This demonstrates the shift of semiotic meaning applied to all foreign dress, i.e. Manchu-like costumes eventually came to represent not only the Manchus but foreigners in general. Many of the costumes have wide sleeves which lead from the elbow to the back of the palms. They are referred to as shui-hsiu or ‘water sleeves’ (Wang, 1993: 27). These sleeves are perhaps the most subtle tool of semiotic communication and require a great deal of skill to master; they are considered to be one of the most difficult to master in the Chinese Ching h’si tradition. Being used to emphasise certain parts of a recitative or express certain emotions (among many other functions) they are folded in, thrown out twirled around and manipulated in a dozen different ways. Specific examples include the way they are used to form a muff around the clasped hands as protection against the cold, flapped like a fan to represent hot summer weather (Rutherford, 1998: 95), or to cover the eyes to represent tears. The fan is also used in a large number of positions and movements to suggest moods and emotions: harmony, rage, drunken ecstasy or elegance (Wang, 1993: 31). Finally the ‘theatrical beard’ which is worn by the sheng and the ching roles forms an important expressive medium in its own right. It hangs in a light bamboo frame on the ears and rests on the upper lip and its manipulation is an important part of the actors gesture language used during the performance (Wang, 1993: 33).
reality is represented in Chinese theatre and the way the audience is treated
are important not only in relation to the development of other traditions
within China, but to the development of Western theatre which included the
important work of Stanislavsky and Brecht who were to be particularly
influenced by their methods of representing drama on stage, leading to the
economy of means in Brechtian theatre along with the importance of
music-theatre in his collaborations with Weill.
In Chinese opera, the whole notion of space is entirely stretchable, in
the sense that walking across the stage can actually be a journey across the
desert or across a single room, or if necessary a combination of both; it can
change during the process of movement within the space. ‘Reality’ is completely
determined by the text, the acting, the costumes, and the make-up of the actor.
They often describe their scenery as they pass through it, even though it is
not visible to the audience (Wang, 1993: 48).
Chinese music which often plays a programmatic role can assist
the performers (and the audiences) as they make these journeys. In a similar way, time is also stretchable in
the sense that within two scenes or the
framework of a half hour a man can change from being a young man to a
middle-aged warrior or even an old man within the time framework of an hour
(Wang, 1993: 49). Brecht was also to be
influenced to create a theatrical technique which he based on a sense of
‘alienation’ the audience receives from the performance, reminding them that
they are participating in theatre and not watching an imitation of
reality. Brecht was highly influenced by
the ch’ou characters in Chinese opera which functioned to mediate with
the audience, joking with them, often commenting upon the story or explaining
certain parts that may be complex, making sense of the complex reality of the Chinese
opera performance. In addition, part of the tradition as is common in Asian
music-theatre forms such as Indonesian Wayang Kulit, audience members
would participate in the performance by applauding virtuosic performances of
musicians, dancers or acrobats, or ignoring the parts they didn’t found
exciting (spending the time chatting openly to their neighbour). Although Brecht probably didn’t advocate the
latter habit, he encouraged this dynamic sense of participation which he would
also have picked up from Chinese theatre and other forms of folk
performance. There can be up to 4 clowns
at one time on stage mediating with the audience and talking among themselves
without musical accompaniment. They
contrast with the other characters primarily because their text is not always
scripted and that they often relate to the audience in a regional dialect. Scripting became an important part of the
strict and somewhat static Peking performance, but even if the scripts remain
static, with the presence of non-scripted ch’ou characters which is
still present in some performances in
The plots of operas themselves generally follow a typical structure which is recognisable to the audience, making use of the stock characters and pitting themselves against one another in specific ways so that some sort of balance or closure results by the end of the performance, i.e. good prevails, the ghost’s wishes are fulfilled or the golden amulet returns finally to its original owners. Although they can be tragedies or comedies, they generally still follow similar patterns. A typical example is the plot of the play Soh Lin Roung [which translates very roughly to double animal bag]
In this play, a rich young girl is going to get married and the play starts with her getting ready for the ceremony. It rains and the bride meets another girl in a kiosk, a poor girl who is crying because she has nothing to demonstrate her wealth. When they meet, the rich girl gives the poor girl a beautiful bag with precious things inside. After several years the rich girl loses everything and without her knowledge she ends up working for the family of the original ‘poor girl’ (who has since become enormously wealthy) as a nurse. The situation is thus reversed (a typical plot device): the girl who was poor rediscovers the woman who used to be rich and helped her. Finally they end up helping each other and the play ends up happily. This concentration on social aspects which involve the relationship between individuals, their financial situation and position in society suggests the strong influence of Confucianism on the form. Other specific characteristics of plots and their realisation that contrast to western theatre include the notion of a ‘static climax’ which involves the main character and her servant in a long scene wandering around the ‘disused wall between the fields of red roses’ or a similar place which of course only exists in the minds of the audience. There is no shocking climax, complex realisation or a violent conflict resulting in resolution. Still, for its audience who are familiar with the conventions, its subtle combination of movement of the ‘water-sleeves’, gentle arias and dance movements to express feelings, it is felt to be the high point of the performance (Wang, 1993: 57). This ability to extend belief to the point of finding subtle suspense in a drawn out meditative routine on stage represents in turn the influence of Taoism.
be noted that in many forms of contemporary ching h’si following the
As mentioned also in the opening section, due to Taoist philosophies, ‘music’ in the concept of yue is considered to include more than simply pleasant musical sounds which probably explains the close relationship between speech and music. Rarely a scene goes by without a passage of text being accompanied by a flowing complementary or imitatory percussive accompaniment, or where the blanks between vocal syllables are emphasized by clappers or cymbals. At some points it is almost as if the voice itself in the form of Chinese tonal syllables becomes both a melodic and a percussive instrument. Sometimes between the capital letter and the full stop two full octaces are covered in a simple recitation of text in a conversation. To a western audience this ‘misrepresentation’ of text recital may have been interpreted by Brecht as a tool to create his ‘alienation’ technique. As far as the singing of arias is concerned, however, this ‘artificiality’ of textual realisation is shared with western opera in that both are based on specific techniques that take years of deliberate training to learn (Malm, 1977: 163) in order to express the true complex subtleties of the communication systems involved in their performance. It should be mentioned here that the singers are semiotically assisted by the use of stereotyped rhythmic (and melodic) sequences which are recognised and applied a meaning by the audience without them having to nuance their voice in a particular way; as Malm confirms, “the dramatic function of an aria is most directly implied by the style and tempo of its rhythmic accompaniment” (Malm, 165) or that “one need realize only that all these aria forms are not specific melodies but rather combinations of tonal, melodic, and rhythmic conventions that make distinctions possible in the ears of Chinese opera fans” (Malm: 166). The most common time-beater is a pan ku or tanpi ku. It consists of a skin stretched over a set of wooden wedges bound in a circle and so hollowed out that only a small part of the skin covers a cavity at the centre of the drum. The pronounced, cracking sound made by this instrument can be heard through the orchestra. The pan ku player is basically the leader of the orchestra and the rhythm he plays often determines the nature of the piece. Some forms of the arias formed from these rhythmic accompaniments are listed below:
'narrative aria' [yuan pan] – steady or level clapper [rhythm]
'dramatic aria' [
'lyrical aria' [hsi p’i man pan] - slow clappers
'highly animated aria' [liu shui or k’uai ka] – flowing clappers or rapid clappers
(Malm, 1977: 166)
Vocal music basically consists of recitatives with percussive interjections followed by appropriate arias (Malm, 1977: 163). Almost all arias are based on “on a series of rhymed couplets with seven or ten syllables in each line, though they may be divided between two singers or split into dialogue, which can even leave the first line of a couplet in one aria and the second in the aria that follows, with poetically unrelated dialogue in between” (ibid.). There are three ranges of singing style as follows:
 ping hau - male voices
 zi hau - female voices or falsetto
 dai hau - military role actors with very deep voices
The melodies represented in their simplest form in the syllabically recited arias were never interpreted in a specific way by individual instruments within the orchestra but were in a sense ‘re-created’ in an entirely new fashion with the resources at hand according to current performance traditions. It is for this reason that the orchestra, although it is an absolutely and completely essential part of the performance, always plays an accompanying role for the drama occurring on stage, i.e. the ‘theatre’ or ‘opera’ on stage couldn’t occur without the music, but one wouldn’t really ever listen to the music on its own, at least until recently. Percussion without melodies is also an important part of the performance. For one, the rhythmic repetition of percussive sounds with rhythmic accompaniment of recited speeches is a common occurrence. As well as this, in the general set of ching h’si traditions acrobatics, martial arts, circus and the tomfoolery of clowns where the actors are ‘silent’, the only accompaniment is percussion which points directly towards the ‘clapper operas’ of latterday where the orchestra consisted entirely of percussion. This section of instruments in a typical ching h’si orchestra consists of a battery of gongs, cymbals and drums, forming together with the double-reed sona the first major ensemble within the orchestra which accompanies battles or military entrances and the above-mentioned tomfoolery. Various sizes of cymbals (po) and thin knobless gongs (lo) appear in most Chinese opera ensembles. Their most important uses are in the long percussion overtures that begin most scenes, or as the accompaniment for recitatives. At the end of each phrase in a recitative, the time-beater will signal it with a short clashes on cymbals and gongs. These sounds can be compared to colotomy of gong cycles in Indonesian gamelan, but functionally it is easier to compare them to the chords plunked on the harpsichord in eighteenth century Western opera recitative (Malm, 1977: 163). There are also other instruments that supply the rhythm in addition to the everpresent pan ku, namely the hsiao-ku or ‘small drum’ and the pan made of long pieces of hard wood which make a characteristically clicking sound, being the original clapper held over from the older forms of opera no longer in existence.
Next to the percussion, the other ensemble is used for ‘all civil and domestic scenes’ and it is heard far more often (Malm, 1977: 162). Although its instrumentation varies, it largely consists of a time-beater and a bowed-lute. Two forms of bowed instruments are used: the hu-ch’in (or ch’ing-hu) and the softer sounding and better known erhu (Wang, 1993: 45). The hu-ch’in was borrowed from the Mongols around the time of the Yuan dynasty (Malm 1977: 162); its pegs are in back of its neck so that the two strings, tuned in fifths, are aligned vertically over the snake skin soundboard. This position allows the bow to pass between them rather than over them in the manner of Near Eastern bowed lutes. The hu ch’in is played with the finger along the string like the rebab, rather than pressed against the finger board like the western violin. The hu ch’in leads the ensemble in performing the stereotyped melodies as set in the matrix of the time-beaters. It is often doubled by the larger, two-stringed erhu fiddle, which sounds an octave lower and is similar to the hu ch’in in appearance, except that its body may be either hexagonal or round. Another important and dominating sound in the orchestra is the bowed string accompaniment of jinghu, a sort of ‘sawn-off erhu’ according to Broughton et. al.(2000: 38). The double-reeded sona is the aerophone used in ensembles to accompany military scenes as mentioned above. In other types of scenes the only melodic aerophone is the ti (or ti tzu) flute. It can still occasionally be heard in opera performances in a solo or duet backing for an aria. Normally, like all other melodic instruments listed so far, it plays a heterophonic version of the main melody. Finally, the sheng mouth organ is also occasionally used to play along with the melody in opera performances, although it usually adds harmony in fourths or fifths (Malm, 1977: 163). According to Wang, there are more instruments that function to add to the existing bowed-lutes accompaniment of the melody such as the beautifully formed ‘moon-guitar’(yüeh-ch’ing) which has a circle-shaped shallow sound-board and a characteristic curve in the neck; the four strings are plucked with the fingers. The ‘three-string’(san-hsien) which has a small soundboard and is played with a plectrum (Wang, 1993: 46) is another of these instruments.
these instruments together, because of the contrasting Chinese attitude to
timbre which is actually shared in many places across
"An illustration of this is the open-string
tuning of the jinghu . which is not a perfect fifth interval but an
augmented fifth interval (enlarged by less than a semi-tone). This augmented fifth functions as a neutral
interval to accommodate the modal systems of the
(Ling, 1985: 22-23)
introduction to the music of Chinese opera ends the discussion of the ching
h’si traditions. It is now time to
move on to a discussion of a contrasting form: the style of ching h’si which
has developed in
After a war
To begin the discussion of the Taiwanese, the subject will not be the sociopolitical contrasts between the North and the South but specific qualities that diversify from the existing tradition. To begin, Taiwanese opera is usually performed outdoors on elevated stages in public markets (Rutherford, 1998: 95). This can be explained by the fact that it is still these days performed for ritual purposes, and therefore has to be able to be performed in a wide range of different spaces for private as well as public events, and it has to be easily portable. It is also improvised like the Cantonese style, and is therefore probably more closely related to folk forms of theatre; therefore it has developed downwards a little on the social hierarchy in some ways, even though it now reaches a wider audience. The costumes as well have lost a lot of their complex semiotic signification, such as the well-known shui-hsui (‘water-sleeves’) which no longer signify as many different things. This is actually a natural function for performances that are rituals; because the performance has meaning in being performed it is no longer necessary for the detailed meanings to be understood, like the meaning of the words of the Latin mass to give an example from the West.
opera in all its forms is enormously popular and does influence how people
define their own culture. The fact there
are two major styles, as mentioned above, one specific both culturally and
politically to the North of the island and one to the South, is very important. Groups of the North (known as Holo or Helo
opera) tend towards performances which are more ‘nationalistic’ in that
they typify the Chinese tradition and are often performed in Mandarin,
appealing in a more intellectual fashion to those who want to evoke the
past. In the South the style is more eclectic
and appeals to the Taiwanese speaker who sees him or herself as independent of
to a number of sources in
The plot concerns a well-to-do girl (Zhu, Ying-Tai) who is not allowed to go to school because she is a girl. She has been pretending to be sick for weeks to convince her father to allow her to go to school, refusing to eat. In many aspects it is still true that the main way that women have access to power is through the manipulation of men, so this theme is strongly underlined in the play. It is Ying-Tai’s sister who pretends to be a doctor saying the only way to cure her is to promise to fulfil her wish. She says that the disease is in fact not physical, but psychological, which is in itself another new insertion of contemporary themes into the drama. The father who is very strict and would otherwise have been unrepentant, makes the promise that Ying-Tai will be able to attend school unsuspectingly, and then the ‘doctor’ reveals her identity. To reveal her identity, all she has to do is remove one piece of clothing (her headpiece) which in fact does not change the way she looks, but in doing this the whole set of conventions that result in the parent’s belief that she is someone else is accented and highlighted. In any case, the promise must be kept and therefore Ying-Tai sets off for boarding school, pretending to be a boy among a school of male students. She falls in love with another student (Liang, Shan-bo), but cannot reveal the fact she is female. Their relationship involves certain intrigues like the man and woman sleeping together in the same room, unsuspecting to the man; all three possibilities are played with (2 men, 2 women, man/woman) suggesting the acceptability of the different choices. The traditions of the school are also important thematically as mentioned; its conventions are very old-fashioned and represents the difficulty that Ying-Tai has as a woman fighting for her rights in a society with a power hierarchy dominated by men; women’s power is through influencing those men rather than direct power, something which can still be felt in the Taiwan of today. contemporary values represented in lines like: “men and women are born equal” and the situation where the woman proposes marriage to the man suggest this theme. Ying-Tai questions the school when they make blatantly sexist statements which draws attention to her in the school. After 3 years pass, school is over and she wants to get married to Shan-bo but it is almost impossible to convince him that she is a girl and not a boy. The time passes in a matter of seconds and displays the typical Chinese attitude to the reflection of reality in theatre where time can be stretched and compressed at will, passing time expressed in one sentence: “it’s been three whole years since I’ve studied here.” Shan-bo doesn’t realize she’s a girl, but they fall in love just the same. When he finally realizes that his love is something society can accept and therefore probably ordained by fate, she finds out Ying-Tai’s father has already arranged a marriage to someone else (the Ma family). She has no choice, and he therefore dies of a broken-heart. The daughter, who always has been incredibly unhappy with the arrangement the father had made agrees to the wedding on the condition that she can first go to his funeral (questioning the power of male authority and Chinese tradition). She does this, and she magically enters his tomb and they both become butterflies and fly together to the gates of heaven, one of the metaphors for their love which is used throughout the work.
The plot itself demonstrates a set of possible deliberate contrasts embodied in a format which could be confused by an unsuspecting (western) audience for a traditional play. There are many other elements, however, which provide further contrasts. Music makes use of more obvious programmatic elements that are not imitated on instruments but are recorded as part of the soundtrack. This includes sounds of the city, Buddhist chanting etc., much of which is possible thanks to contemporary technology. These contrasts are also present in both the Holo (styles in the North) and the Southern styles. Other contrasts and similarities will be discussed below, although the next subject of discussion involves some of the Taiwanese musical traditions which set it apart from the generally accepted Ching h’si style of the mainland.
the music of traditional Chinese opera and the opera of
 Colourful shell with rare stripes
A treasure seldom exists from Heaven to Earth.
 How convenient is this good egg！
Saves one from ten-year hard working,
Gives you a strong recommendation to higher levels,
Spares you thousands of gifts you ought to prepare.
He is like a rooster turning a phoenix,
I am like stones turning to gold.
As far as
orchestral music is concerned, the basic set of instruments can vary dependent
upon the ensemble itself and the function it is used for. More contemporary performances intended as
entertainment in a western-style theatre for a Taiwanese audience tends to use
in addition to the traditional Chinese groups, a selection of western
instruments such as violins. Contrasting
to the contemporary style in Peking, however, improvisation in music ensembles
is still very important in
One of the
main similarities is perhaps the sociocultural purpose of most performances: to
entertain, at least according to Professor Lin – although Taiwanese
performances discussed in this work present particular thematic areas that
represent contemporary themes that must mean more than entertainment (although
that is undoubtedly the case in exceptional new works popular on the mainland
as well). According to Prof. Lin the primary intention is to entertain rather
than to teach a message in so many words, although that sometimes happens
because of the nature of the play. In some
ways the plots are more like soap-operas in the western sense in both the
Peking style and in
Opera, because of the strong historical tradition, the plays tend to be learnt
word for word according to scripts and musical scores. Taiwanese Opera, like the Cantonese style,
contrasts in that it uses improvisation techniques for textuality where the
actors know the general framework but improvise the lines as they go through
the pre-planned story (which is never quite the same). New plays like the one discussed above
accents the fact that there are always exceptions to the rule: plays which were
earlier improvised in Taiwanese as the story-line was probably recorded in
Mandarin or as a play, but these days plays are being written in what used to be
considered an unpleasant dialect.
According to Peters, it is possible that the Taiwanese variant is even
louder and more raucous that the Chinese opera form in
As far as
audience interaction and performance techniques which broke the barrier between
the reality of the performers and the people in the public that so attracted
Brecht to the form in Peking, both forms still share many of these traditions,
such as the role of the clown who improvises and speaks raw dialect and rough
As far as
costumes are concerned there are some similarities as well, such as the use of
paper hung from the ear which indicates that the actor has become a ghost. It actually depends on the play. Although
there is a similar use of colour, the costumes and make-up are not nearly as
dramatic, especially for women, in
It is not
suprising that the amount of change and the complexity of the tradition is so
intricate consider it is a tradition “developed in a period longer than that of
the entire history of European opera and involved the regional preferences over
some 500 years of peoples from many Chinese provinces, most of which contained
larger populations than that of Europe.” (Malm, 1977: 161). The fact should also be note forgotten that
amateur musicianship is enormously popular in
S., Ellingham, M., McConnacie, J., Duane, O., (2000), World Music Volume 2:
Latin & North America, Caribbean,
Y. (1991) Improvisation in a Ritual Context: the music of Cantonese opera, Hong
(dir.) Love Eterne [Chinese filming of the
"Musical and Cultural Traits of Chinese Music"
Ling Mingyue. 1985. Music of the Billion.
William P. (1977) Music Cultures of the Pacific, the Near East, and Asia,
John (1981) Culture and Science in
Pong, Chua Soo, Chaturvedi, R., Majumdar, R., Tanokura, M., Brisbane, K. (eds.)
(1998) The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre: Asia/Pacific,
Scott (ed.) (1998)
Wang, An-ch’i (1993) Peking Opera, Leuven/Apeldoorn: Garant.
Viewed by the author in a ching h’si play of the
 Interview with Yin.
 Prof. Lin Interview
 Even though the Taiwanese have not updated to simplified ideographs with the People’s Republic.
 Prof. Lin interview.
Interviews with locals who saw the film when it came out both in
 [23/9/2003 Interview with Prof. Lin].
© May 2008 Nachtschimmen
Music-Theatre-Language Night Shades,