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Media Notes / Peking Opera

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Chinese Opera is a traditional art form developed in China, the most famous form of which is the Peking Opera, where an archaic form the Anhui dialect is used for the spoken language.

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.

Ironically, modern actors of Peking Opera are held in much higher esteem than they ever had been in any period of history, as Peking Opera is being preserved as a living cultural artifact in both mainland China and Taiwan: in the past, any job that wasn't a government post or involved with teaching was looked down upon, and actors in troupes such as those who performed in Peking Operas had even worse reputations, barely above that of prostitutes—after all, they "lie" for a living. During the Cultural Revolution, they were further branded as holdouts of the past and purged or sent into reeducation camps. Traditional Chinese music and art was seen as an impediment to Communist progress, a link to the corrupt past, and so was ruthlessly suppressed. Eventually, saner heads prevailed and Peking Opera made a comeback. The first-ever Chinese film, Dingjun Shan in 1905, was an adaptation of a Peking Opera show depicting a battle from Romance of the Three Kingdoms, 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 even more serious decline as movie-going gradually replaced theater-going as the main mode of entertainment.

Tropes Common to Chinese Operas:

  • Action Girl - Wudan, the combat female role.
  • 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, Romance of the Three Kingdoms are portrayed in certain ways.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade - Ditto.
  • Plucky Comic Relief - The chou (jester) role, who bounce between this, a 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 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.
  • In Raise the Red Lantern, Meishan was an opera singer before she married Master Chen.
  • The hero of Chang Cheh's masterpiece, Vengeance! (1970), seeks to avenge his brother, a Peking Opera star, who was murdered by bad guys.
  • Former Shaw Brothers starlet, Ivy Ling-po, is famed for her various roles in Peking Opera-themed dramas she made for the studio during its heydays, including films lime The Crimson Palm, Butterfly Lovers, Hua Mulan, The Three Smiles and several others.



  • M. Butterfly is about a French diplomat who falls for the star performer in the Peking Opera. Gallimard and "Song Liling" are together for twenty years before Gallimard learns that there are no female performers in the Peking Opera and "Song" is actually a Honey Trap who's been selling him out to the Chinese government.

Television Series

  • Winter Begonia is a Chinese TV show about the friendship between Shang Xirui, a Peking opera performer, and Cheng Fengtai, a businessman who invests in Shang Xirui's Peking opera troupe, and their dealings with the Peking opera community in 1930s Beiping as Japanese forces invade China.

Video Games

  • As mentioned above, Dynasty Warriors invokes Chinese opera in some of the character designs. The game startup cinematic for Dynasty Warriors 3 even shows Zhao Yun in full opera regalia.
  • Genshin Impact has Yun Jin, who is a love letter to Peking Opera. She is the director of the Yun-Han opera troupe who also writes operas and is a skilled performer, even in battle.
  • Chen Liang-jiou from The Legend of Tian-ding is dressed like a Peking Opera performer, right up to having a painted face and his fighting stances modeled after opera dance moves. Interestingly, he's partnered with Kaguya, a geisha.