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China, Zaju, and Beijing Opera: Crash Course Theater #25

Hey there! I’m Mike Rugnetta, this is Crash Course
Theater, and today our coverage of elaborate stage makeup and costuming continues as we
cover Beijing Opera— Very nice Slim! I like all this effort you’ve been putting
in lately. Though the Yin and Yang is a little on the
nose. As Yorick is demonstrating, today we’re
heading to China to explore the origins of Chinese performance and enjoy some Beijing
opera—a music theater style with its origins in classical Chinese drama that went through
a bumpy patch during the Cultural Revolution, but is still performed today. It has gods and demons, strict color coding,
and about a million different ways to use a chair. Let’s go! INTRO
Performance in China starts early. How early? Well wouldja look at that: we don’t know. But the very earliest performances seem to
have been associated with religious ritual: songs and dances petitioning the gods for
fertility, for a good harvest, success in war—the usual. Later on, when Daoism gets going, wu priests–a
kind of shaman or WIZARD; yeah, that’s right my nerds, WIZARDs–would stage elaborate
seances, and some of these get co-opted as court performances where priests zhuzh up
the ritual with jokes and special effects. Those priests. Such hams. Religion and theater remain intertwined, and
by the eighth century BCE, certain temples become famous for their performers. During the Han Dynasty, which begins in 206
BCE, performance becomes more widespread and more secular. Performers practice disciplines like tightrope-walking,
pole-climbing, sword-swallowing, fire-eating, and occasionally slightly less dangerous stuff
like juggling. There’s also mime, but probably not lewd
mime, unfortunately. Around this time, shadow plays also begin
appearing in China. Things cool down for a few centuries after
the Han lose power, because war does that to a performance culture. But then it’s 600 CE, and the Sui Dynasty
is ascendant. The emperor Yang-Ti loves performance so much
that he actually opens his own training school and hosts a festival featuring ten of thousands
of performers. Take that, minimalism! During the Tang Dynasty, performers start
to combine music, dance, and acrobatics in innovative ways, and the Emperor Xuanzong
opens the Pear Garden, another training School supposed to help further that innovation. Also apparently a way for him to recruit for
his personal harem. Now maybe you’re getting the idea that theater
in China was a performance tradition rather than a literary one, and that idea is correct. But around 1000 CE, a lot of poetry starts
to develop, and then the novel comes to China. Novels are a huge hit, and storytellers start
going around to teahouses, reciting portions of them while audiences drink tea and eat
pumpkin seeds. Performances like this are narrative rather
than dialogic or mimetic, meaning they aren’t really acted out. But it’s a start! As the Song Dynasty continues, people actually
start writing plays, which usually begin with a spoken prologue and then continue with a
mix of dialogue and song. We have fragments of about one hundred and
fifty of these plays. Several actors become famous during this time,
and they’re known by nicknames like “Orange Peel” and “Dimples.” [[YORICK DROPS IN.]] What do you think my nickname would be, Yorick? [[WORD BUBBLE: “BALD SPOT.”]] Very funny. But then, in the late thirteenth century,
the invading hordes come, and maybe you’re thinking, Ugh! Invading hordes!? This is why we can’t have nice things! But if there’s one thing we know here on
Crash Course, Mongols are the exception! When the Mongols invade China, forming the
Yuan Dynasty, it pretty much ushers in a golden age of literature. Why? Well, one theory goes that since the Mongols
preferred to handle stuff in-house, lots of highly educated bureaucrats suddenly were
out of work. So to fill the time, they wrote stuff. Hey – I’ll take it! I would have settled for wizards! Drama of the period drew from history, legend,
and those newfangled novel things. Characters emerged from all classes and types,
and plays often ranged over months or years. And maybe you’re thinking, Hey, this sounds
a little like Elizabethan drama. And you’re right—it does. Nice catch! But unlike Elizabethan drama, every play conveyed
a strong moral message, usually emphasizing family and duty. Some of these plays might also have offered
subtle critiques of the political situation, where good characters suffer through all sorts
of terrible trials, like you know, being conquered by invading hordes, before winning out in
the end. Two distinct styles of drama developed. One in the north, called zaju, and one in
the south, called chuan-qi. Zaju dramas were four acts long, except for
the most famous one, the twenty-act “Romance of the Western Chamber,” which… got away
with it by claiming it was in five parts. These four acts contained ten to twenty songs,
and those songs were selected from five hundred pre-existing melodies and accompanied by gong,
drum, clapper, flute, and lute. But here’s where it gets tricky: only the
protagonist sings, and each of the four acts demands its own vocal timbre and rhyme scheme. These dramas were performed by companies of
both male and female actors, some of whom were also probably prostitutes. We have one hundred and seventy zaju plays,
including a couple you may have heard of: “The Orphan of Zhao,” which is still performed,
and “The Circle of Chalk,” which Bertolt Brecht borrowed for “The Caucasian Chalk
Circle.” Meanwhile, down south, chuan-qi plays are
developing. Chuan-qi plays have fifty acts—well, thirty
to fifty. But still. They don’t have a fixed rhyme scheme per
act. Which is a good thing, because can you imagine
changing the rhyme schemes FIFTY TIMES? Unlike zaju songs, which were written for
a seven-note musical scale, chuan-qi plays are written for a pentatonic scale. The main accompaniment was the bamboo flute. The most famous chuan-qi play is “The Peony
Pavilion,” a fifty five-act play about a girl who falls in love with a man she’s
only seen in her dreams. She dies, but the real man comes to her grave
and somehow resurrects her. Chuan-qi plays are lively and eventful, but
eventually they got so long and so elaborate, and the language becomes so formal, that they
can’t be performed anymore. Let’s fast-forward a few centuries to the
origin story of Jingxi or Beijing opera. By this time, all kinds of different theatrical
styles were practiced around the country, though none predominated in the way the zaju
and chuangi had. In 1790, a bunch of different troupes came
to Beijing to celebrate the eightieth birthday of Emperor Qian Long. They liked it there. They liked each other. Eventually, they combined their regional forms
into one awesome new style that was even more powerful, jingxi. Sorta like The Avengers of Classical Chinese
Theater. Which is a film franchise I’d definitely
watch. Officially, there are two kinds of stories
in Beijing opera: civil and military. But there’s a lot of overlap. Like the earlier dramas, the stories borrow
from history, legend, and other works of literature, and they all end happily. The scripts aren’t really set texts, but
more like bullet points. Great actors are encouraged to make each role
their own, and the focus is on acting, singing, and dancing rather than the literary elements. Instead of presenting a full story from start
to finish, most evenings consisted of just the high points with enough narrative and
acrobatic interludes to help it all hang together. The stories are elaborate, but the physical
staging is minimal. Theaters usually consisted of a raised, roofed
platform with a two-foot high wall extending around three of the sides and the only set
pieces are a table and two chairs. But that table and chairs are versatile. Depending upon the way they’re arranged,
they can represent a wall, a bridge, a tree, a door, a hill, a banquet, a court, whatever
you need! There are all kinds of symbolic and codified
set and prop elements in Beijing opera. A silver banner represents water; black silk
suggests a storm. A whip means you’re riding horseback; black
gauze means you’re having a dream; a couple of yellow silk flags mean you’re in a chariot. A bunch of stagehands run around manipulating
all of these chairs and banners, but an audience learns not to see them. As Yorick here has indicated, Beijing Opera
depends on extravagant makeup and costuming. For a closer look, let’s go to the ThoughtBubble:
Chinese opera characters are divided into four types: sheng (men), dan (women), jing
(painted face roles), and chou (clowns). But that’s not all. There are seven types of sheng roles, and
six types of dan roles. Until the twentieth century, dan roles were
played by men in tiny, awkward shoes, and when women took over, they had to learn from
the men how to play them. Jing characters, with all the makeup, are
gods, demons, courtiers, and thieves. And Chou are clowns who are expected to improvise
jokes. Each role had its own pitch and rhythm, and
kind of like Sanskrit theater and kabuki theater, each had a bunch movements associated with
characters and moods. There are twenty ways just to point at something! But a lot of the character work is done by
costume and makeup. There are three hundred types of dress associated
with Beijing opera, including forty six headdresses, forty seven dresses, six types of girdle,
and six types of shoe. That actually seems like a pretty low number
for shoes, TBH. These costumes are color-coded. Red costumes are for brides and loyal characters;
yellow for royal ones; white for old ones and people in mourning. Makeup was color-coded, too. Most sheng and dan characters started with
a white base, made with flour, that offset darkened brows, reddened lips, and eyes outlined
in red. There are more than two hundred and fifty
types of makeup, and the most complex designs are for the jing characters. Jing faces are pattern-coded and color-coded. Only good characters wear mustaches, and the
more white around the eyes, the worse the character. A lot of black, good guy; a lot of purple,
outlaw. Lots of green: YOUSE A DEMON. Thanks, ThoughtBubble. [[[Yorick flies back in covered in green makeup.]]] YOUSE A DEMON! Beijing opera flourishes for about one hundred
and fifty years, and then communism happens. Communist leaders go through the repertory,
tweaking some plays, removing others, and opera stumbles on until the Cultural Revolution,
when pretty much all of it is seen as anti-communist and is replaced with new Mao-friendly works
like “The White-Haired Girl,” an opera about a peasant girl who is raped and abducted
by a landlord. She escapes, her hair turns white, and then
she and her former fiancé are reunited. Like good communists, they redistribute the
landlord’s farms. An equally distributed happy ending! Come see us next time for English Sentimentality,
which is like normal sentimentality, but English. That’s right, it’s romanticism. Until then… curtain!


  1. tuskinekinase Author

    Fun stuff: I've seen a Beijing Opera adaptation of Hamlet (Yeah, that Hamlet), which is actually not bad, and BOY I was marveled by the chair usage! The first scene in that adaptation is the graveyard scene where Hamlet and Horatio rode (walking dances with whip in hand) through the graveyard to see the ghost of the old king. There were four chairs on stage and they were standing with their back towards the audience, and we immediately realized the chairs are tombstones now! (Bonus point, the four stagehands were dressed up as black and white ghost officials from the Underworld.)
    Several scenes later Ophelia died and one chair was brought on stage, lying sideways, with its back turned towards the audience. The chair is now a coffin, and everybody understood. You got to appreciate all the tradition and creativity (well it's a new play with many foreign element so you got to be a bit creative) that goes into this art.

  2. Lucas Sampaio Author

    Nope, Mike's nickname wold be "Hoping Hair", "The Bold One" (got it?), "Baldyr" (Baldr + Baldy) or "Ginger Skullet".

    I'm joking but I love you…

  3. One Crafty Gamer Author

    I learned jingju hair and makeup during my undergrad from experts and things like this remind me how lucky and rare that opportunity was.

  4. Frank Lordi Author

    I really detest the use of BCE/CE especially sice there's nothing comon about it, outside of historically Christian cultures. One could say it is common because of the prevelence of western civ, but isn't that a bit ethnocentric? The birth of Christ though is a point in time. You can take it as nothing other than that, if you wish. It's just like saying BBY and ABY in Star wars. So in the hopes of being PC we're using a less precise term which then results in more ethnocentric implications.

  5. Sugami Author

    I'm sure this has already been asked before but I'm curious if you'll cover Japanese rakugo?
    All speaking of "invisible" stage hands, I think the stage hands in Japanese plays wearing all black including a veil across their face is basically what started ninja wearing black in TV, etc. 🙂

  6. hu yueqi Author

    ok, ok… starts from 8:21 the information is messed up. Whoever gives you this information clearly knows nothing about Peking Opera. You'd better find a better reference( or ask any Chinese) if you want to make it straight.
    For example, at 8:28, Guan Gong(关公) is a character, who may be the only important HongSheng(红生) character. The fourth one Zhao Kuangyin(赵匡胤) is another famous Hongsheng character.

  7. Ashley Klump Author

    The Chalk Circle or The Circle of Chalk was a great play. About jealousy, detective work, and justice being served. It is a simple play, but conveys a great story.

  8. imacg4 Author

    Great work, informative!
    Some mistakes:
    1. Wu priests had nothing to do with Daoism – at least supernatural practitioners were not called Wu in Daoism. Wu and Xi (巫觋, female and male noun, respectively, kind of like witches and warlocks) were prominent before Qin Dynasty, but declined significantly in Han Dynasty. Daoism priest are called Daoshi (道士). What you did is like calling a Christian priest a Shaman.
    2. The Peony Pavilion was written in Ming Dynasty, not Yuan. It was written in 1598, while the Yuan capitol was taken in 1368. So basically Tang Xianzu wrote The Peony Pavilion around the time of Shakespeare, while Yuan Dynasty ended around the time of Chaucer.

  9. Dinan Yin Author

    While there is good information, the host doesn't even seemed to have tried to pronounce any Chinese words correctly. Coming from Australia where ABC and SBS news presenters provide decent approximations, this seems to be lacking effort in comparison.

  10. Sara Melnick Author

    I don't see how they could've been eating pumpkin seeds in 1000CE as we have no records of New World foods in the Old World anywhere near that early. Perhaps it's a mistranslation? I've read that some in the Far East eat musk melon seeds similar to how we eat squash seeds.

  11. Pouria Asjodi Author

    I went to one on my trip to Beijing 2 days ago. It was really amazing, from the moment that I was seated infront with bunch of other people around a table sharing tea and snacks to the breathtaking acrobatics, dance and singing with music was just.. well breathtaking.

  12. Pablo Ruiz Author

    You should do a separate episode on the zaju and chuan-qi types of plays in China. I feel that China deserves at least two episodes since its literary and theater traditions are just as deep and complex as those of Japan and India. Just my two cents here.

  13. TheQueenOfTulips Author

    How is theatre so triggering to communist?! It's theatre! Ugh and then they make stupid propaganda plays like the girls with white hair. Ugh! I'm glad that they still perform the more traditional plays though.

  14. Dani McKenzie Author

    Were they really eating pumpkin seeds in 600CE? Pumpkin is native to North America and I don't think had made it's way to China by that point.

  15. merlyn sng Author

    would have liked it if the entire history of chinese performance was covered in maybe 2 episodes instead of 1. i felt like by the time the video got to beijing opera proper, time was up.

  16. MK Piatkowski Author

    Now I understand where western theatre learned to use tables and chairs in different configurations to represent locations. Thanks!

  17. zzz L Author

    Chinese translate to English is too limited, omg these english words, even wizard? there's a massive gap between people's understanding

  18. Arthur Banks Author

    Very exact. The only matter you didn't mention is all Chinese operas form a large family. Chuanqi is the grandfather, kunqu the first son, Jingju(beijing opera) second son, local operas and so on. You can perform a half beijing opera, half kunqu or Bangzi(Hebei province) opera.

  19. SharpNaif Author

    As others have pointed out, the pronunciation of Chinese words is atrocious and inconsistent. The visuals are also poorly researched. The painting at 1:00 does not represent the beginnings of Chinese drama; all those big hats with the red tops are strictly Qing dynasty (1644-1911). At 2:47, the character drinking tea is an emperor; his headdress features a sort of beaded curtain of jewels. An emperor wouldn't normally be slumming with the plebes in a teahouse. Among other mistakes, The Orphan of Zhao has been adapted into other genres and was the first Chinese play translated into a European language, but it is no longer performed as zaju. All of the music to zaju plays has been lost. It sounds crazy when Chinese music from earlier dynasties is still around, at least in the form of Japanese gagaku, but I've been asking. The experts are unanimous: zaju music is all gone. Somehow, it's completely unrelated to music from the succeeding dynasty (Ming) that has the same tune title.


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