Chinese Opera Exposed:

exploring Chinese and Taiwanese opera traditions

Previous | Non-Fiction List HOME | Next

There are a great number of preconceptions about what ‘Chinese opera’ actually is, which is not surprising considering the amazing variety of forms which exist today. The overwhelming majority of performances which provide an impact on the world’s image of this form is the one based in the Beijing of today and which is commonly referred to as ‘Peking opera’, although this is not how the Chinese refer to it themselves (being generally more aware of what the tradition encompasses). Because the ‘Peking' tradition is based on a strict set of performance traditions alien to other forms of theatre the world in general has a restricted view of the variety of forms in existence. In this paper the intention is to discuss the tradition as it has developed in two major places, firstly its original source which is still trained in the Beijing of today, and secondly the forms that have developed in Taiwan. These forms may be based on the same set of original traditions, but they have changed so much because the island has had to endure so much sociocultural change in the last century that today has seen the development of contemporary forms irreconcilable in some ways with the original thanks to various reasons which will be explored in this paper. Other traditions, such as those developed in both Canton (the Quandong province) and Shanghai are also discussed, but mostly in relation to their influence on upon the Taiwanese tradition, although in highlighting the traditional theatre of Peking and Taiwan, the intention is to demonstrate the enormous potential of this form to be influenced by and also to induce in its own right cultural change.


Unknown to many, there are actually several hundred types of regional opera, the most common of which is the above-mentioned Peking tradition. For this reason, it is referred to by the Chinese as ching h’si which means ‘theatre of the capital city’. The origin of all the variations of these traditions are related to this original form when it spread around the nation as it existed in the 19th century. When the Chinese culture colonised Taiwan they took the ching h’si tradition with them. The island of Taiwan is situation 160kms off the southeast coast of mainland China. It is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, and although it was colonised in addition by the Portuguese and the Dutch, and had its own natives who long pre-dated Chinese colonisation, the overwhelming majority today is Han Chinese, all migrants from the mainland (Broughton et al, 2000: 38). Although there is obviously a strong relationship between the two forms, there are both subtle and obvious contrasts which will be discussed in this paper, one of them truly surprising and all of them interesting for the exploration of geographical and historical change. Before starting the essay I’d like to discuss the structure of the article to make it clear how I’ll be progressing with my argument which involves the fact that in opposition to what many think, the Ching h’si tradition is alive and well in many forms spread across China as demonstrated by the fascinating new variations upon the traditional form.


an example from Taiwanese 'opera' where all the main roles are taken by women

Following the introduction above and this description of the structure of the work, the essay passes directly into a discussion of the cultural and musical history and philosophy of Chinese culture to provide a backdrop to the Chinese opera tradition. After this, the early history of the ‘Peking opera’ tradition and closely related styles is discussed so that the reader understands the origin of the form itself which was to spread around the existing Qing dynasty. This includes ancient musical drama forms that fused together to form what is now recognised as ching h’si. Following this description of the origin of Peking opera , the history of the Peking opera tradition as it has manifested itself in the twentieth century is covered. This will become important as it is compared to developments in other places both on the mainland and particularly in Taiwan. The next major topic involves a more detailed description of specific aspects of the Chinese opera tradition itself which is a complex introduction of facts because it passes over both the sociological and semiotic systems important to the meaning-bearing aspects of the theatre from costumes to musical style, i.e. the cultural reasons for its existence as well as the complex systems of meanings that are inculcated in the audience so that they are able to understand the performances. After covering this basic set of conventions, the musical traditions become the next subject of discussion. This includes the musical nature of the Chinese language and the vocal style used in performance, the way the actors and singers are accompanied, and the nature of the musical orchestra itself. After this as expected the Taiwanese styles are introduced, which is in turn followed by a description of the music in its style and forms. This leads to the climax of the essay which presents similarities and contrasts separating the two major schools of Ching h’si, and also reasons why, covering subjects as diverse as themes, character, performance style, costumes, audience interaction in addition to the influence of other cultures and their representative music-theatre forms. The paper is ended with a conclusion which summarises the contrasts and similarities and how this goes to prove the argument that the tradition is alive and well in China, flourishing in an amazing amount of different forms as represented particularly well by the Taiwanese tradition.


So-called Chinese Opera is actually not ‘opera’ in the western sense, but refers to the Chinese notion of the performing arts in general which relies far more heavily on music as a communicative discourse; theatre in China in general is unimaginable without the accompaniment of music, which can be traced back to the earliest notions of human musicality in China which is represented by the ideograph yue. Music in a Chinese sense is related in a to all other aspects of social and cultural existence; it is not viewed as an individual phenomenon on its own but exists in terms of social functions such as banquets, archery and dancing to name a few. As Ling notes “Music in Chinese culture is not an isolated phenomenon, but rather a contextual phenomenon broadly related to all aspects of living” (1981: 12). He also notes that “Extrinsically it pertains to sensuality while intrinsically it embodies all the arts: the performing arts of music and dance, literature, the fine arts, architecture and even the culinary arts as well” (ibid: 11-12). In addition their whole sense of musical timbre is wider than is traditionally understood in the west; ‘music’ is not just the instrument itself but also all the sound it makes in the creation of music: “In this extended state, timbre embodied the recognition not only of musical tones, that is pleasing sounds, but also included non-musical tones, such as the scratching sounds when sliding the finger along the string or the percussive sounds when the finger hits the fingerboard" (ibid.: 24). These attitudes to music were fixed as far back as one millennium B.C. during the Zhou dynasty and help to explain why the totality of theatre is so essential to the Chinese sense of music, just as the broad communicative possibilities of music are so essential to theatre. These beliefs can be traced back to ancient philosophical thought which can be divided into two contrasting schools, each which have had their own influences on contemporary Chinese approaches to music. They were known as the schools of Confucianism and Taoism.


The Confucians were followers of the sage, Master Kong, who lived towards the end of the 6th century B.C. They were primarily concerned with society in the world, and they felt that they knew what it would take for all people to live in harmony together with the absolute minimum of conflict (Merson, 1981: 28). Through the centuries, this, surprisingly to many westerners, developed into a religion which worshipped these apparently sociological beliefs about society. Their impact on music was strong. The Confucian idea of the ‘perfect gentleman’ includes the skill of musicianship coupled with other artistic pursuits (Ling, 1985: 19-20), so this helps to explain the popularity of musical traditions and naturally ching h’si which connects different forms together and often makes direct commentary on society. According to Ling, the Confucianistic ideology on musical judgment “was deeply embodied in Chinese musical behaviour even until the latter part of the 20th century” (ibid.: 20). It is the utilitarianism of music as a function which promotes social content within social institutions which is emphasized by Confucianistic ideology (ibid.: 33). Therefore the ching h’si traditions in all their forms, both musical and sociological, had aspects which were supported by Confucianistic ideology helping to explain its enormous popularity.


The Taoist philosophers stood in opposition to the school of Confucious because they felt that in contrast to the Confucians if people didn’t understand how the inner forces within their bodies worked, they wouldn’t be able to legislate for their society. Instead the investigation of nature and the inner-forces compelling and empowering individuals became the major interest of the Taoists. Some of the major beliefs included the necessity for simplicity and economy of means in life and art. According to Ling: “When one encounters … the mono-syllabic word structure of the Chinese language or the few simple props used in the staging of the much-loved Peking opera, one can not fail to recognize the economy and simplicity of these expressions” (ibid.: 26). Here we come to the economy of semiotic meaning which will be discussed further on and could be said to unite all forms of Ching h’si. On stage, a chair can represent a mountain whereas a sound can evoke a range of emotions based on socially inculcated traditions that are learnt in the process of social existence. In Chinese music in general the concept and practice of economy and simplicity so important to Taoist belief is strongly present; music played is taken from a source of melodies and interpreted personally by a solo performer or an orchestra who know so well the current traditions that they feel naturally the realisation of the melody. Rarely is the same piece performed twice. According to Ling, “the body of standard melodies, collected over many centuries and popularly transmitted, has no specific instrumentation and thus can be freely adopted for any combination of instruments to fit the number of musicians available” (1981: 28).


Because Confucianism involved more the outer world of the society, and Taoism the inner world of the spirit, the two schools were able to exist in harmony and became at one and the same time social, political and religious forces. The ideology of both schools have also had an influence on the development of Chinese music and therefore on the development of the Peking opera tradition; Confucianism explains the enthusiasm for knowledge of music and its integration in social life, whereas Taoism helps the researcher to realise the importance of economy and simplicity in music traditions and the unique semiotic traditions making objects and sounds (i.e. any signs used on stage) into multi-referential symbols which can mean anything from an emotion to a physical place to a heavenly body. The complexity of this tradition, however, cannot be explained by philosophy alone. As will be demonstrated in the following section, what is now known as the Peking opera tradition was the product of many other forces which combined musical forms with theatre, drama and circus, among many others. This fusing of forms is a fascinating subject and helps to explain the complexity of the tradition.


Chinese theatre can be traced back to some 3,000 years through a complex set of folk songs and dances which were used together to create drama-like works. As early as the Han dynasty in the third century B.C., records show the appearance of people acting on a type of stage in short plays with plot, script and themes. According to Rubin et. al. some of these early performances evolved into court entertainments along with singing, dancing, acrobatics and wresting while other entertainments were given at fairs for the common people” (1981: 101). The acrobats and pantomime artists of the street eventually found their place in the opera as well, which brightened the productions considerably and made them more accessible to a general public. In early Chinese history, however, society was based on strict hierarchies and the performing arts class were positioned practically at the bottom, although within their own ranks there were also hierarchies deciding who could perform for which audience. The low social status can be found again in the origin of the Peking opera tradition where the musicians were considered to be at the same level as prostitutes and homosexuals. Already at this early stage, however, the many different forms of performance that would combine to become what is now recognised as ching h’si can be observed. The Song dynasty (960-1279) brought to China a new stability thanks to mercantile development, and Neo-Confucian ideas flourished encouraging the development of socially aware performances based on a new tradition of poetry which took advantage of the tonal nature of the Chinese language. This form was called shih and according to Malm “some feel that the relation of speech tones to melodic structure has been fundamental to Chinese music since at least this era” (Malm 1977: 158) emphasising the importance of speech to the musicality of the opera traditions still practiced today. The other form of poetry which also showed Confucian influences was tz’u, whose freer meters and use of colloquial language were important factors in the theatrical music that was soon to dominate the Chinese scene (ibid.). In the latter part of the 13th century which saw the establishment of the Yuan dynasty by Mongol rulers (such as Kublai Khan) was a truly golden age for Chinese drama. The Mongols didn’t stifle the development of Chinese opera; in fact the infusion of the Mongol lutes and percussion instruments was an important factor in the development of the contemporary form. Well-established poets often became playwrights, “writing for theatre only after having already mastered poetic techniques” (Rubin, 1998:10). Many of these primordial works continue to exert an influence on China's traditional theatre forms such as the Peking opera as they are continually reconsidered in the light of contemporary Chinese culture.


These forms continued to develop separately in the complex fabric of Chinese society until in the 16th century specific music-theatre forms developed in the courts which were to set the stage for the rise of Peking opera: k’un ch’, i yang ch’iang, panz tzu chi’ang, and p’i huang. (Malm, 1977: 160). These were generally performances for the elite of society, on other words the aristocracy and the very rich. They were highly esoteric in nature and differ in many ways from the tradition that was to become ching h’si. The song was full of language play and artful literary expression (Wang, 1993: 2). The form i yang ch’iang which developed in i yang, a city in the Kiangsi province, was to show more characteristics common to the Peking style. Evolving in the early 16th century, colloquial texts were interspersed between the formal use, resorting to local colloquial languages and dialects suggesting that this form was intended for a merchant class rather than only the aristocracy. The orchestras were filled with Mongol influenced percussion instruments and ‘clappers’ that were very important in the accompaniment of action which sometimes verged into slapstick, suggesting the early recognisition of circus-style performance (Malm, 1977: 160). As such, many forms of opera preceding the 1800s became known as ‘clapper’ opera because of the popularity of the instruments that produced this sound. During the 18th century, many regional music-theatre performances began to be classified not as clapper operas but rather as p’i huang which is an abbreviation of two different types of singing styles. It was this musical form that was to develop into the more metropolitan style of the 19th century which would fuse a number of additional forces, combining both the ‘clapper’ opera which included the sense of slapstick, comedy, circus and acrobatics, with the more serious esoteric style of k’un ch’ and finally the new style p’i huang which was to recognise new styles of verbal expression. The stage was set for the creation of a truly exciting theatrical tradition.


In the 19th century, Ching h’si, the dynamic new style designed for a wide audience, having something for everyone in a sense, managed to eclipse all existing theatrical dramas and music-theatre forms then in existence. In contrast with k’un ch’, the Peking opera only recognised a small amount of simple melodies, making it more easily accessible to a larger audience. The pieces were shorter in turn shorter and the plots simpler. The role of the literary play writer as the creator of new pieces was totally removed: “the plots of modern operas are generally anonymous or based on famous scenes from the older forms of operas or popular Chinese mythology” (Wang: 3). The pieces themselves were based on the performance , i.e. what they could realise and the tricks they could make use of. It is for this reason that is still considered as a form of entertainment rather than an educational activity (although as will be demonstrated contemporary variations have developed this somewhat). The actors became central to the process of playwrighting and performance; they devoted their lives to the performance of this single form. Teachers brought the knowledge to their students in a master-disciple type relationship, although considering that it was intended for such a wide audience (rather than purely aristocracy) and the performers had to perform ‘folk’ theatre, the social status of the actors remained very low. In the twentieth century, this attitude has changed a great deal and the Chinese have a lot more respect for the tradition than they did in the past, especially in Beijing which of course is the capital in which the ching h’si tradition found its source. By this time, the tradition had extended across the nation; wherever the Chinese found themselves, performances of this form could be witnessed. As will be demonstrated, geographical distance and regional variation lead to contrasts no matter how strong the colonial cultures wished to retain links with their nationalistic paternal figures and their source culture. The next subject of discussion involves specific developments in Beijing during the twentieth century which are important because they provide a contrasting basis for the traditions which had spread around other parts of the mainland and Taiwan.


The twentieth century saw an enormous amount of developments which were to have repercussions not only for China but for their theatre traditions. Famous Chinese traditional actors who mastered the art of the Ching h’si tradition, specialising in talents such as imitating women in very stylised fashions, were to influence western theatre makers like Brecht and Stanislavski (Rubin et al, 1998: 101). Mei Lan Fang (1894-1961) is particularly well remembered as a dan actor (a male actor specialising in women’s roles) and the world gradually began to realise what the unique potential was of a theatre form that had a history longer and more complex than European opera and yet was far more economical to produce. Around this time in the late twentieth century under the nationalistic iron-grip rule of Chang Kai Shek which began as power was taken from the Japanese in the late fourties as Mao Tze Tung and his communist party banished the nationalisatic government under Shek’s leadership to the island of Taipei where he founded his somewhat unusual 'Republic of China' which as far as Shek was concerned (and as far as the population of Taiwan were forced to believe) would always remain the real China; for his whole life he believed that he would regain power again on the mainland. That of course never happened and on the current political agenda fought between the North and South of the island one of the main points involves the renaming of the island to remove the R.O.C. from the title. During the coming years a repressive period of ‘mandirinisation’ of the Country under Shek’s leadership where local ‘dialects’ (which are today justly viewed as independent and entirely contrasting language groups) were made illegal in any official context and expressions of folk-theatre such as puppet-theatre which could have encouraged regional nationalistic rather than Chinese Han culture were repressed or banned outright, often violently. Considering the Stalin-like massacre of innocent Taiwanese who dared to speak against the repressive regime is not surprising that Shek is not viewed positively today by the Taiwanese because of his oppressive policy, while in contrast they feel more positively towards the Japanese who preceded his reign because they truly participated in their culture and encouraged local development. Until the end of his life he believed he would bring to realisation and regain power on the mainland. Some of the most important sociopolitical influence of these repressive influences on Taiwanese developments upon the ching h’si tradition will continue further on in the paper.


In the People’s Republic of China, a similar process of propandising the theatre was taking place, but this time for the protection of communist ideologies. The traditional form was identified as being filled with inconsistencies and flaws, representative of ‘non-Chinese’ (i.e. not relating to what the Party defined as Chinese) ideas and an impermissible naivety. A movement developed that began to ‘reform the old theatre’ by applying in practice a process of purification; in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a radical leftist philosophy began to be forced onto the public by an increasingly dominant communist overlord. The beginning of the Cultural Revolution had an enormous impact on traditional theatre. According to Rubin et al. in 1963 a propaganda was imposed upon the arts in general which stated that one should ‘write exclusively about the thirteen years’, meaning that theatre, along with all other art forms, should reflect the life of the nation only since 1949 (Rubin et. al.: 104). By 1966, the notorious gang of four which included Chairman Mao and his wife had eradicated political opposition through this criticism, and had managed to ban all plays even in the ching h’si tradtion which referred at all to politics. By this time, they had almost destroyed the theatre tradition because of an unstable social order that which quickly spread all over China. A great deal of damage was caused by the gang of four and according to Merdson it is still a great handicap the Chinese have to overcome in order to support modernization of their country (Merson, 1981: 161). During the next decade, the many performances belonging to the ‘Peking’ style had been wittled down to 8 ‘model ‘productions which were seen everywhere over and over again. These performances represented a ‘pure’ type of entertainment which was free of any allusions to politics, representing a bland sense of Chineseness. At the same time, towards a foreign audience, this type of pure ‘Peking style’ became thus representative of a pure Han ideology as far as that can really exist in any sense; it meant that the closer its foreign imitation copies the original, the more nationalistic and supportive of mainland china it is. The political world of the twentieth century, then, quickly realised how the performing arts could be used as a tool to represent the great achievements of Chinese culture, even though it was essentially reduced of any meaning for the Chinese people themselves. Because of the strictness of style which stifled change in many senses, a gap began to open between the changing contemporary society and the society for which the traditional theatre was created. Recently however, now that the strict regime of Mao Tze Tung is over and a more democratic China is coming into existence, a new form is developing, one whose influence on the rest of China is difficult to discuss with surety but allusions can be made to similar developments across the country. Plays began to be written which disseminated more modern democratic thinking, just as the performers began to wear more contemporary clothing and the plays with historical themes were adapted and began to make allusions to contemporary society and politics. This was representative of the theatre of the 1980s thanks to a series of reforms implemented by Den Xiaoping (Rubin et. al., 1998: 104). New plays were written and performed in the traditional style that reflected a new interpretation of recent history, often displaying people who “despise power and fight for the rights of the common people” (ibid.). Since this period, two major streams exist, that of the strict tradition and the more eclectic traditions inherent in a new contemporary style. In the following section, the main subject is focussing on the traditions that typify the strict tradition of ching h’si perpetuated across the country before the developments of the twentieth century were to inflict changes upon them. The intention of this is to educate the reader about specific characteristics which contrast to western theatre so that comparison to other forms of Chinese theatre is an easier task.


The following set of characteristics are a set of sociological, cultural, semiotic and musicological factors that characterise the ching h’si tradition in general and can in principle be applied across the board to many different variations upon the form which found their origin in Peking. This will prove itself to be a little inaccurate when applied to other geographical areas, but it is a good starting place for a thorough investigation towards a full understanding of the form.


The basic characteristics of the Chinese opera can be found in the combination of different theatre genres. A performance could involve the combination of intense drama, elaborate fighting scenes with demonstrations of martial arts, acrobats doing double-back flips across the stage and intricately choreographed dance all forming a unique unity with the music. The highlight, however, especially since it is considered in many ways to be connected to the court traditions, involves the highly intricate arias of ching h’si. According to Malm there are two general approaches to arias in the general ching h’si philosophy. The first is referred to as lian ch’, which selects from a body of standard pieces that suit the drama of a given scene, functioning to appropriate its mood. Malm states that “this kind of structure is only possible when the text uses a rather rigid poetical form” (Malm, 1977: 161). It can be deduced form this that the lian ch’ were used in the oldest opera forms such as those common during the Song dynasty around the 12th century and the Ming opera form k’un ch’ discussed above. This also suggests the influence of the new strict poetic forms which came into existence during these periods, although it has to be remembered that it has not only its source in the court poetry tradition but also the structure of folk theatricals (ibid.). The second approach is referred to as pan ch’ian which uses stereotyped melodies rather than complete pieces. According to Malm, these melodies are subject to “extensive variation, depending on the dramatic situation” (ibid.). This approach became popular in the Ming dynasty but prevailed most strongly when the clapper opera tradition flourished. Malm demonstrates for us a unique example of rhythmic emphasis found in the ching h’si forms of the Szechwan and Hunan provinces which originally used only gongs and drums as accompaniment. Both of these forms—i.e. the complete song and the stereotype-tune-and-rhythm methods so important to Chinese music in general—are found within the one opera genre today. It is the mixture of these two contrasting approaches that make traditional opera so interesting. The ching h’si traditions as it is realised in Peking offers the greatest variety of signs and sounds, “from deafening preludes of crashing cymbals and stages filled with sword-swinging acrobats to pathetic arias sung by a comely girl or a female impersonator standing before a set consisting of only two chairs and a cloth-covered table”(Malm: 162).


As is typical to folk performance forms present spread across the Asian continent, in both village centres and royal courts, a set of stock characters realise a story which make the plots that much more accessible for a mixed audience. The ching h’si tradition has a similar set of stock characters belonging to four main categories: [1] the sheng.

or manly roles (for so far as they are not involved in categories 3 or 4); (2) the tan or female roles; (3) the ching or “painted faces”, and (4) the ch’ou or clowns. The Sheng category consists of heroic warriors, immovable bureaucrats, trustworthy servants and the like; they can be good or evil. Acccording to Wang, In the 18th century the emperor Ch’ien-lung forbade on moralistic ground the performance of tan roles by women, and since then until the thirties of the 20th century they were performed solely by men (Wang, 1993: 8). The ch’ing-i performs the role of the good and obedient woman: the parent-loving daughter, the faithful wife or the unjustly rejected concubine. Her opposition is the hua-tan, the symbol of womanly charm and liveliness. Often the hua-tan symbolizes less positives qualities: she is the beautiful seducer, the femme fatale who brings the man to his knees (Wang, 1993: 9). The “warrior tan" (known as the tao-ma tan, the tan with sword and horse) is the Chinese amazon. The role includes both positive and negative characters, varying from noble heroines to sinister demons which have taken female form. The remaining character is arguably the most important: lao-tan, the ‘old lady’. The category of the ching (a technical term which actually means ‘pure’ or ‘clear’) is the most striking visually because of both their costumes and specially their elaborate make-up. Ching roles can be positive or negative: they realize both great heroes and criminals, and some ching are gods or supernatural beings. All these personages have in common is a strong, dominant character, a large amount of vitality and an imposing form of performance. In contrast, the term normally translated as ‘clowns’ is actually restricted, because lots of ch’ou roles are not only comic but also sinister, like the cruel prison guard, the evil mother-in-law or the tricky swindler. Some ch’ou are indeed only laughable, but most of them have also a negative characteristic. Visually the “clown” is always to be recognized by the white fleck around the nose and the eyes, and his or her vocal performance is striking because the ch’ou are the only characters who use the living (and sometimes even vulgar) spoken language, which they also sometimes improvise with. As will be discussed further, these characters are easily recognisable to an ‘educated’ audience through a complex set of social signs which are embedded in the costumes, make-up and movements of the characters, so that in fact without even saying a word they can be recognised.


As mentioned, educated audience members of Chinese opera know the codes to smallest details and appreciate the actors dependent on their ability to bring these traditions and complex codes to life. As mentioned in the opening concerning the philosophical origins of the opera tradition and Chinese music in general, economy of means is a characteristic inherited from Taoist belief. When a chair is placed upon a table, for example, it becomes a mountain, whereas if an actor jumps off a chair, he has committed suicide by flinging himself into a well (Rutherford, 1998: 95) dependent on the particular circumstances of the play and the conventions the audience is familiar with. They have no trouble accepting these somewhat abstract symbols as representation of these objects that do not resemble them at all. To give an example of the complexity of these symbols, a selection of different examples of semiotic codes and the way they are presented which so fascinated the Czech school of cultural semiotics in the first half of the 20th century is included in the examples below:

[1] If a performer dusts him/herself off, it shows the end of a long journey;

[2] ornate riding crops with silk tassels tells the audience that the actors are riding horses;

[3] black pennants carried swiftly across the stage symbolize a thunderstorm;

[4] a character riding a chariot holds up two yellow banners horizontally about waist high, each painted with a wheel (Rutherford, 1998: 95);

[5] sailing is symbolised by an old man with a paddle and groups moving in a boat together simultaneously bend their knees (Wang, 1993: 39);

[6] hand and foot movements can suggest the opening and closing of a door as well as the mounting of a horse or other more complex signs (ibid. 40)

[7] a set of wooden boxes propped on one another (covered with coloured sheets) can signify a woman’s boudoir; the same structure can be turned into someone else’s house in a matter of seconds behind a closed curtain as the characters move a few steps forward in front of a falling curtain by moving them and covering them with a different coloured set of sheets; and then again a bit later they are transformed into a temple.[1]

Make-up is also a highly important form of signification present across ching h’si forms present across the whole Chinese empire. The facial make-up of the striking ching characters perhaps have the most striking and abstract semiotic associations set up between colours and significations. White generally symbolises ‘cunning, treachery and untrustworthy behaviour’ (Wang: 16), whereas red stands for bravery and trust, blue for bravery and recklessness, and black for integrity and justice (Wang 16-17). Faces with only one colour, or a number of colours in symmetrical patterns signifies a forthright character with a single aim, whereas ‘broken faces’ with wavy patterns signifies a complicated nature (Wang: 17). Green is used for the faces of spirits and gold for that of gods. The recognition—let alone the correct placing of—the painted ‘masks’ is no simple task because there are in total five hundred different patterns (Wang, 1993: 17). Make-up also highlights the important of emphasising the eyes which function to direct the audience to important characters or objects, or to entertain them in a fashion similar to Indian temple dance. Costumes as well are enormously important in distinguishing the different character groups, but are far more complex and represent also a greater range of intercultural influences throughout the history of the development of the form. They also highlight the fact that all costumes have to be beautiful, even for poor or rich characters, although the richer and younger you are the brighter and more striking the colours you wear; poor people, servants and the elderly tend to wear less striking browns and greys. Clothing is one of the most important methods to ‘place’ a personage, and demonstrates then also a large range of role identifying characteristics. Women from foreign origin often wear elaborate costumes and sometimes gigantic hairstyles inspired by Manchu-women, for example. The Manchus were a border folk from the far north east who had by the middle of the 17th century conquered China and formed until 1911 a non-Chinese element in their population The women of this community were especially recognisable by their closely closing jackets and their complex hairstyles (Wang, 1993: 19). This demonstrates the shift of semiotic meaning applied to all foreign dress, i.e. Manchu-like costumes eventually came to represent not only the Manchus but foreigners in general. Many of the costumes have wide sleeves which lead from the elbow to the back of the palms. They are referred to as shui-hsiu or ‘water sleeves’ (Wang, 1993: 27). These sleeves are perhaps the most subtle tool of semiotic communication and require a great deal of skill to master; they are considered to be one of the most difficult to master in the Chinese Ching h’si tradition. Being used to emphasise certain parts of a recitative or express certain emotions (among many other functions) they are folded in, thrown out twirled around and manipulated in a dozen different ways. Specific examples include the way they are used to form a muff around the clasped hands as protection against the cold, flapped like a fan to represent hot summer weather (Rutherford, 1998: 95), or to cover the eyes to represent tears. The fan is also used in a large number of positions and movements to suggest moods and emotions: harmony, rage, drunken ecstasy or elegance (Wang, 1993: 31). Finally the ‘theatrical beard’ which is worn by the sheng and the ching roles forms an important expressive medium in its own right. It hangs in a light bamboo frame on the ears and rests on the upper lip and its manipulation is an important part of the actors gesture language used during the performance (Wang, 1993: 33).


The way reality is represented in Chinese theatre and the way the audience is treated are important not only in relation to the development of other traditions within China, but to the development of Western theatre which included the important work of Stanislavsky and Brecht who were to be particularly influenced by their methods of representing drama on stage, leading to the economy of means in Brechtian theatre along with the importance of music-theatre in his collaborations with Weill. In Chinese opera, the whole notion of space is entirely stretchable, in the sense that walking across the stage can actually be a journey across the desert or across a single room, or if necessary a combination of both; it can change during the process of movement within the space. ‘Reality’ is completely determined by the text, the acting, the costumes, and the make-up of the actor. They often describe their scenery as they pass through it, even though it is not visible to the audience (Wang, 1993: 48). Chinese music which often plays a programmatic role can assist the performers (and the audiences) as they make these journeys. In a similar way, time is also stretchable in the sense that within two scenes or the framework of a half hour a man can change from being a young man to a middle-aged warrior or even an old man within the time framework of an hour (Wang, 1993: 49). Brecht was also to be influenced to create a theatrical technique which he based on a sense of ‘alienation’ the audience receives from the performance, reminding them that they are participating in theatre and not watching an imitation of reality. Brecht was highly influenced by the ch’ou characters in Chinese opera which functioned to mediate with the audience, joking with them, often commenting upon the story or explaining certain parts that may be complex, making sense of the complex reality of the Chinese opera performance. In addition, part of the tradition as is common in Asian music-theatre forms such as Indonesian Wayang Kulit, audience members would participate in the performance by applauding virtuosic performances of musicians, dancers or acrobats, or ignoring the parts they didn’t found exciting (spending the time chatting openly to their neighbour). Although Brecht probably didn’t advocate the latter habit, he encouraged this dynamic sense of participation which he would also have picked up from Chinese theatre and other forms of folk performance. There can be up to 4 clowns at one time on stage mediating with the audience and talking among themselves without musical accompaniment. They contrast with the other characters primarily because their text is not always scripted and that they often relate to the audience in a regional dialect. Scripting became an important part of the strict and somewhat static Peking performance, but even if the scripts remain static, with the presence of non-scripted ch’ou characters which is still present in some performances in Beijing, the performance is updated so that it makes sense to a contemporary audience. Although different traditions make use of this mediating character in different ways, his or her function of mediation is generally the same.


The plots of operas themselves generally follow a typical structure which is recognisable to the audience, making use of the stock characters and pitting themselves against one another in specific ways so that some sort of balance or closure results by the end of the performance, i.e. good prevails, the ghost’s wishes are fulfilled or the golden amulet returns finally to its original owners. Although they can be tragedies or comedies, they generally still follow similar patterns. A typical example is the plot of the play Soh Lin Roung [which translates very roughly to double animal bag]

In this play, a rich young girl is going to get married and the play starts with her getting ready for the ceremony. It rains and the bride meets another girl in a kiosk, a poor girl who is crying because she has nothing to demonstrate her wealth. When they meet, the rich girl gives the poor girl a beautiful bag with precious things inside. After several years the rich girl loses everything and without her knowledge she ends up working for the family of the original ‘poor girl’ (who has since become enormously wealthy) as a nurse. The situation is thus reversed (a typical plot device): the girl who was poor rediscovers the woman who used to be rich and helped her. Finally they end up helping each other and the play ends up happily.[2] This concentration on social aspects which involve the relationship between individuals, their financial situation and position in society suggests the strong influence of Confucianism on the form. Other specific characteristics of plots and their realisation that contrast to western theatre include the notion of a ‘static climax’ which involves the main character and her servant in a long scene wandering around the ‘disused wall between the fields of red roses’ or a similar place which of course only exists in the minds of the audience. There is no shocking climax, complex realisation or a violent conflict resulting in resolution. Still, for its audience who are familiar with the conventions, its subtle combination of movement of the ‘water-sleeves’, gentle arias and dance movements to express feelings, it is felt to be the high point of the performance (Wang, 1993: 57). This ability to extend belief to the point of finding subtle suspense in a drawn out meditative routine on stage represents in turn the influence of Taoism.


It should be noted that in many forms of contemporary ching h’si following the Peking tradition, men are still cast as specific types of women even though it is not enforced by law. This is due to the enormous influence of Mei Lan Fang (1884-1961) who excelled at this task and became so famous in his day (impressing both Stanislavsky and Brecht) and the strong influence of tradition. Highly effeminate roles, old-women or demons are, however, played by women. Gender is made distinct by use of costumes and acting styles. In modern versions as well, more stage props are made use of, including requisites such as drinking bottles and objects which used to be mimed in the past. Sound is also becoming a more important meaning-bearing vehicle which assists the audience in understanding the complex multilevelled interactive texts taking place on-stage. This will form the subject of the next major point of discussion.


As mentioned also in the opening section, due to Taoist philosophies, ‘music’ in the concept of yue is considered to include more than simply pleasant musical sounds which probably explains the close relationship between speech and music. Rarely a scene goes by without a passage of text being accompanied by a flowing complementary or imitatory percussive accompaniment, or where the blanks between vocal syllables are emphasized by clappers or cymbals. At some points it is almost as if the voice itself in the form of Chinese tonal syllables becomes both a melodic and a percussive instrument. Sometimes between the capital letter and the full stop two full octaces are covered in a simple recitation of text in a conversation. To a western audience this ‘misrepresentation’ of text recital may have been interpreted by Brecht as a tool to create his ‘alienation’ technique. As far as the singing of arias is concerned, however, this ‘artificiality’ of textual realisation is shared with western opera in that both are based on specific techniques that take years of deliberate training to learn (Malm, 1977: 163) in order to express the true complex subtleties of the communication systems involved in their performance. It should be mentioned here that the singers are semiotically assisted by the use of stereotyped rhythmic (and melodic) sequences which are recognised and applied a meaning by the audience without them having to nuance their voice in a particular way; as Malm confirms, “the dramatic function of an aria is most directly implied by the style and tempo of its rhythmic accompaniment” (Malm, 165) or that “one need realize only that all these aria forms are not specific melodies but rather combinations of tonal, melodic, and rhythmic conventions that make distinctions possible in the ears of Chinese opera fans” (Malm: 166). The most common time-beater is a pan ku or tanpi ku. It consists of a skin stretched over a set of wooden wedges bound in a circle and so hollowed out that only a small part of the skin covers a cavity at the centre of the drum. The pronounced, cracking sound made by this instrument can be heard through the orchestra. The pan ku player is basically the leader of the orchestra and the rhythm he plays often determines the nature of the piece. Some forms of the arias formed from these rhythmic accompaniments are listed below:


'narrative aria' [yuan pan] – steady or level clapper [rhythm]

'dramatic aria' [yao pan] – unsteady or wavering clappers

'lyrical aria' [hsi p’i man pan] - slow clappers

'highly animated aria' [liu shui or k’uai ka] – flowing clappers or rapid clappers

(Malm, 1977: 166)


Vocal music basically consists of recitatives with percussive interjections followed by appropriate arias (Malm, 1977: 163). Almost all arias are based on “on a series of rhymed couplets with seven or ten syllables in each line, though they may be divided between two singers or split into dialogue, which can even leave the first line of a couplet in one aria and the second in the aria that follows, with poetically unrelated dialogue in between” (ibid.). There are three ranges of singing style as follows:


[1] ping hau - male voices

[2] zi hau - female voices or falsetto

[3] dai hau - military role actors with very deep voices[3]


The melodies represented in their simplest form in the syllabically recited arias were never interpreted in a specific way by individual instruments within the orchestra but were in a sense ‘re-created’ in an entirely new fashion with the resources at hand according to current performance traditions. It is for this reason that the orchestra, although it is an absolutely and completely essential part of the performance, always plays an accompanying role for the drama occurring on stage, i.e. the ‘theatre’ or ‘opera’ on stage couldn’t occur without the music, but one wouldn’t really ever listen to the music on its own, at least until recently. Percussion without melodies is also an important part of the performance. For one, the rhythmic repetition of percussive sounds with rhythmic accompaniment of recited speeches is a common occurrence. As well as this, in the general set of ching h’si traditions acrobatics, martial arts, circus and the tomfoolery of clowns where the actors are ‘silent’, the only accompaniment is percussion which points directly towards the ‘clapper operas’ of latterday where the orchestra consisted entirely of percussion. This section of instruments in a typical ching h’si orchestra consists of a battery of gongs, cymbals and drums, forming together with the double-reed sona the first major ensemble within the orchestra which accompanies battles or military entrances and the above-mentioned tomfoolery. Various sizes of cymbals (po) and thin knobless gongs (lo) appear in most Chinese opera ensembles. Their most important uses are in the long percussion overtures that begin most scenes, or as the accompaniment for recitatives. At the end of each phrase in a recitative, the time-beater will signal it with a short clashes on cymbals and gongs. These sounds can be compared to colotomy of gong cycles in Indonesian gamelan, but functionally it is easier to compare them to the chords plunked on the harpsichord in eighteenth century Western opera recitative (Malm, 1977: 163). There are also other instruments that supply the rhythm in addition to the everpresent pan ku, namely the hsiao-ku or ‘small drum’ and the pan made of long pieces of hard wood which make a characteristically clicking sound, being the original clapper held over from the older forms of opera no longer in existence.


Next to the percussion, the other ensemble is used for ‘all civil and domestic scenes’ and it is heard far more often (Malm, 1977: 162). Although its instrumentation varies, it largely consists of a time-beater and a bowed-lute. Two forms of bowed instruments are used: the hu-ch’in (or ch’ing-hu) and the softer sounding and better known erhu (Wang, 1993: 45). The hu-ch’in was borrowed from the Mongols around the time of the Yuan dynasty (Malm 1977: 162); its pegs are in back of its neck so that the two strings, tuned in fifths, are aligned vertically over the snake skin soundboard. This position allows the bow to pass between them rather than over them in the manner of Near Eastern bowed lutes. The hu ch’in is played with the finger along the string like the rebab, rather than pressed against the finger board like the western violin. The hu ch’in leads the ensemble in performing the stereotyped melodies as set in the matrix of the time-beaters. It is often doubled by the larger, two-stringed erhu fiddle, which sounds an octave lower and is similar to the hu ch’in in appearance, except that its body may be either hexagonal or round. Another important and dominating sound in the orchestra is the bowed string accompaniment of jinghu, a sort of ‘sawn-off erhu’ according to Broughton et. al.(2000: 38). The double-reeded sona is the aerophone used in ensembles to accompany military scenes as mentioned above. In other types of scenes the only melodic aerophone is the ti (or ti tzu) flute. It can still occasionally be heard in opera performances in a solo or duet backing for an aria. Normally, like all other melodic instruments listed so far, it plays a heterophonic version of the main melody. Finally, the sheng mouth organ is also occasionally used to play along with the melody in opera performances, although it usually adds harmony in fourths or fifths (Malm, 1977: 163). According to Wang, there are more instruments that function to add to the existing bowed-lutes accompaniment of the melody such as the beautifully formed ‘moon-guitar’(yeh-ch’ing) which has a circle-shaped shallow sound-board and a characteristic curve in the neck; the four strings are plucked with the fingers. The ‘three-string’(san-hsien) which has a small soundboard and is played with a plectrum (Wang, 1993: 46) is another of these instruments.


All of these instruments together, because of the contrasting Chinese attitude to timbre which is actually shared in many places across Asia, produces an “out-of tune” flavour which is characteristic of this music. It has to be understood that this is not any form of ‘imperfection’, but a sound that is purposefully aimed towards; anyone that hears it as unusual only hears it that way because the western upbringing restricts the ear to allow only ‘pure’ tuning to be experienced as beautiful (and ‘out of tune’ as different). As Ling notes, “in spite of the early interest in acoustics by Chinese scholars, the theoretical formulations for just intonation, the cycle of fifths theory and even an equal-tempered scale, all remained essentially at the level of intellectual exercises” (Ling, 1985: 22) and provides a clear example of this from the ching h’si orchestra:


"An illustration of this is the open-string tuning of the jinghu . which is not a perfect fifth interval but an augmented fifth interval (enlarged by less than a semi-tone). This augmented fifth functions as a neutral interval to accommodate the modal systems of the Peking opera music. … Thus in Peking opera when the jinghu fiddle is immediately required to change the key/mode for the subsequent act, the enlarged fifth interval obviates the retuning of the open strings and provides a correct non-tempered modal structure.”

(Ling, 1985: 22-23)


This introduction to the music of Chinese opera ends the discussion of the ching h’si traditions. It is now time to move on to a discussion of a contrasting form: the style of ching h’si which has developed in Taiwan. Understanding this tradition in Taiwan demands a basic understanding of the sociopolitical development of the country in the 20th century; certain political upheavals and developments were important in forming the way the tradition would be impacted by both ‘Taiwanese’ and Chinese culture as well as impacting itself in its own dynamic way the development of Taiwanese culture itself. This also helps to explain why there are actually two major schools of ching h’si present on Taiwan, one typical of the North of the island and one to the South, but before introducing this topic a few historical details should be outlined. The Chinese have migrated all around the world in a way perhaps incomparable to any other, and have maintained despite the time and geographical distance and strong sense of what it is to be Chinese rather than losing that identity in their assimilation in a new culture. Those of the Quandong province (Canton) have emigrated more than any other Chinese folk because there was unfortunately very little harvestable land and their community was thus never very wealthy during the most populous period of emigration to Taiwan. They were not the only Chinese immigrants, of course, but their presence probably explains the similarities between the Taiwanese and the Cantonese language, and also some of the similarities between their variations upon the ching h’si tradition. In any case, over time and with the enormous geographical distance between Peking, Hongkong and Taipei natural contrasts have developed, even though for many living today in Taiwan ching h’si is still a connection with what they believe to be the essence of Chinese culture reflected in an art form. It provides them with both a form of entertainment and a model on which to base their behaviour and a set of ideologies they can use to mediate between their world and one another. Other recent influences on Taiwan have also had an impact on the island and its art forms, especially through colonisation by Japan (and to a far lesser extent the Dutch) and contact with the West in the form of westernisation, beginning with contact with the Portuguese who traded with them and later the British who influenced them in a less direct fashion. The Taiwanese language which began as a dialect developed quickly into an independent language, exactly alike no other on the mainland even though like most other Chinese languages it adopts the same set of ideographs.[4] Towards the end of the 19th century it was about to undergo dynamic political change.


After a war with Japan in 1894 and 1895. After coming out of the combat victorious Japan received a number of parts of the Chinese empire as spoils, including Taiwan. For the next fifty years they would be a strong presence and would have an enormous influence on the lives of the islanders. Although they tried to smother nationalism in the sense of an independent Taiwan, which resulted in actions as drastic as the banning of puppet theatre because it used the local language and could encourage national feeling, the Japanese did enormous good for Taiwan such as building railways and instituting services which up until then didn’t exist. They were also to influence the ching h’si in very particular ways which will be discussed further. Meanwhile on the mainland, Tsang Kai-Shek, a political leader of Cantonese origin who would eventually seek refuge in Taiwan, began to represent a nationalist China and towards a democractic republic which was supported by the Americans. In a war which took place between 1945 and 1947 the Americans and the Russians tried to force Mau who had then become a political threat to form a coalition government with Chang K’ai-Shek. They were unsuccessful and the communists conquered Peking. As a result in 1949 Chang was forced to take refuge in Taiwan (then known as ‘formasa’ from the Portuguese word for beautiful) where he formed his extremely nationalistic ‘Republic of China’; he believed all his life that he would return and conquer the mainland, something which remained a dream. His regime over the following decades was to be incredibly strict; Mandarin was adopted as the national language and Taiwanese was banned. Many innocent people died for standing against his regime although the enormous support from America (thanks to their support of Chang rather than Mau) Taiwan became an economic power, and eventually a democracy of force which gradually began to express its independence. However, Taiwan is still named officially ‘the Republic of China’ and there is an uneasy coalition between those who support a nationalistic the Chang ideal of remaining a strong partner of China (and to speak Chinese) who are based in Taipei and the North of the island. Those who support an independent Taiwan and want complete separation from China are based more in the South of the island and its capital Kaohsiung. It is no coincidence that there are two major streams in the ching h’si tradition of today, one based in the North and one based in the South.


To begin the discussion of the Taiwanese, the subject will not be the sociopolitical contrasts between the North and the South but specific qualities that diversify from the existing tradition. To begin, Taiwanese opera is usually performed outdoors on elevated stages in public markets (Rutherford, 1998: 95). This can be explained by the fact that it is still these days performed for ritual purposes, and therefore has to be able to be performed in a wide range of different spaces for private as well as public events, and it has to be easily portable. It is also improvised like the Cantonese style, and is therefore probably more closely related to folk forms of theatre; therefore it has developed downwards a little on the social hierarchy in some ways, even though it now reaches a wider audience. The costumes as well have lost a lot of their complex semiotic signification, such as the well-known shui-hsui (‘water-sleeves’) which no longer signify as many different things. This is actually a natural function for performances that are rituals; because the performance has meaning in being performed it is no longer necessary for the detailed meanings to be understood, like the meaning of the words of the Latin mass to give an example from the West.


Taiwanese opera in all its forms is enormously popular and does influence how people define their own culture. The fact there are two major styles, as mentioned above, one specific both culturally and politically to the North of the island and one to the South, is very important. Groups of the North (known as Holo or Helo opera) tend towards performances which are more ‘nationalistic’ in that they typify the Chinese tradition and are often performed in Mandarin, appealing in a more intellectual fashion to those who want to evoke the past. In the South the style is more eclectic and appeals to the Taiwanese speaker who sees him or herself as independent of China; they use their own language, often their own plots, and the accent is upon entertainment rather than intellect meaning that folk theatre is more strongly present. This is representative of the way Taiwanese culture works, with the South having a stronger national Taiwanese tradition and the North a stronger feeling as Han Chinese. In the south the performances often represent local interests; they adopt the Ming Hua Ueng style [clear flower garden style] where the circus is a far more vital part of the performance than in the North. The North of the island is instead well-known for its acting traditions.[5]


According to a number of sources in Taiwan one of the most important developments actually came from the mainland but was interestingly not from Peking. It was a filmed version, with all the trappings of contemporary cinema combined with the conventions of a specific regional variation upon ching h’si, based upon the style typical to Shanghai known as the Huang-Mei Tune or the Yellow Bloom style which turned out to have many similar conventions to the style typical in Taiwan (even though the language used is essentially Mandarin). It was enormously popular, undoubtedly the most popular film that had ever been shown in Taiwan previously. Apparently more than 90% of the population of Taipei alone went to see it when it was released and it had an enormous influence on developments in contemporary Chinese traditional theatre during the last thirty years. The film’s title translated into English is the Love Eterne (sic.). The main common points between the Shanghai and the Taiwan regional styles is firstly the fact that male characters are played by women and secondly that the arias follow a seven syllable structure that will be explained in more detail below in relation to the Taiwanese dialect. The first of the two contrasts is most likely explainable by the common presence of the Japanese in both Shanghai and Taiwan during and before the Second World War. The major male role is played by a woman, which for a western is confusing because he (she) falls in love with a girl who is pretending to be a man (at least in the story), but it is evidently a convention which is easily accepted by a Taiwanese audience who are familiar with the the form. The actress attempts to ‘stride’ in a masculine way and to speak like a man at least in an official sense. Men are also easily represented by the presence of a beard in the Chinese bamboo theatrical beard sense and also costume and hairstyle. Apparently the work is so convincing to a Taiwanese audience that the typical reaction is cry at the end of the tragic tale.[6] Other more delicate contrasts that unite the two styles like the presence of western orchestral instruments in the orchestra can probably be explained by both colonial influences (westernisation because of the presence of the British in Shanghai) and a natural impulse towards innovation which has characterised many developments in contemporary Chinese and especially Taiwanese opera in both Northern and Southern styles. Like Chinese opera, the plot itself involves all the intrigues and conventions of the traditional Peking style, but a number of subtle contrasts in the theme of the work suggest unique innovations that were deliberately inserted to interest a contemporary audience and pump life into what could be interpreted by many contemporary Taiwanese young people strongly under the influence of westernisation and the strength of American capitalism. The notion of gender is constantly played with through playing with the conventions—the play opens with the entrance of a doctor who is traditionally a man, played naturally by a woman, who actually turns out to be a woman who had taken the form of a man to fool her parents. An emphasis is put on the questioning of an authority which perpetuates the inferiority of women, and presents female characters who come up for women’s rights.


The plot concerns a well-to-do girl (Zhu, Ying-Tai) who is not allowed to go to school because she is a girl. She has been pretending to be sick for weeks to convince her father to allow her to go to school, refusing to eat. In many aspects it is still true that the main way that women have access to power is through the manipulation of men, so this theme is strongly underlined in the play. It is Ying-Tai’s sister who pretends to be a doctor saying the only way to cure her is to promise to fulfil her wish. She says that the disease is in fact not physical, but psychological, which is in itself another new insertion of contemporary themes into the drama. The father who is very strict and would otherwise have been unrepentant, makes the promise that Ying-Tai will be able to attend school unsuspectingly, and then the ‘doctor’ reveals her identity. To reveal her identity, all she has to do is remove one piece of clothing (her headpiece) which in fact does not change the way she looks, but in doing this the whole set of conventions that result in the parent’s belief that she is someone else is accented and highlighted. In any case, the promise must be kept and therefore Ying-Tai sets off for boarding school, pretending to be a boy among a school of male students. She falls in love with another student (Liang, Shan-bo), but cannot reveal the fact she is female. Their relationship involves certain intrigues like the man and woman sleeping together in the same room, unsuspecting to the man; all three possibilities are played with (2 men, 2 women, man/woman) suggesting the acceptability of the different choices. The traditions of the school are also important thematically as mentioned; its conventions are very old-fashioned and represents the difficulty that Ying-Tai has as a woman fighting for her rights in a society with a power hierarchy dominated by men; women’s power is through influencing those men rather than direct power, something which can still be felt in the Taiwan of today. contemporary values represented in lines like: “men and women are born equal” and the situation where the woman proposes marriage to the man suggest this theme. Ying-Tai questions the school when they make blatantly sexist statements which draws attention to her in the school. After 3 years pass, school is over and she wants to get married to Shan-bo but it is almost impossible to convince him that she is a girl and not a boy. The time passes in a matter of seconds and displays the typical Chinese attitude to the reflection of reality in theatre where time can be stretched and compressed at will, passing time expressed in one sentence: “it’s been three whole years since I’ve studied here.” Shan-bo doesn’t realize she’s a girl, but they fall in love just the same. When he finally realizes that his love is something society can accept and therefore probably ordained by fate, she finds out Ying-Tai’s father has already arranged a marriage to someone else (the Ma family). She has no choice, and he therefore dies of a broken-heart. The daughter, who always has been incredibly unhappy with the arrangement the father had made agrees to the wedding on the condition that she can first go to his funeral (questioning the power of male authority and Chinese tradition). She does this, and she magically enters his tomb and they both become butterflies and fly together to the gates of heaven, one of the metaphors for their love which is used throughout the work.


The plot itself demonstrates a set of possible deliberate contrasts embodied in a format which could be confused by an unsuspecting (western) audience for a traditional play. There are many other elements, however, which provide further contrasts. Music makes use of more obvious programmatic elements that are not imitated on instruments but are recorded as part of the soundtrack. This includes sounds of the city, Buddhist chanting etc., much of which is possible thanks to contemporary technology. These contrasts are also present in both the Holo (styles in the North) and the Southern styles. Other contrasts and similarities will be discussed below, although the next subject of discussion involves some of the Taiwanese musical traditions which set it apart from the generally accepted Ching h’si style of the mainland.


Contrast in the music of traditional Chinese opera and the opera of Taiwan is mainly to be felt in the vocal music. Firstly, the singing style itself in Taiwan contrasts in that it is more accessible at least to a western listener; it does not to the same degree adopt the whining, nasal high pitched singing styles especially for the female roles. This is related firstly to the influence of westernisation and western pop music and secondly the fact that many of the new operas are being presented in Taiwanese meaning that understanding the language goes in front of presentation of style. Singing in both the Love Eterne discussed above and Holo performances of the North of Taiwan resemble far better western opera than the distinct sound of Peking Ching h’si. Perhaps the most important element of the music which contrasts to the Chinese style is the 7-syllable repeating passages which are so important to the Holo style. Two examples taken from the text of a recent Taiwanese play known as New Pheonix Egg, written originally in Taiwanese, are included below. In the music each 7 note syllabic passage leads to the seventh note which is held for the length of (at least) two syllables, meaning in essence that seven syllables are set above a standard duple meter, although the expressive function is dependent on how the singer deals with the text and leads the orchestra. Each of the 7 syllables receives a pan ku like percussive thud, and melodic instruments can elaborate upon what the singer is singing dependent on the style of the performers as is typical to Taiwan today, and that can include both Chinese and western instruments such as the flute. The two examples are as follows taken from arias in the Taiwanese play.


[1] Colourful shell with rare stripes


A treasure seldom exists from Heaven to Earth.


[2] How convenient is this good egg


Saves one from ten-year hard working,


Gives you a strong recommendation to higher levels,


Spares you thousands of gifts you ought to prepare.


He is like a rooster turning a phoenix,


I am like stones turning to gold.



As far as orchestral music is concerned, the basic set of instruments can vary dependent upon the ensemble itself and the function it is used for. More contemporary performances intended as entertainment in a western-style theatre for a Taiwanese audience tends to use in addition to the traditional Chinese groups, a selection of western instruments such as violins. Contrasting to the contemporary style in Peking, however, improvisation in music ensembles is still very important in Taiwan, just as it is in most forms of Cantonese opera in the Quandong province. In the score for both The Love Eterne and New Pheonix Egg I heard western canon-like polyphony which is not at all typical of Chinese opera, especially among the choral voices which answered one another in an antiphonal fashion. The music generally also included western tuning, decorations and trills; that ‘out-of-tune’ flavour so important to the Peking style was generally absent in Taiwanese performance.


One of the main similarities is perhaps the sociocultural purpose of most performances: to entertain, at least according to Professor Lin – although Taiwanese performances discussed in this work present particular thematic areas that represent contemporary themes that must mean more than entertainment (although that is undoubtedly the case in exceptional new works popular on the mainland as well). According to Prof. Lin the primary intention is to entertain rather than to teach a message in so many words, although that sometimes happens because of the nature of the play. In some ways the plots are more like soap-operas in the western sense in both the Peking style and in Taiwan, although it involves mythical characters and sometimes symbolic lessons about love and honour.[7] The stock characters are also shared, and that includes both Southern and Northern performances, in other words Sheng, Tan, Ching and Ch’ou as the basic four; they may differ sometimes in small ways, but then again in every different ching h’si play they contrast as well. As mentioned, Taiwanese opera also includes a circus tradition similar in some respects to Peking Opera in style and diversity, particularly well known in Southern Taiwan. The martial arts, at least according to Professor Lin, are not so developed in the South; the style there is more eclectic and less time is spent on training. The main contrast, as mentioned, involves the Japanese cultural imposition when they took power after the war ended the 19th century and Taiwan was succeeded to Japan. When the Japanese occupied Taiwan from 17th century women began to take all the roles of both male and female characters, which requires a different style of acting and education.


In Peking Opera, because of the strong historical tradition, the plays tend to be learnt word for word according to scripts and musical scores. Taiwanese Opera, like the Cantonese style, contrasts in that it uses improvisation techniques for textuality where the actors know the general framework but improvise the lines as they go through the pre-planned story (which is never quite the same). New plays like the one discussed above accents the fact that there are always exceptions to the rule: plays which were earlier improvised in Taiwanese as the story-line was probably recorded in Mandarin or as a play, but these days plays are being written in what used to be considered an unpleasant dialect. According to Peters, it is possible that the Taiwanese variant is even louder and more raucous that the Chinese opera form in Peking. Although the storylines and plots are recorded and usually followed to the letter, the director has certain liberties to give his own perspective to the performance. That is, however, impossible to tell. With one theatre group the accent lies on performing as authentically as possibly (which tends to be the subject of theatre of the North) whereas by the other the accent is on experimenting with the traditions, although in Taipei, which is essentially in the North, is the place where the most experimental/avant-garde work takes place as far as experimenting with tradition is concerned (audience is probably limited). Peters, 1999: 15).


As far as audience interaction and performance techniques which broke the barrier between the reality of the performers and the people in the public that so attracted Brecht to the form in Peking, both forms still share many of these traditions, such as the role of the clown who improvises and speaks raw dialect and rough language. Taiwan opera lost the tradition of speaking and drinking tea (socializing like Wayang Kulit) during opera performances during the introduction of film and video in the 1960s – before that it was similar to the Beijing Opera. In a sociocultural sense as well, Taiwanese performers have always had a relative amount of respect rather than derision as is typical of the Peking opera tradition. According to Prof. Lin this has to do with the fact that Taiwan opera is most often used for ritual purposes, which contrasts to Peking opera which has developed into an international representation of Chinese culture and is therefore most often secular. The Cantonese style, however, is also used often for ritual purposes, but the quality is usually far less than for entertainment performers; not taken as seriously by the performers. The contrast comes from the money put in by the private-groups supporting the ritual performances in Taiwan. [23/9/2003 Interview with Prof. Lin]. There are often for example mistakes in Cantonese performance. [INCORPORATE: Just as in Cantonese opera, actors and musicisns use jokes and trickes with one another and sometimes the audience. In Cantonese opera, like in Taiwanese opera by the clown, improvisation is used to induce laughter. Improvisation includes strategically positioned pauses in speech, use of traditional Cantonese jokes, making use of the performance context, puns and foul language.

/ Chan]


As far as costumes are concerned there are some similarities as well, such as the use of paper hung from the ear which indicates that the actor has become a ghost. It actually depends on the play. Although there is a similar use of colour, the costumes and make-up are not nearly as dramatic, especially for women, in Taiwan. Costumes in both Peking opera and Taiwan opera (especially the Northern style) tend to be rather conservative and to follow the tradition rather than update and use innovations such as ‘disco-coloured robes and Western make-up techniques’ (Rutherford, 1998: 95) as is similar in some other varieties. Staging, however, presents many contrasts. Sound and stage effects are used to create wind and mist, and particularly the adoption of contemporary lighting techniques such as mood lighting and spotlights something which wouldn’t have been considered necessary in Peking which worked on far more complex use of non-realistic semiotic sign languages. The Stage design is elaborate, even in Northern productions, and not typical of the Peking tradition, i.e. decorated sheets. Sometimes innovations like chains of flowers hanging from the roof to represent a flower garden. The use of simple items to perform far more elaborate tasks such as climbing mountains contrasts in some ways. Use of chairs to represent climbing and falling, for example, in Peking opera, falling from a chair can mean falling into a well. In one of the plays I saw, none of this type of thing happened, but at one point Madame New attempts to reach the Pheonix’s egg by putting chairs onto the table reminiscent of Peking opera. But for her it is not a mountain, and when she falls modern lighting traditions are made use of. Lighting goes out as she makes the enormous fall, flickering in an innovative stye. This gives an example of some of the subtle contrast that can be felt between the two style. [INCORPORATE?: use of parasol to represent heat, stillin existence but not as complex]


It is not suprising that the amount of change and the complexity of the tradition is so intricate consider it is a tradition “developed in a period longer than that of the entire history of European opera and involved the regional preferences over some 500 years of peoples from many Chinese provinces, most of which contained larger populations than that of Europe.” (Malm, 1977: 161). The fact should also be note forgotten that amateur musicianship is enormously popular in China and that an educated audience for classical traditions is far wider than in West. Its ability to develop in line with its viewers (and the viewers ability to develop) can also be linked culturally as discussedi n the article blah. Importance of interculturality; Taoism Confucianism, blah assimilition of instruments and music into mainstream culture which is recognise by use of western instrukents in contemporary Taiwan opera performances. [By comparison, it is the utilitarianism of music as promoting social contentment and social institutions which is emphasized by the Confucianistic ideology. These major philosophical views of music thus govern the fundamental cultural introspection, hence normativity, of music making in China. Any imported non-native music is undoubtedly reshaped and modified to align with this basic ideology of music. Ling, 31: interculturality has been an important part of policy toward integration of new musical styles] All in all, it is clear that from the varied amount of information introduced and discussed in this paper that the tradition of Chinese opera is alive and well and has flowered into a wide range of forms to answer an equally contrasting arrage of social, political and cultural needs. In Taiwan, the two cultural traditions were on the edge of dieing out after a mad rage of westernisation through the 80s, but probably thanks to impetuses like Love Eterne and through the efforts of collectors, kenners and liefhebbers, a new audience is learning to enjoy the tradition in a more contemporary context (Peters, 1999: 15), just as the form itself gradually adjusts to its new generation of viewers.




【新鳳凰蛋】New Phoenix Egg, (unpublished Taiwanese opera script) representative of the Helo or Holo tradition of Northern Taiwan.


Broughton, S., Ellingham, M., McConnacie, J., Duane, O., (2000), World Music Volume 2: Latin & North America, Caribbean, India, Asia and Pacific, London: Rough Guides.


Chan, Sau Y. (1991) Improvisation in a Ritual Context: the music of Cantonese opera, Hong Kong: University of China Press.


Han, Hsiang (dir.) Love Eterne [Chinese filming of the Shanghai modern Chinese opera style which became so influential to the Taiwanese form].


"Musical and Cultural Traits of Chinese Music"

Source: Ling Mingyue. 1985. Music of the Billion. New York: Heinrichshofen.


Last, Jef (trans.) (1965) China, Amsterdam: N.V. Het Parool.


Malm, William P. (1977) Music Cultures of the Pacific, the Near East, and Asia, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc.


Merson, John (1981) Culture and Science in China, Sydney: The Australian Broadcasting Commission.


Rubin, D., Pong, Chua Soo, Chaturvedi, R., Majumdar, R., Tanokura, M., Brisbane, K. (eds.) (1998) The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre: Asia/Pacific, London & New York: Routledge.


Rutherford, Scott (ed.) (1998) Taiwan, Singapore: Apa Publications, pp.



Wang, An-ch’i (1993) Peking Opera, Leuven/Apeldoorn: Garant.

[1] Viewed by the author in a ching h’si play of the Peking school.

[2] Interview with Yin.

[3] Prof. Lin Interview

[4] Even though the Taiwanese have not updated to simplified ideographs with the People’s Republic.

[5] Prof. Lin interview.

[6] Interviews with locals who saw the film when it came out both in Taipei and Kaohsiung or have family members who saw it. Not familiar with the conventions, I found it rather stagy and difficult to find sympathetic, but so strong are the influences of western theatre.

[7] [23/9/2003 Interview with Prof. Lin].





May 2008 Nachtschimmen Music-Theatre-Language Night Shades, Ghent (Belgium)*
Send mail to zachar@nachtschimmen.eu with questions or comments about this website.

September 27 2013.



Major Writings