You are here > Home > Quick Navigation > Performing Arts > China Operas

The System of Roles

The roles on the Chinese opera stage fall into four categories: sheng Dan, jing and chou These roles have the natural features of age and sex, as well as social significance (including social position, Occupation and personal characteristics). These roles are artificially exaggerated by makeup, costume and gestures.

Roles - An Integration of Image and Conventions

The roles in Chinese operas match conventional image to conventional actions. For example the laosheng role is that of a middle- aged man (image). At the same time, he is upright and resolute. Examples are the characters of Zhuge Liang in the Peking Opera The Empty City Ruse and Song Shijie in the Peking Opera Four Successful Candidates. These roles have similar characteristics and qualities, and there is a complete set of corresponding performance conventions, such as using the natural voice when singing, and steady actions. Props such as artificial beards and hat plumes are used to make expressive gestures. Typical jing roles are those of Bao Zheng, Xiang Yu and Cao Cao. The jing has two characteristics: First, the faces are painted with various colors and patterns (jing means"painted face"); second, it calls for exaggeratedly rough and bold speech and actions.

The roles themselves have been shaped and refined over centuries of practice. The creation of specialized images and actions occurs in an endless cycle.

The Main Types of Roles

A male role, usually a leading one, sheng dates back to Southern Drama of the Song and Yuan dynasties. This role appears in operas in all historical periods. According to the age and social status of the characters, Sheng falls into three Sub-groups (laosheng,Xiaosheng and wusheng).

Laosheng are also known as xusheng, meaning bearded, because the actors wear artificial beards as they are middle-aged or elderly men. Most are upright and resolute characters. They sing in their natural voices, and their actions are serious ones (Fig.5-3). Xiaosheng are a sub-category of sheng representing young male characters. They don't wear artificial beards. In Gaoqiang and some other local operas they always sing in their real voices, while in Kunqu and Bihuang operas, the singing mixes natural and faisetto voices.

The wusheng stand for all of the male characters who appear in battle scenes. They are further Subdivided into changkao wuheng and duanda wusheng. They always wear helmets and thick-soled boots. The generals always carry long pikes. Wusheng roles call for sturdy and vigorous actions, with resounding declamations. The movements of the waist and legs are powerful, and a high level of martial arts skills is demanded in these roles. The duanda wusheng roles use short-handled weapons, and their movements are light and swift. (Fig.5-4)

Dan is the general term in Peking Opera for female roles. As early as in the Song Dynasty, the zhuang dan role appeared. Southern Drama and Northern Zaju, which developed during the Song and Yuan dynasties, also had dan roles. After Kunshan Opera matured, it had Zhengdan, xiaodan, tidan and laodan. Later, more dan types were developed. Nowadays, the dan roles are subdivided into zhengdan(or qingyi),huadan, wudan, laodan and caidan, in accordance with the age, characteristics and social positions of the roles.

The Zhengdan role was the main dan role in the Northern Zaju. Zhengdan are young or middle-aged women with gentle and refined dispositions. Most of their lines are delivered in song, and even the spoken parts are recited in rhythmic style. Always dressed in a blue gown, Zhengdan is also calIed qingyi(blue clothes).

The huadan is a role for a vivacious maiden, a young woman with a frank and open personality, or a woman of questionable character.

The wudan are female characters skilled in the martial arts. They are subdivided into daomadan and wudan, according to the social positions and skills represented. The daomadan are good at using pikes and spears, and at riding horses. The wudan always wear short robes and the role emphasizes acrobatics. The wudan play gods and ghosts and have excellent fighting skills.

The laodan usually represent aged women. They sing in their natural voices, in a style similar to that of the laosheng but in milder tones. In some types of opera, the laodan is called fudan or bodan.

The caidan, also called choudan, choubozi or yaodan, represent clownish and cunning females. The performance of this part calls for exuberance. (Fig.5-5)

The jing are painted-face roles. Known popularly as hualian. The different colors and designs on the faces represent males with different characteristics. Some are bold and vigorous and some are sinister, ruthless, crude and rash. The voice is loud and clear, and the movements are exaggerated. The jing role originates from the fujing role of the Song Zaju. The jing roles gradually increased in number, and became further divided into several groups, according to the different social positions and characters of the roles.

The ahualian with a fully painted face is known as Zhengjing. The roles represent men of high social standing and good behavior. Often court ministers, the Zhengjing sing in vigorous and sturdy tones.

The erhualian, also known as fujing, have powerful bodily movements and sturdy singing voices. Some roles in this group represent rascally ministers, recognizable by their white faces.

The wuer hualian is also known as shuaida hulian or wujing. This role is more physical than most of the others, with little singing or reciting The youalian, also known as maojing, is a clownish role. Some of them have special skills,such as spouting fire from the mouth or baring the teeth. Typical is the role of Zhong Kui. (Fig.5-6)

The chou is one of the main roles in Peking Opera. The eyes and nose are surrounded by a white patch, so chou is also known as Xiaohualian (partly painted face). The chou roles originated in Southern Drama of the Song and Yuan dynasties and appear in various kinds of operas. They portray various kinds of characters, some are warm-hearted, simple and sincere, and some are sinister and mean. In modern operas, the performance of chou roles has developed rapidly, and different operas have their own styles. In general, the chou roles do not focus on singing, but the dialogue is clear and fluent. According to the social positions, characters and skills demanded, the chou roles are divided into two categories: wenchou (civilian) and wuchou (military). Both have their own special features.

Wuchou is also known as kaikoutiao. It requires not only a good command of the martial arts or acrobatics but also the ability to deliver the lines both clearly and fluently. The movements should be light and powerful. (Fig.5-7)

Quick Navigation

New Article