Useful Notes: Peking Opera

A traditional Chinese art, the most famous form of which is the Peking Opera, where Mandarin note  is used for the spoken language. (There are other similar operas from other areas, but those aren't as famous.)

Despite its name, it's more of a minstrel show than a Western-style opera: instead of a full orchestra, the actors are backed up by a small band of traditional instruments that also provide the sound effects, the set is very minimally decorated with as few props as they can get away with and action is generally pantomimed. The stories told tend towards Historical Fiction, though there are a few Slice of Life tales and other famous Chinese legends as well. A small handful have also been written in the modern era. As there are many traditions and superstitions handed down from generation to generation, Chinese opera has very formalized storytelling conventions, tunes, and character archetypes, so once one becomes familiar with said conventions, it's very easy to become Genre Savvy.

The first-ever Chinese film, Dingjun Shan in 1905, was an adaptation of a Peking Opera, and for a long time afterwards, the narrative and acting codes of Peking Opera would have a noticeable influence on Chinese cinema. It was the foundation of Hong Kong action cinema in general (since training with a troupe builds up lung power and, depending on the role, acrobatic skills), with many of its most famous stars (such as Jackie Chan) having backgrounds in Chinese opera, which went into serious decline against competition of the movies.

Tropes Common to Chinese Operas:

  • Action Girl - Wudan, the combat female role.
  • Bad Ass
  • The Cast Showoff - Whoever gets cast in the Sun Wukong role gets very exciting acrobatic sequences, and the singing roles will usually have at least one "aria" where he/she gets to show off their pipes.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience - Costumes are color coded, and every jing (painted face) role had not only a specific color, but a particular pattern associated with it.
  • Costume Porn - So very much; the fancier the costume, the more important (and/or higher ranked) the character.
  • Crosscast Role - Until the 20th century, it would've been unacceptable for a woman to show her face in public like this, so all of the female roles would be played by men.
  • Guide Dang It - Don't attend a performance of Peking opera if you don't have at least an in-depth knowledge of color codes and symbols. You'll be lost in seconds.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade - In fact, Chinese Theater (and folk legends) are probably the reason that certain characters in, for example, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms are portrayed in certain ways.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade - Ditto.
  • Memetic Hand Gesture:
    • Female roles have long, flowing sleeves that they throw out in an arc during significant solos.
    • Older roles stroke their beard whenever they're plotting something.
    • Bad Ass characters who have the feather hat (i.e. what Lu Bu is seen to wear in Dynasty Warriors) will hold one of the feather's in their hand during solos.
    • Son Wukong, in addition to a ton of monkey-like mannerisms (he'll scratch himself and pick imaginary ticks off his body, then "eat" them), is most often seen peering into the distance with his hand in an almost backwards military salute pose, to signify that he's using his telescopic vision.
  • Nice Hat - Just about every costume. The wusheng (combat males) in particular sport fabulously long feathers in their helmets (see also Lu Bu's cockroach hat in Dynasty Warriors or Sun Wukong's hat in Warriors Orochi)
  • Plucky Comic Relief - The chou (jester) role, who bounce between this, The Jester, and the Butt Monkey.
  • Take Our Word for It - Given the minimalism of the set design, lots of stuff is just told to the audience via dialogue and they're expected to use their imagination to fill in the blank.
    • This gets to Crowning Moment of Funny levels in an act based on a story out of Water Margin, where the main characters are stuck in a (supposedly) pitch-dark room together, neither realizing the other is there at first.
  • That Makes Me Feel Angry - Very often, the characters won't just talk about their feelings, but sing about them, though they will also make exaggerated displays of emotion.
  • You Look Familiar - Depending on the size of the troupe, the extras tend to be played by the same people, so a Mook that died in Act 1 might be spotted among the Greek Chorus in Act 3.

References to Chinese Opera in other media:

Anime and Manga
  • Dragon Ball - Goku breaks out in a Peking Opera parody after Ginyu steals his body.

  • Farewell My Concubine is about two famous actors who play Xian Yu and his Concubine on the night the Concubine committed suicide so Xian Yu can break siege without regrets.
  • The hero of Chang Cheh's masterpiece, Vengeance, seeks to avenge his brother, a Peking Opera star, who was murdered by bad guys.

Web Original
  • Rebound and Lion Claw, two members of the People's Revolutionary Superhuman Collective from the Global Guardians PBEM Universe, are both "graduates" of the Peking Opera.

Video Games

Alternative Title(s):

Chinese Opera