Peking Opera, a gem of Chinese culture

I shall let the speaker of the Liyuan Theater of the Jianguo Qianmen Hotel in Beijing ( ) welcome you to an evening show of Peking Opera:

“Welcome to China and the Liyuan Theater to enjoy Peking Opera. It includes music, dancing, recitation, fine arts and martial skills. One of the major features of Peking Opera is symbolism. While the stage is bare of decorations you can understand a lot through the body language of the actors. That is: a long journey is symbolized by going around the stage once, a horse whip means riding a horse. A paddle means going on a boat. […] Well, dear friends, we believe that even though we speak different languages it doesn’t matter at all. You’ll be able to feel this very special performance here. You’ll all be captivated by the artistic charm of the performers.”

Li Yuan Theater in Jianguo Qianmen Hotel Beijing

Li Yuan Theater in Jianguo Qianmen Hotel Beijing

Actress at Li Yuan

Peking Opera is not “opera” in the sense that most westerners understand opera. It was just called so by western people, who got in touch with the art in China and simply couldn’t think of a better name for it.

Peking Opera is a colorful mixture of acrobatics, dance, pantomime, singing and dialog as well as background music. Symbolic and magic contents play a central role in a Peking Opera performance. The speaker makes the point that even though the performers and the spectators “speak different languages”, he believes that the spectators can “feel” the performance thus implicating that there is a transfer of emotions from the stage to the audience. Although Peking Opera is highly conventionalized, it is essentially realistic as the stories are based on people’s “hopes and strivings”. As such hopes and strivings are basically human they can be understood by spectators with different cultural backgrounds.

Sū Sān 苏三at court

Sū Sān 苏三at court

Peking Opera began to develop in the end of 18th century from various folk theater traditions, mainly those from the provinces Ānhuī 安徽 and Húběi 湖北, to eventually become an independent art form. It developed in two main streams; one at the imperial court and the other at the marketplaces and teahouse-theaters of old Beijing.

Méi Lánfāng梅兰芳Theater Beijing

The Méi Lánfāng 梅兰芳Theater Beijing

The Peking Opera plays performed at the imperial court were mainly dramas based on the early history of China. They often had, and still have, a very long duration (up to 8 hours) and strong nationalistic contents. In this type of Peking Opera singing and dialog are the most important means of expression. Such plays are today performed in big theaters built especially for Peking Opera in the bigger cities of the PRC and Taiwan.

Teahouse theater

Teahouse theater

The plays performed at the marketplaces and teahouses, on the other hand, had a lighter character with lots of acrobatics and humorous contents telling stories from the everyday life of the common people. They are never as long as the dramas. Such plays are performed today in small teahouse-theaters and some ancient palaces for visitors. However, serious Peking Opera enthusiasts do not consider the lighter kind of plays as Peking Opera as I have been often told. Only the dramas are considered to be deserving of the name.

Both types of Peking Opera, however, contain folklore and have all kinds of magic contents. The stories of most plays are part of the Chinese cultural heritage. People know the stories; they understand what happens on the stage and they understand the moral messages of the plays.

At the beginning of 20th century Peking Opera was not very popular in China. But as Méi Lánfāng 梅兰芳, the probably best-known Peking Opera performer and theorist at that time, brought the art first to Japan in 1919, then to the United States of America in 1930 and to Europe in 1935, the art became more popular also at home.

Revolution opera

Revolution opera

After the revolution of 1949 Peking Opera was not completely banned by the new government as many western sources put it. The government regarded it as an important part of the traditional culture and invested funds in developing the art in a new direction. This was part of the comprehensive strategy of the government to classify and save certain contents of the “old culture” and then model them to suit the new state ideology. State-owned opera companies were founded and actors and actresses became state employees. A total of 37 new “revolutionary model plays” were written in assignment of the government and strongly propagated by it. However, these works never became really popular and are seldom performed today.

The traditional kind of Peking Opera lived on even if it was not performed openly. During the Cultural Revolution 1966 -1967 Peking Opera in the traditional form was banned to some degree once more. A friend of mine, who was a school girl at that time, told me that the children had to learn parts of the revolutionary plays by heart and perform them at public places such as railway stations.

Today, however, Peking Opera in the traditional form is acknowledged and propagated by the government as a “gem of the Chinese culture” and an important part of the Chinese national identity. But for the younger generations in China Peking Opera is difficult to understand. The common attitude is “I don’t understand Peking Opera and I don’t like to watch it”.

The latest development of Peking Opera is represented, among others, by Lǐ Yù Gāng 李玉刚, the winner of a TV talent show. He is an autodidact, who combines traditional Peking Opera with modern pop music. Depending on what he performs he wears a modified modern costume or a traditional one. Lǐ Yù Gāng is a dàn 旦 actor. It means that he plays women’s roles.

Lǐ Yù Gāng 李玉刚

Lǐ Yù Gāng 李玉刚

Lǐ Yù Gāng 李玉刚

Lǐ Yù Gāng 李玉刚









Today Peking Opera is shown in various theaters and on TV. Early in the morning one can see and hear Peking Opera in many parks of Beijing and other towns, where amateur groups meet to practice and to perform for each other.

How is Peking Opera presented to foreign audiences? As mentioned before, the first artist to introduce Peking Opera abroad was Méi Lánfāng. Fully understanding that the art has many aspects that are difficult to understand for people unfamiliar with the Chinese culture he took 183 painted scrolls as well as 1987 drawings with pictures and explanations with him when he made his first tour in the United States.

Books about Peking Opera

Books about Peking Opera

There are numerous older books and shortly before the Olympic Games of 2008 many new books on the topic written by western and Chinese authors were published in the PRC in English, French and German. This picture shows part of my “collection” in the Jianguo Qianmen Hotel, where I spent nearly a month collecting empirical material for my Master’s paper on the topic in 2009.


If you’d like to read more about theater buildings, stage props, music and the various role types in Peking Opera, here is a link to the “Introduction of Peking Opera” of my paper with information on the sources of pictures of  Peking Opera, a gem of Chinese culture .

To my Swiss readers: Ich halte Vorträge über Peking Oper auch in Deutsch. Wenn Sie mich einladen möchten, schreiben Sie bitte eine unverbindliche Anfrage an: katri.naef[at]

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