A Shao opera performance in Shanghai, China, 2014. This photo shows an acrobatic performer's somersault.
Chinese opera
Traditional Chinese戲曲
Simplified Chinese戏曲

Traditional Chinese opera (traditional Chinese: 戲曲; simplified Chinese: 戏曲; pinyin: xìqǔ; Jyutping: hei3 kuk1), or Xiqu, is a form of musical theatre in China with roots going back to the early periods in China. It is an amalgamation of various art forms that existed in ancient China, and evolved gradually over more than a thousand years, reaching its mature form in the 13th century, during the Song dynasty (960–1279). Early forms of Chinese theater are simple; however, over time, various art forms such as music, song and dance, martial arts, acrobatics, costume and make-up art, as well as literary art forms were incorporated to form traditional Chinese opera. Performers had to practice for many years to gain an understanding of the roles. Exaggerated features and colors made it easier for the audience to identify the roles portrayed.[1][2][3][4]

There are over a hundred regional branches of traditional Chinese opera today. In the 20th century, the Peking opera emerged in popularity and has come to known as the "national theatre" of China,[5] but other genres like Yue opera, Cantonese opera, Yu opera, kunqu, qinqiang, Huangmei opera, pingju, and Sichuan opera are also performed regularly before dedicated fans. Their differences are mainly found in the music and topolect; the stories are often shared and borrowed.[6] With few exceptions (such as revolutionary operas and to some extent Shanghai operas) the vast majority of Chinese operas (including Taiwanese operas) are set in China before the 17th century, whether they are traditional or newly written.

For centuries, Chinese opera was the main form of entertainment for both urban and rural residents in China as well as the Chinese diaspora. Its popularity declined sharply in the second half of the 20th century as a result of both political and market factors. Language policies discouraging topolects in Taiwan and Singapore, official hostility against rural religious festivals in China, and de-Sinicization in Taiwan have all been blamed for the decline of various forms in different times, but overall the two major culprits were Cultural Revolution — which saw traditional culture systematically erased, innumerable theatre professionals viciously persecuted, and younger generation raised with far lesser exposure to Chinese opera – and modernization, with its immense social impact and imported values that Chinese opera has largely failed to counter.[7] The total number of regional genres was determined to be more than 350 in 1957,[8] but in the 21st century the Chinese government could only identify 162 forms for its intangible cultural heritage list, with many of them in immediate danger of disappearing.[9] For young people, Chinese opera is no longer part of the everyday popular music culture, but it remains an attraction for many older people who find in it, among other things, a national or regional identity.


Six dynasties to Tang

An early form of Chinese drama is the Canjun Opera (參軍戲, or Adjutant Play) which originated from the Later Zhao Dynasty (319–351).[10][11][12] In its early form, it was a simple comic drama involving only two performers, where a corrupt officer, Canjun or the adjutant, was ridiculed by a jester named Grey Hawk (蒼鶻).[10] The characters in Canjun Opera are thought to be the forerunners of the fixed role categories of later Chinese opera, particularly of its comic chou (丑) characters.[13]

Various song and dance dramas developed during the Six Dynasties period. During the Northern Qi Dynasty, a masked dance called the Big Face (大面, which can mean "mask", alternatively daimian 代面, and it was also called The King of Lanling, 蘭陵王), was created in honour of Gao Changgong who went into battle wearing a mask.[14][15] Another was called Botou (撥頭, also 缽頭), a masked dance drama from the Western Regions that tells the story of a grieving son who sought a tiger that killed his father.[16] In The Dancing Singing Woman (踏謡娘), which relates the story of a wife battered by her drunken husband, the song and dance drama was initially performed by a man dressed as a woman.[15][17] The stories told of in these song-and-dance dramas are simple, but they are thought to be the earliest pieces of musical theatre in China, and the precursors to the more sophisticated later forms of Chinese opera.[15][18]

These forms of early drama were popular in the Tang dynasty where they further developed. For example, by the end of the Tang Dynasty the Canjun Opera had evolved into a performance with more complex plot and dramatic twists, and it involved at least four performers.[19] The early form of Chinese theatre became more organized in the Tang dynasty with Emperor Xuanzong (712–755), who founded the "Pear Garden" (梨园/梨園; líyuán), the first academy of music to train musicians, dancers and actors.[20] The performers formed what may be considered the first known opera troupe in China, and they performed mostly for the emperors' personal pleasure. To this day operatic professionals are still referred to as "Disciples of the Pear Garden" (梨园弟子 / 梨園弟子, líyuán dìzi).[21]

12th century painting by Su Hanchen; a girl waves a peacock feather banner like the one used in Song dynasty dramatical theater to signal an acting leader of troops

Song to Qing

By the Song Dynasty, Canjun Opera had become a performance that involved singing and dancing, and led to the development of Zaju (雜劇). Forms such as the Zaju and Nanxi (南戏) further matured in the Song dynasty (960–1279) and Yuan dynasty (1279–1368). Acts based on rhyming schemes and innovations such as 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 or performing lyrics in the vernacular tongue became popular on stage.[22]

In the Yuan poetic drama, only one person sang for all of the four acts, but in the poetic dramas that developed from Nanxi during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), all the characters were able to sing and perform. A playwright Gao Ming late in the Yuan dynasty wrote an opera called Tale of the Pipa which became highly popular, and became a model for Ming dynasty drama as it was the favorite opera of the first Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang.[23][24] The presentation at this point resembled the Chinese opera of today, except that the librettos were then very long.[25] The operatic artists were required to be skilled in many fields; according to Recollections of Tao An (陶庵夢憶) by Zhang Dai, performers had to learn how to play various musical instruments, singing and dancing before they were taught acting.[26]

The dominant form of the Ming and early Qing dynasties was Kunqu, which originated in the Wu cultural area. A famous work in Kunqu is The Peony Pavilion by Tang Xianzu. Kunqu later evolved into a longer form of play called chuanqi, which became one of the five melodies that made up Sichuan opera.[27] 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).

Theatre play, Prosperous Suzhou by Xu Yang, 1759

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, and each character have their own elaborate make-up design. The traditional repertoire of Beijing opera includes more than 1,000 works, mostly taken from historical novels about political and military struggles.


At the turn of the 20th century, Chinese students returning from abroad began to experiment with Western plays. Following the May Fourth Movement of 1919, a number of Western plays were staged in China, and Chinese playwrights began to imitate this form. The most notable of the new-style playwrights was Cao Yu (b. 1910). His major works—Thunderstorm, Sunrise, Wilderness, and Peking Man—written between 1934 and 1940, have been widely read in China.

The Republican Era saw the rise of Yue opera and all female Yue Opera troupes in Shanghai and Zhejiang. A woman-centric form, with all female casts and majority female audience members, plots were often love stories. Its rise was related to the changing place of women in society.   

In the 1930s, theatrical productions performed by traveling Red Army cultural troupes in Communist-controlled areas were consciously used to promote party goals and political philosophy. By the 1940s, theater was well established in the Communist-controlled areas.


Sichuan opera in Chengdu

In the early years of the People's Republic of China, development of Peking opera was encouraged; many new operas on historical and modern themes were written, and earlier operas continued to be performed. As a popular art form, opera has usually been the first of the arts to reflect changes in Chinese policy. In the mid-1950s, for example, it was the first to benefit under the Hundred Flowers Campaign, such as the birth of Jilin opera.

In 1954 there were approximately 2000 government-sponsored opera troupes working throughout China each consisting of 50-100 professional performers.[28] Despite its popularity, Peking opera made up a small percentage of these troupes. After the Chinese Communist Revolution a new genre emerged known as Schinggo opera which encompassed the revolutionary energy of the current sociopolitical climate. This operatic style built its foundation from the folk traditions of the rural community while also becoming influenced by European music.[28]

Opera may be used as commentaries on political affairs, and in November 1965, the attack on Beijing deputy mayor Wu Han and his historical play Hai Rui Dismissed from Office as anti-Mao, signaled the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. During the Cultural Revolution, most opera troupes were disbanded, performers and scriptwriters were persecuted, and all operas were banned except the eight "model operas" that had been sanctioned by Jiang Qing and her associates. Western-style plays were condemned as "dead drama" and "poisonous weeds", and were not performed. After the fall of the Gang of Four in 1976, Beijing Opera enjoyed a revival and continued to be a very popular form of entertainment, both on stage and television.


In the 21st century, Chinese opera is seldom publicly staged except in formal Chinese opera houses. It may also be presented during the lunar seventh month Chinese Ghost Festival in Asia as a form of entertainment to the spirits and audience. More than thirty famous pieces of Kunqu opera continue to be performed today, including The Peony Pavilion, The Peach Blossom Fan, and adaptions of Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

In 2001, Kunqu was recognized as Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO)

Costume and make-up

Costume and makeup in the opera Farewell My Concubine
Costume and makeup of a sheng character
This article needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed.Find sources: "Chinese opera" – news · newspapers · books · scholar · JSTOR (May 2020) (Learn how and when to remove this message)

Face paint plays a significant role in portraying the internal complexities of the performer's character with hundreds of combinations of colours and patterns.[28] Below are some general meanings which may be further focused on extremely specific details depending on the facial location of the colour.[29]

Musical characteristics

The musical components of Chinese opera are created as an inseparable entity from voice and dance/movement. Both the musicians and the actors contribute to composing musical accompaniment. This collaborative process is reflected within the production by the immaculate synchronicity between the actors' movements and the sounds of the orchestra. The musicians are required to flawlessly support the actors with sound, often waiting for vocal cues or physical signals such as the stomp of a foot. Traditionally, musicians often performed from memory – a feat made even more impressive considering pieces or sections of compositions were subject to infinite variations and often repeated.[28]

The orchestra utilized a pentatonic scale until a 7-note scale was introduced by Mongolia during the Yuan Dynasty. The two extra notes functioned similarly to accidentals within western notation.[28]


The instruments in the orchestra were divided into two categories:


Traditional Chinese string instruments used in Chinese Opera include:


Traditional Chinese percussion instruments used in Chinese Opera include:


Traditional Chinese woodwind instruments used in Chinese Opera include:

Regional genres

English name Chinese name(s) Major geographical areas
Peking opera Jingju (京劇) Cities nationwide on mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan
Kunqu Kunqu (崑曲) or Kunju (崑劇) Cities nationwide on mainland, Taiwan
Nuo opera Nuoxi (傩戲) Certain rural areas in Hunan, Hubei, Guizhou, Jiangxi, Guangxi, Anhui, Shanxi, Hebei
Northeast China
Longjiang opera Longjiangju (龍江劇) Heilongjiang
Jilin opera Jiju (吉劇) Jilin
Laba opera Labaxi (喇叭戲) Haicheng (central Liaoning)
North China
Ping opera Pingju (評劇) Hebei, Beijing, Tianjin, Heilongjiang, Jilin, Liaoning
Hebei bangzi Hebei bangzi (河北梆子) Hebei, Beijing, Tianjin, northwestern Shandong
Laodiao Laodiao (老調) Central Hebei, Beijing, Tianjin
Hahaqiang Hahaqiang (哈哈腔) Central Hebei, northwestern Shandong
Sixian Sixian (絲弦) Hebei, Shanxi
Sai opera Saixi (賽戲) Southern Hebei, northern Shanxi
Siguxian Siguxian (四股弦) Southern Hebei
Xidiao Xidiao (西調) Handan (southern Hebei)
Pingdiao Pingdiao (平調) Wu'an (southern Hebei)
Xilu Bangzi Xilu Bangzi (西路梆子) Haixing County (southeastern Hebei)
Shanxi opera Jinju (晉劇) Shanxi, western Hebei, central Inner Mongolia, northern Shaanxi
Yangge opera Yanggexi (秧歌戲) Shanxi, Hebei, Shaanxi
Daoqing opera Daoqingxi (道情戲)
Errentai Errentai (二人臺) Northern Shaanxi, northwestern Shanxi, northwestern Hebei, central Inner Mongolia
Xianqiang Xianqiang (線腔) Southernmost Shanxi, westernmost Henan, eastern Shaanxi
Pu opera Puju (蒲劇) or Puzhou Bangzi (蒲州梆子) Shanxi
Northwest China
Qinqiang Qinqiang (秦腔) Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia, Xinjiang
Tiao opera Tiaoxi (跳戲) Heyang County (central Shaanxi)
Guangguang opera Guangguangxi (桄桄戲) Hanzhong (southwestern Shaanxi)
Xiaoqu opera Xiaoquxi (小曲戲) Gansu
Quzi opera Quzixi (曲子戲) Northern Gansu, Xinjiang
Gaoshan opera Gaoshanxi (高山戲) Longnan (southern Gansu)
Henan and Shandong
Henan opera Yuju (豫劇) Henan, southern Hebei, Taiwan
Qu opera Quju (曲劇) Henan
Yuediao Yuediao (越調) Henan, northern Hubei
Wuyin opera Wuyinxi (五音戲) Central Shandong
Lü opera Lüju (呂劇) Southwestern Shandong
Maoqiang Maoqiang (茂腔) Jiaozhou Bay (eastern Shandong)
Anhui and Jiangsu
Huangmei opera Huangmeixi (黃梅戲) Anhui, eastern Hubei, Taiwan
Sizhou opera Sizhouxi (泗州戲) Northeastern Anhui, northwestern Jiangsu
Lu opera Luju (廬劇) Central Anhui
Hui opera Huiju (徽劇) Southern Anhui, northeastern Jiangxi
Huaihai opera Huaihaixi (淮海戲) Northern Jiangsu
Yangzhou opera Yangju (揚劇) Yangzhou (central Jiangsu)
Huai opera Huaiju (淮劇) Central Jiangsu
Wuxi opera Xiju (錫劇) Wuxi and Changzhou (southern Jiangsu)
Suzhou opera Suju (蘇劇) Suzhou (southern Jiangsu)
Tongzi opera Tongzixi (童子戲) Nantong (southeastern Jiangsu)
Zhejiang and Shanghai
Yue opera Yueju (越劇) Zhejiang, Shanghai, southern Jiangsu, northern Fujian
Shanghai opera Huju (滬劇) Shanghai
Huzhou opera Huju (湖劇) Huzhou (northern Zhejiang)
Shao opera Shaoju (紹劇) Shaoxing (northern Zhejiang)
Yao opera Yaoju (姚劇) Yuyao (northern Zhejiang)
Ningbo opera Yongju (甬劇) Ningbo (northern Zhejiang)
Wu opera Wuju (婺劇) Western Zhejiang
Xinggan opera Xingganxi (醒感戲) Yongkang (central Zhejiang)
Ou opera Ouju (甌劇) Wenzhou (southern Zhejiang)
Fujian and Taiwan
Min opera Minju (閩劇) Fujian, Taiwan (particularly Matsu Islands), Southeast Asia
Beilu opera Beiluxi (北路戲) Shouning County (northeastern Fujian)
Pingjiang opera Pingjiangxi (平講戲) Ningde (northeastern Fujian)
Sanjiao opera Sanjiaoxi (三角戲) Northern Fujian, western Zhejiang, northeastern Jiangxi
Meilin opera Meilinxi (梅林戲) Northwestern Fujian
Puxian opera Puxianxi (莆仙戲) Putian (coastal central Fujian)
Liyuan opera Liyuanxi (梨園戲) Quanzhou (southern Fujian), Taiwan, Southeast Asia
Gaojia opera Gaojiaxi (高甲戲) Quanzhou (southern Fujian), Taiwan, Southeast Asia
Dacheng opera Dachengxi (打城戲) Quanzhou (southern Fujian)
Taiwanese opera Gezaixi (歌仔戲) Taiwan, southern Fujian, Southeast Asia
Hubei, Hunan, and Jiangxi
Flower-drum opera Huaguxi (花鼓戲) Hubei, Hunan, Anhui, southeastern Henan
Han opera Hanju (漢劇) Hubei, Hunan, Shaanxi, Taiwan
Chu opera Chuju (楚劇) Eastern Hubei
Jinghe opera Jinghexi (荊河戲) Southern Hubei, northern Hunan
Baling opera Balingxi (巴陵戲) Yueyang (northeastern Hunan)
Jiangxi opera Ganju (贛劇) Jiangxi
Yaya opera Yayaxi (丫丫戲) Yongxiu County (northern Jiangxi)
Meng opera Mengxi (孟戲) Guangchang County (eastern central Jiangxi)
Donghe opera Donghexi (東河戲) Ganzhou (southern Jiangxi)
Tea-picking opera Caichaxi (採茶戲) Jiangxi, Hunan, Guangxi, Hubei, Guangdong, Taiwan
Southwest China
Sichuan opera Chuanju (川劇) Sichuan, Chongqing
Yang opera Yangxi (陽戲) Northwestern Hunan, eastern Sichuan, Chongqing, Guizhou
Deng opera Dengxi (燈戲) Northeastern Sichuan, Chongqing, southwestern Hubei
Huadeng opera Huadengxi (花燈戲) Guizhou, Yunnan
Guizhou opera Qianju (黔劇) Guizhou
Yunnan opera Dianju (滇劇) Yunnan
Guansuo opera Guansuoxi (關索戲) Chengjiang County (central Yunnan)
South China
Cantonese opera Yueju (粵劇) Guangdong, Hong Kong, Macau, southern Guangxi, North America, Southeast Asia
Teochew opera Chaoju (潮劇) Eastern Guangdong, southernmost Fujian, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia
Zhengzi opera Zhengzixi (正字戲) Lufeng (eastern Guangdong)
Hakka opera Hanju (漢劇) Eastern Guangdong
Leizhou opera Leiju (雷劇) Leizhou Peninsula (southwestern Guangdong)
Hainan opera Qiongju (瓊劇) Hainan, Singapore
Zhai opera Zhaixi (齋戲) Haikou (northern Hainan)
Caidiao Caidiao (彩調) Guangxi
Guangxi opera Guiju (桂劇) Northern Guangxi
Nanning opera Yongju (邕劇) Nanning (southern Guangxi)


In popular culture

An update in January 2022 for the game Genshin Impact includes a story quest that features a musical number from the character Yun Jin that is in the style of Chinese opera The Divine Damsel of Devastation, which went viral as it was the first time many people around the world have heard Chinese opera. Even Yang Yang, the Chinese voice of Yun Jin, was surprised about it.

See also


  1. ^ Fan, Xing (2018). "Visual Communication through Design". Staging Revolution: Artistry and Aesthetics in Model Beijing Opera during the Cultural Revolution. Hong Kong University Press. pp. 196–217. doi:10.5790/hongkong/9789888455812.003.0009. ISBN 978-988-8455-81-2. JSTOR j.ctt22p7jf7.14.
  2. ^ Pang, Cecilia J. (2005). "(Re)cycling Culture: Chinese Opera in the United States". Comparative Drama. 39 (3/4): 361–396. doi:10.1353/cdr.2005.0015. JSTOR 41154288.
  3. ^ Wichmann, Elizabeth (1990). "Tradition and Innovation in Contemporary Beijing Opera Performance". TDR. 34 (1): 146–178. doi:10.2307/1146013. JSTOR 1146013.
  4. ^ Wang Kefen (1985). The History of Chinese Dance. China Books & Periodicals. p. 78. ISBN 978-0-8351-1186-7.
  5. ^ Mackerras, Colin (Spring 1994). "Peking Opera before the Twentieth Century". Comparative Drama. 28 (1): 19–42. doi:10.1353/cdr.1994.0001. JSTOR 41153679. S2CID 190271409.
  6. ^ Siu, Wang-Ngai; Lovrick, Peter (1997). Chinese Opera: Images and Stories. UBC Press. ISBN 0-7748-0592-7.
  7. ^ Ma, Haili (2012). "Yueju – The Formation of a Legitimate Culture in Contemporary Shanghai". Culture Unbound: Journal of Current Cultural Research. 4: 213–227. doi:10.3384/cu.2000.1525.124213.
  8. ^ Iovene, Paola (2010). "Chinese Operas on Stage and Screen: A Short Introduction". The Opera Quarterly. 26 (2–3): 181–199. doi:10.1093/oq/kbq028. S2CID 191471378.
  9. ^ "将优秀戏曲纳入"国家典藏"". Guangming Daily (in Chinese). May 9, 2017.
  10. ^ a b Tan Ye (2008). Historical Dictionary of Chinese Theater. Scarecrow Press. p. 3. ISBN 978-0810855144.
  11. ^ "唐代參軍戲". 中國文化研究院.
  12. ^ "Sichuan Opera". Archived from the original on February 24, 2007.
  13. ^ "The Tang Dynasty (618–907)". Asian Traditional Theatre and Dance. Archived from the original on August 23, 2014. Retrieved March 12, 2014.
  14. ^ Laurence Picken, ed. (1985). Music from the Tang Court: Volume 5. Cambridge University Press. pp. 1–12. ISBN 978-0521347761.
  15. ^ a b c Faye Chunfang Fei, ed. (2002). Chinese Theories of Theater and Performance from Confucius to the Present. University of Michigan Press. pp. 28–29. ISBN 978-0472089239.
  16. ^ Tan Ye (2008). Historical Dictionary of Chinese Theater. Scarecrow Press. p. 336. ISBN 9781461659211.
  17. ^ "Theatre". China Culture Information Net. Archived from the original on December 25, 2013.
  18. ^ "The Early History of Chinese Theatre". Asian Traditional Theatre and Dance. Archived from the original on October 21, 2017. Retrieved March 11, 2014.
  19. ^ Jin Fu (2012). Chinese Theatre (3rd ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 10. ISBN 978-0521186667.
  20. ^ Tan Ye (2008). Historical Dictionary of Chinese Theater. Scarecrow Press. p. 223. ISBN 978-0810855144.
  21. ^ "Chinese Opera". onlinechinatours.com. Retrieved July 12, 2011.
  22. ^ Rossabi, 162.
  23. ^ Faye Chunfang Fei, ed. (2002). Chinese Theories of Theater and Performance from Confucius to the Present. University of Michigan Press. p. 41. ISBN 978-0472089239.
  24. ^ Jin Fu (2012). Chinese Theatre (3rd ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 447. ISBN 978-0521186667.
  25. ^ Wang Kefen (1985). The History of Chinese Dance. China Books & Periodicals. p. 78. ISBN 978-0-8351-1186-7.
  26. ^ "陶庵夢憶/卷02 《朱雲崍女戲》".
  27. ^ "川 剧styles". 中国剧种大观 CCNT. Archived from the original on April 30, 2001.
  28. ^ a b c d e f g h Hsu, Dolores Menstell (1964). "Musical Elements of Chinese Opera". The Musical Quarterly. 50 (4): 439–451. doi:10.1093/mq/L.4.439. JSTOR 740955.
  29. ^ a b Liang, David Ming-Yüeh (1980). "The Artistic Symbolism of the Painted Faces in Chinese Opera: An Introduction". The World of Music. 22 (1): 72–88. JSTOR 43560653.


Further reading