Chinese Opera - History - Dynastic Periods - Song To Qing

Song To Qing

Forms such as the Zaju (雜劇) and Nanxi (南戏) further matured in the Song Dynasty (960–1279). In the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368), which acts based on rhyming schemes plus the innovation of having specialized roles like Dan (旦, dàn, female), Sheng (生, shēng, male), Hua (花, huā, painted-face) and Chou (丑, chŏu, clown) were introduced into the opera. Although actors in theatrical performances of the Song Dynasty strictly adhered to speaking in Classical Chinese onstage, during the Yuan Dynasty actors speaking in the vernacular tongue gained precedent on stage.

The dominant form of the Ming (1368–1644) and early Qing dynasties was Kunqu, which originated in the Wu cultural area. It later evolved into a longer form of play called chuanqi, which became one of the five melodies that made up Sichuan opera. Currently Chinese operas continue to exist in 368 different forms, the best known being Beijing opera, which assumed its present form in the mid-19th century and was extremely popular in the latter part of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911).


In Beijing opera, traditional Chinese string and percussion instruments provide a strong rhythmic accompaniment to the acting. The acting is based on allusion: gestures, footwork, and other body movements express such actions as riding a horse, rowing a boat, or opening a door. Spoken dialogue is divided into recitative and Beijing colloquial speech, the former employed by serious characters and the latter by young females and clowns. Character roles are strictly defined. Elaborate make-up designs portray which character is acting. The traditional repertoire of Beijing opera includes more than 1,000 works, mostly taken from historical novels about political and military struggles.

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