Peking (Beijing) Opera - the National Opera of China

One of the Three Main Theatrical Systems in the World

China boasts more than 360 regional styles of opera. These ancient forms of drama are still active in China's stages today.  A regional opera is usually popular in several provinces, while one province enjoys several local operas. Known as the national opera of China, Peking Opera is the most influential and representative of all the operas in China and one of the three main theatrical systems in the world. It is the highlight of any Beijing tour.


Although it is called Peking Opera, its origins are not in Beijing but in the provinces of Anhui and Hubei. It is believed that the Peking (Beijing) Opera gradually came into being after 1790 when Anhui Province's four most famous opera troupes paid a visit to Beijing. Based upon traditional Anhui Opera, Peking (Beijing) Opera has also adopted repertoire, music, and performing techniques from Kun Opera and Qingqiang Opera as well as traditional folk tunes. It took the best from each style and eventually formed its own highly stylized music and performing techniques.

Peking Opera underwent fast development during the reign of Emperor Qianlong and the notorious Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing Dynasty. Having an imperial patron, made Peking Opera extremely popular, and therefore more accessible to the common people. Empress Dowager Cixi was an avid fan. The huge three-story theater in the Summer Palace is proof of her love of Peking Opera.

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Peking (Beijing) Opera is a blend of music, dance, art, acrobatics, and martial arts. With its beautiful paintings, exquisite costumes, and graceful gestures, Peking (Beijing) Opera has developed into a comprehensive art system.


Filled with many aspects of Chinese culture, Peking opera presents the audience with an encyclopedia of Chinese culture. Its repertoire includes historical plays, comedies, tragedies, and farces. Many historical events are adapted into the plays, which in the past were an important primer on the history and ethical principles for poorly educated common people.


Peking (Beijing) Opera features an orchestral and percussion band. The former frequently accompanies peaceful scenes while the latter provides the right atmosphere for battle scenes. The commonly used percussion instruments include castanets, drums, bells, and cymbals. The orchestral instruments include the Erhu, Huqin, Yueqin, reed pipe, and lute. The band usually sits on the left side of the stage. It works together with the actors to add just the right mood to go along with the action on stage.

Roles - How to Figure Out the Role's Identity the Moment They Appear on the Stage

Traditionally in China, women were forbidden to enter theatres, so all Peking (Beijing) Opera characters were performed by men. But now, women enjoy equal rights with men on stage, and more women are appearing on the Opera stage than ever before.

Characters in Peking (Beijing) Opera are roughly divided into four types of roles: Sheng (the positive male role), Dan (the positive female role), Jing (a supporting male role), and Chou (the clown or a negative character), which are further classified by age and profession.  Every type of role wears its own facial makeup and costume, allowing audience members to figure out the identity of the character the moment it appears on the stage.

Facial Makeup - How to Tell Good from Evil

The facial makeup of the Peking (Beijing) Opera highlights and exaggerates the principal features of the characters. One major characteristic of Peking (Beijing) Opera is the colors painted on the face of a character. It is vital to the understanding of a play. This is a feature unique to Chinese opera. 

Performance Skills

The main performing skills of Peking (Beijing) Opera consist of singing, speaking, acting, and martial arts. The operatic dialogues and monologues are recited in the Beijing dialect, and some of the words are pronounced in a special fashion, unique to Peking (Beijing) opera. That is why every Peking Opera performance is accompanied by subtitles in Chinese, and English.

Performers, in addition to singing, use well-established movements, such as smoothing a beard, adjusting a hat, jerking a sleeve, or raising a foot, to express certain emotions and meaning. Opening a door, walking at night, rowing a boat, eating, drinking, and the like are all demonstrated by the stylized movements of the actors and actresses. Performers also use their eyes and facial expressions to convey specific meanings.

Liyuan Theatre - Beijing

Peking (Beijing) Opera is a featured part of a visitor's China tour. It is an essential part of Chinese culture and something not to be missed. The best place in China to enjoy the Peking (Beijing) Opera is Beijing's Liyuan Theatre.  Located in the Qianmen Jianguo Hotel in Beijing, Liyuan Theatre is the most prestigious performance venue for Peking (Beijing) Opera. Every night, some of China's foremost actors and actresses perform, and after the show, audience members are allowed to visit their dressing rooms and have photos taken with them.

Artists will offer a wide repertoire of Peking Opera routines. The audience can enjoy delicious snacks and Chinese tea while watching the wonderful performances. The international audience will have no problem understanding the dialogue because the theatre will give simultaneous interpretation services in English, Japanese, and French at each show.

In the display and sales hall, visitors can learn more about the exciting history of Peking Opera and see stage photos of prominent actors and actresses.  They also have a shop, where visitors can purchase Opera costumes, masks, and musical instruments, as well as audio and video discs. Some visitors may even get to have a photo taken of them wearing a Peking Opera costume, complete with make-up.

Peking (Beijing) Opera's Most Famous Operas

1) Farewell to Concubine

The kingdoms of Chu and Han were at war. General Xiang Yu of the Chu Kingdom was surrounded by the Han army at Jiuli Mountain in Gaixia. In order to distract Xiang Yu, his concubine Yu Ji-sang songs and performed a sword dance to cheer him up. This is the magnum opus of the Mei School of Peking Opera.

2) Havoc in Heaven

This is an ancient Chinese fairy tale. The Empire of Heaven was having a huge peach banquet but did not invite the Monkey King. This angered the Monkey King so much that he went up to heaven before the banquet, and ate all the peaches and the Pills of Immortality intended for the banquet. He then proceeded to destroy many of Heaven's palaces. Due to its large amount of martial arts, this is one of China's most popular Operas.

3) The Crossroad

Jiaozan, a senior official of the Song Dynasty was exiled to Shamen Island because he killed a treacherous court official. The commander in chief Yang Yanzhao sent Ren Tanghui to protect Jiaozan secretly. During the night, Ren stayed at the same crossroad as Jiao. In that inn, a fierce fight took place between Ren Yanzhao and the innkeeper Liu Lihua who thought Ren Yanzhao wanted to murder Jiaozan. The fight waged for hours until Liu Lihua's wife came in with a lit candle. The two men recognized each other, and this cleared up their misunderstanding.

4) Picking Up a Jade Bracelet

A young girl named Sun Yujiao enjoyed doing embroidery work in front of her family home's gate. One day a young intellectual named Fu Ming passed by and instantly fell in love with her. Fu Ming dropped a jade bracelet on the ground on purpose to express his love. Sun Yujiao picked it up, which signified her acceptance of his love. Before Fu Ming dropped off the bracelet, she did not like him, but when he gave this display of his love for her, she changed her mind. This is a very traditional style of Chinese love story.

5) The Drunken Concubine

One day, Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty invited his favorite concubine Yang to admire flowers in a pavilion. Yang waited for the emperor but he never showed up. Instead, he went to another of his concubine's residences. Angered at being jilted, Yang felt depressed and got drunk. She sang to express her sadness and went back to her own palace filled with resentment.

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