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]

Grabbing chances where one can


A Chinese friend and I were doing food shopping in a supermarket in Beijing. We chatted in English as we walked around the shop. Then I went to get something by myself. A Chinese man approached my friend and asked her, who I was and why my English was so good.  It turned out that he owned a little company that provided communication services to foreigners in China. The man was always looking for language teachers; at that time actually for a German teacher. Well, no problem, I can also teach German. To make a long story short, I soon had my first student. The fact that I was going to leave Beijing in a couple of weeks was no problem. “You teach as long as you are here!”



I believe that many Chinese people have a very pragmatic world view. When they see a chance to do something that might prove to be rewarding they grab it. Whether it’s employing a language teacher when they happen to meet one, a chance to make some extra money or have a nap in the noon time (or any other time of the day actually) they just go ahead and do it. In this respect Chinese people seem to be basically more flexible than their western sisters and brothers. The other side of the coin is that they sometimes act on the spur of the moment.  This can be difficult for a westerner, who is rather used to long term planning.

The world economic crisis of the 1990’s hit China as well as the other parts of the world. The western world worried about millions of Chinese migrant workers getting unemployed. Would they cause a lot social unrest and would such unrest affect the rest of the world? They didn’t and it didn’t happen. They went back to their home villages and built the house they had been planning on building some time anyway. And after that they helped their neighbor build his house.

I believe that there is this very fundamental difference in thinking between the Chinese and western cultures: the Chinese can be rather inclined to short term planning – which does not mean that they don’t do longterm planning as well – and simply grabbing changes where they see them without necessarily thinking of the long term effects of their actions. I’m sure that understanding this would make life easier for westerners doing business in the PRC.

Spiritual life in China 1 Introduction

General Introduction

Spiritual aspects of life are ever present in the daily life of many Chinese people. The relatively short period of communist atheism could not change the age old practices. Today so called “normal religious activity” is tolerated, even protected, by the government. Article 36 of the Constitution of 1982 declares that “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief”.

There are 5 officially sanctioned religions or belief systems in the PRC: Daoism, Buddhism,  the Catholic and the Protestant Church as well as Islam. Confucianism is not officially regarded as a spiritual practice as such, although many people feel differently about it. Not officially sanctioned are the various “folk religions”.

yin yang emblem       Buddhist monkBaoding Church

Muslim woman  Confucius

I shall be writing separate articles about the above mentioned belief systems.  In this first article I will just try to give a short impression of what spiritual life in the PRC looks like today. This short introduction can only be of a very general nature as spiritual practices vary between regions, ethnic groups, villages, towns and cities.

If you ask a Chinese person “What is your religion?” he will give you a somewhat puzzled look: “What do you mean?”. This is because Chinese people live – and have always lived – in a culture of multiple belief systems that do not exclude one another, but are rather intertwined in the daily reality of the people (this, of course, applies to other Asian cultures as well).

Sure, people make a difference between a Daoist temple where they go when they need guidance concerning health matters and a Confucian temple where they may seek help when they have family problems. They also know that the Christian churches differ from the above mentioned not only thru the different building style and the way religious service is conducted. They are also known to be places where at Christmas time everyone gets little presents and something to eat and where western style Christmas decorations are never taken down. Furthermore, spiritual specialists e.g. “shamans” act as healers, soothsayers and priests not only in the far away countryside villages but also in big cities all over the country.

There is a lovely Daoist temple called the White Cloud Temple in Beijing. It has been carefully restored and is a peaceful oasis in the buzzing city. Tourists go there to marvel about the beautiful buildings and the exotic looking monks who go about their daily business of sweeping the ground and talking to visitors. Local people go there to worship and, as mentioned before, to discuss their health problems with the monks.

White Cloud Tempel

I was visiting the White Cloud Temple with a local friend when we saw two women burning joss sticks and bowing their heads in front of statues representing the pantheon of Taoist Gods. My friends asked them what they praying for. The younger woman told us that she was about to take an entrance exam to a university. Together with her mother she had been going thru all the spiritual institutions of Beijing to ask for spiritual support.  Just to make sure.

This is how many Chinese people feel about spiritualism. Each spiritual belief system represented by a temple, a church or a soothsayer’s room with the corresponding personnel has something different to offer to help them manage their daily life. Why not take advantage of  all of them?

Here is a link to a Zeit Online-article in German ReligionChinas Sinn fürs Unendliche

Sourses of pictures: ; ; ;   ; )

The Fascination of Chinese names

When a new baby is born in China, he or she gets a name that no other person known to the parents has. The name is a combination of words or radicals that have a meaning, which the parents believe to be ideal for the baby. What an ideal name is like will be discussed later in this article.

A lexical category of names has not developed in Mandarin Chinese for the simple reason that the so called “name taboo” forbids the same name to be used more than once. Thus a Chinese proper name can be identified as a name only in a context; unlike words such as Marie or Thomas which in western cultures are immediately understood as proper names.

A further fascinating fact is that a Chinese person may have quite a few different names that are used in different contexts. The so call called “milk name” is used in the family and by close friends; the so called “official name” for official purposes. An artist may have more than one pen names and a distinguished older person a so called “respect name”. People, who deal with foreigners, take an English, Russian or German name to make communication easier. All this suggests that the self-identification of a Chinese person does not depend on his name to the same extend as it does in western cultures.

Chinese names have always fascinated me, because they seem so rich in meaning and aesthetical values; they look like paintings, have a musical tone and they seem to carry a great deal of symbolic content. Such names are comprehensive symbols, which can be perceived with all the senses: they are visual and auditory and they can be smelled and even tasted.

Think of a little girl, who calls herself  香花  Xiāng Huā “fragrant flower”. A  lovely name makes the lady lovely.

Perhaps her name is  香花  Xiāng Huā “fragrant flower”.

康有为 Kāng Yǒuwéi “a promising, active and productive person”.

康有为 Kāng Yǒuwéi was a Chinese scholar, noted calligrapher and prominent political thinker and reformer of the late Qing Dynasty (Wikipedia). His name could be translated as “one who is promising, active and productive“. A powerful name makes the man powerful.

When naming a baby the parents often express their wishes for the future life of the child. They also may express their own wishes like the one of having a son, when they call their daughter  带弟  Dài Dì “bring little brother”.

I believe that people in western cultures often tend to measure a great importance to the symbolic meaning of Chinese names. The symbolism of a name is interesting to us because it is often missing in our own names. We seldom know where our names come from or what they mean. The historical origin and the etymology of western names seem not to bear great significance in modern times. Another important, but not so obvious, aspect of a Chinese name is the information the name may contain about the social background of its carrier.

I wrote my second Bachelor’s paper on Chinese names. If you’d like to read the whole text, here is the link A Chinese Name is an Act of Creation

For my German speaking readers here is a link to an article of mine that was published just before the Olympic Games in Beijing 2008 Der Bund Artikel Namen . Scroll down the page to find my article.