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Unique Symbolic Scenery, Backdrops and Properties

In the traditional Chinese theater, time, space and setting are mainly represented by means of the performers' singing and movements. The change of time and place is accomplished by the actors' frequently entering and leaving the stage, and their interaction, including singing, recitation, acting and combat, which work on the imagination of the audience.

In Mi Heng Denounces cao cao When Beating a Drum, a Peking Opera piece, Mi Heng sings, "In front of the residence of the prime minister stand rows of officers and soldiers. With painted pavilions and carved two-phoenix roof beams, the residence is as grand as the emperor's palace." In this way, Cao Cao's magnificent residence with painted pavilions and carved beams appears only in the actor's song.

In Seven Heroes Gather, also a Peking Opera drama, an actor recites as follows: "Towering peaks soar into the clouds, and birds are chirping in the pine and cypress forests. The setting sun sheds rays of evening Sunlight. I raise my head, and perceive that there is still a long way for me to go." The scene at nightfall is represented by the actor's rhythmic recitation and charming dancing.

In Burning Puyang another piece of Peking Opera, the actor playing the role of Cao Cao makes full use of entry and exit. He enters the stage through the entry, and leaves via the exit, and then enters the stage from the exit again, and so on. Such actions expand the imaginary space of the stage, giving the audience the impression of the unlucky Cao Cao running around within a wide field of action. Charging forward on land and fighting on a roaring river are displayed through special combat techniques and actors' skills. It is worth noting that stage arts, such as singing, recitation, actions and combat, cannot be brought into full play without the actors, frequently entering and leaving the stage.

In short, the symbolic expression method is the crystallization of the skills of Chinese opera performers.

Qimo - General Term for Stage Props

Qimo is the name for all stage properties and some simple decorations. The term first occurred in the Jin Dynasty. Qimo includes articles of everyday life Such as candlesticks, lanterns, fans, handkerchiefs, brushes, paper, ink and ink slabs, tea sets and wine sets; sedan chairs, vehicle flags, oars and horse whips; weapons; and various articles to demonstrate environments, such as cloth backdrops to represent cities, curtains, flags, table curtains and chair covers. In addition, some special articles can be added, according to need.

Traditional qimo are not just imitations of real articles, but artistic articles in their own right. (Fig.7-13)

One table with two chairs put on the stage before the performers appear are generic furnishings. For instance, the table is an imperial desk when the emperor inspects the court, a judge's desk when a county governor uses it to try a case, or a banquet table. The table can also be used as a rock or other objects. When a person goes up a hill, he stands on a table. One table on top of another means a particularly high mountain. The table can also represent a wall for jumping over Slumping over a table with the head resting on one hand means to have a sleep. Climbing from a low hill to a higher one is represented by stepping from a chair onto a table. Chairs can be used to represent the doors of caves or jails.

The simple cloth backdrop to represent a city can also be used to represent other objects. (Fig.7-14)

Flags are frequently used on the stage. A square flag with the Chinese character for "marshal" on it, a rectangular flag with the Chinese character for "commander" on it and a flag with the name of a certain army on it represent the location of army camps and commanders-in- chief. In addition, there are water, fire, wind and vehicle flags. Actors shake these flags to represent waves, fire, wind or moving vehicles.

Waving a whip means riding a horse, and waving an oar means rowing a boat.

Representing Fire

It was during the Tang Dynasty that techniques were developed to represent various fire situations. These were particularly needed in such operas as Burning Warships and Flame Mountain.

The actor makes a circle, called a Moon Gate, to demonstrate continuously spreading fire. Gesturing from high to low is called Upside Down, from low to high is called Holding a Tower, and from near to far is called Across a Beam. There are other names such as Suspending Clouds, All-Round Victory and Turning Around to Look at the Moon. In modern operas some fire scenes are produced by lamps.

The Setting and Its Development

In the early 20th century, the frame stage was replaced by the extensive stage, after a new stage was built in Shanghai, influenced by the early modern drama. The change of the stage brought changes to the settings of operas, and painted scenery appeared on the opera stage.

After the mid-20th century, opera art experienced continuous changes. While revising the old operas and creating new ones, some troupes succeeded in producing new settings. They came to the conclusion that creation should be based on the development of tradition, and the setting should serve the story while not affecting the performance. (Fig.7-15)

Operas which have long histories, such as Kunju, Peking, Hanju, Sichuan and Qinqiang operas, are richer in conventions than others. This means that more ingenuity is needed to solve problems of expression. Operas with short histories, Such as Pingju and Huju operas, which have fewer conventions, more easily learn from other operas. Influenced by modern drama and movies, these operas have a realistic stage style. (Fig.7-16)

Chinese classical operas and ancient paintings demonstrate realistic traditions and have common national styles.

The setting in Fig. 7-16 adopts the artistic methods of traditional paintings and designs. (Fig.7-17)

The settings of modern operas demonstrate strongly the characteristics of the times. The modern Peking Opera piece Red Lantern depicts the heroic deeds of three generations of a revolutionary family in northeast China during the War of Resistance Against Japan (1937-1945). The setting provides a realistic scene for the opera: The design of the door of the house of the main character Li Yuhe has broken with tradition, which dictates that only the entrance or exit of a character denotes the presence of a door. In this opera, the wind blows when the door is opened. (Fig.7-18)

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