8 Jingju

Justin Hunter

There are many theatre forms around the world. China has several regional genres itself. Jingju, also known as Peking Opera or Beijing Opera, is a form from northern China that was fully formed by the mid-19th century. Jingju is known for its elaborate costuming, complex storytelling, acrobatics, and distinctive sonic characteristics.

There are four main roles in the jingju tradition. Each role type is performed by actors who specialize in that role for their entire career, most beginning training as children. Traditionally, all performers in jingju were boys and men. Even today, female performers are less common and men remain the most famous performers of the genre.

The stories in jingju tend to be told in parables of ancient times, often performers improvise lines to incorporate practices and events of today. Performers would not break important elements of the story, but might add in references to important audience members or large world events to bring modern context to the ancient stories. There are over 1400 plays in the repertory.

The performers are accompanied by a small ensemble of instruments that are placed on stage to one side. This ensemble is led by principal musicians who must match their tempo, timings, and entrances with the actors on stage. The main melodic instrument, the jinghu, matches the melody of the performer on stage creating a heterophonic texture. The jinghu will play more notes than the actor will sing, but the melodies are the same. The “conductor” of the ensemble is the bangu player, a small drum.

ROLE TYPES

Sheng – male role. The sheng is a primary role and is typically portrayed as the hero of the story, but is often seen as naïve and a bit arrogant. There are many types of sheng roles: young men, older men, wise men, and philosophers. (image: chinaculture.org)

Dan – female role [rhymes with yawn]. The dan is a primary role is highly specialized in jingju. While the role is female, traditionally this role is performed by boys and men. The dan, like the sheng, can cover a wide range of types. (image: mybeijingchina.com

Jing – painted face role. Jings can be primary or secondary characters, but are always very strong characters and the performer must have a large, loud voice. Their painted faces are highly stylized with each color representing a feature of the character: black denoting integrity; red denoting loyalty; white denoting evilness and wit. (image: xian-tours.cn)

Chou – clown role [rhymes with how]. The chou is most often a secondary minor role, often playing the fool. The role is usually a character that provides plotlines for the main characters: jailers, maids, animals, etc. The chou also has a painted face, but less elaborate than the jing, signified by a circle of chalk around the nose. (image: mybeijingchina.com)

 

SCENES

Jingju is known for its acrobatic action scenes, often depicted in fight scenes between primary characters and minor character groups.

Title: “Water Fight”
Artist: Mei Lanfang Beijing Opera Troupe
Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kqim7q05ZdI
Year: 2017
Language: n/a
Origin: China
Description: This scene from “The White Snake” includes 10-20 minor characters who do not speak in the performance. The music is quite chaotic with many tempo changes despite the meter staying constant in duple form.
2:14 The main characters of the story enter. These dan roles are two sister snakes in human form. Note how their actions cause reactions from the acrobatic characters.

As much as the action is interesting, the true artistry of this form is in the stylized dialogue. The sheng, dan, and chou characters tend to have high pitched voices where the jing typically has a booming low voice. This dialogue is often layered with references to history and ancient Chinese literature. The heightened language was intended for elite audiences that would understand such references.

Title: “Thirteen Masters in Tongzhi and Guangxu Times”
Artist: China Central Television
Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wzBDB-u1pRg&t=104s
Year: 2014
Language: Mandarin Chinese
Origin: China
Description: This is an unusual production, not common in staged jingju, but features many varieties of each character type.
0:47 Instrumental introduction
1:20 Four dan characters take solos
4:12 Sheng and jing characters take solos
6:50 All character chorus

 

INSTRUMENTS

The ensemble can be made up of numerous Chinese instruments. The ensemble can be increased in design if the story dictates the need for additional instruments. The following are standard to almost all jingju productions.

JINGHU – small, high-pitched two-string spike lute. This instrument is similar to the common erhu in traditional Chinese music, but smaller and higher in pitch. The two strings are bowed by a horsehair bow strung between the two metal strings. This is the main melodic instrument of the ensemble.

YUEQIN – moon-shaped plucked lute. The yueqin (pronounced: you chin) is a harmonic and melodic support instrument.

DIZI – transverse flute. The dizi (pronounced: deet za) is a side-blown transverse flute that functions as a melodic instrument in jingju.

SUONA – double-reed horn. A distinctively loud instrument, the suona (pronounced: sow na) is a signifying instrument in jingju marking important points in the story.

BANGU – single-headed frame drum played with two slender sticks. The bangu (pronounced: bawn goo) is the conductor of the ensemble. All musicians take cues from the bangu performer who takes their cues from the actors. The bangu “narrates” footsteps and running as well as other percussive noises of the story while providing rhythmic structure to the music. The bangu player often also plays a clapper called a guban.

DALUO – percussive gongs. Provide additional rhythmic support for the jingju ensemble as well as entrance instruments. The daluo, a set of gongs, announces characters on stage. Deeper daluo are rung for primary characters.

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Music in World Cultures by Justin Hunter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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