Travel in Taiwan Culture

Chinese Opera Experience

Did you see the file Farewell to My Concubine and wonder about the "squeaky" voice produced by that beautiful female character who was actually a man? Answering in the affirmative, this writer, a classically trained musician, was curious to learn why a style which appears to violate the principles of "correct" singing in Western music is considered aesthetically desirable in the Orient. Attending a three-hour performance by the China Peking Opera Theater raised more questions than it answered, since no program notes were available in English.

Therefore, an opportunity to investigate a "Chinese Opera Experience," available to the public at the National Fu Hsing Dramatic Arts Academy three times each week, was accepted with much eagerness. The descriptive flyer is printed in both English and Japanese, strongly suggesting that this presentation is designed primarily for tourists. It is advisable to make a reservation before traveling to the academy's campus, located in the Neihu district of Taipei. The advertised package includes a 10-minute video introduction to Chinese opera, a 20-minute live performance of excerpts from an opera, and a 50-minute tour of the academy museum and drama classes. Also mentioned are the options of trying opera makeup, face-painting, and costumes.

This writer visited the Fu Hsing Academy during winter vacation; so, a visit to the drama classes and the tryout options were unavailable. An unforgettable adventure began with a tour of the museum; then, at 11:00 a.m., the video began. The writer was graciously given a private viewing. This was followed by a live performance of excerpts from The White Snake (..........), a well-known traditional Chinese story. Afterward, two graduates of the Academy offered to discuss several questions.


This male character holds a whip depicting an imaginary horse.


An Esoteric Drama

Chinese opera of the Peking variety is a difficult abstract art which synthesizes music, drama, dancing, and acrobatics along with very elaborate costumes and a minimum of props, according to traditions and customs dating back as far as the twelfth century. Very early in their training Chinese opera performers begin specializing in one of the four principal types of roles: sheng (.....), tan (.....), ching (.....), and chou (.....). It should be noted that, at least theoretically, any of these character roles can be portrayed by persons of either gender. The male roles, sheng, are divided into mature, young, and militant or martial, personality, and social position ranging from common to royal. The hsiao sheng is usually a young scholar or a lover; the wu sheng, a fighting or military man; the lao sheng or hsu sheng, an aged man; the hung sheng, a red-faced aged man. The militant or martial males are skilled in the art of kung fu.

The female roles, tan, include ladies, maidens, warriors, and militant maidens. The tao ma tan is a warrior; the lao tan, an aged woman; the wu tan, an acrobatic fighter; the hua tan, a vivacious young woman or coquette; the hua shan, a beautiful young comic in a leading role; the ching i, usually a faithful wife, lover, or maiden in distress; the tsai tan, usually a shrewd and sometimes comic role. It is the tan role which is characterized by the high-pitched "squeaky" voice cultivated to attract the attention of the audience and appeal to the auditory preference of traditional Chinese gentlemen.

The painted-face roles, ching, include both singers, tung chui, and warriors, chia tzu. The cheng ching is a primarily painted-face role; the wu ching, a predominately fighting and gymnastic role; the chia tzu hua, a role in which gesture and deportment predominate; the fu ching, a vigorous villain. Various personality traits are indicated by different colors of facial paint. For example, red designates an honest, loyal, righteous, straightforward, and trustworthy character; white stands for cunning, craftiness, and scheming; black for bravery and justice; and green for cruelty, pride, violence, and toughness. The painted-face warriors are very skillful fighters.

The clown roles, chou, include both male and female characters. The male clown roles include the wen chou, who speaks perfect Mandarin and is a master of satire; the wu chou, an acrobatic expert in martial arts; and the wen wu chou, a fighting civilian. Female clowns frequently portray naive rural folk. The clown characters are easy to distinguish by a white "triangle" painted on the middle of the face. The base of this triangle covers the nose and about half of the cheekbones; the apex is the lower forehead located between the eyebrows; on the sides of the triangle and moving upward, the eyelids are partially covered with paint. The chou characters are the only ones who sing or speak in a natural voice. They are also free to make impromptu remarks, to satirize other characters, or merely to elicit laughter.


A male clown uses a fan to dramatically express himself.

The Play's the Thing

The Fu Hsing Academy's video emphasized that no mistakes are allowed in costuming. The aim is not to look exactly like or unlike the character being portrayed. Historical authenticity is not sought in costuming; rather, patterns and designs are based partly on fashions from the Ming dynasty (A.D. 1368-1644) and partly on convention. The aim is to create a continuous flow of pageantry through the use of colorful and elaborately embroidered costumes for both magnificent effect and dramatic expression. The colors of the costumes are significant. For example, yellow is for royalty, red for high-ranking officials, green for virtuous persons, black for the tough, and brown for the aged. Equally meticulous attention is given to headgear, tou mien for female roles and kuei tou for male roles, and to beards and whiskers.


1. Typical opera performance showing martial activity.

The props used in Chinese opera are very simple and relatively few in number. The intent is to suggest rather than depict. For example, an oar can represent a boat; banners can suggest billowing waves; a whip can represent a horse. Tables and chairs constitute multipurpose movable scenery for representing many different things. Indoor scenes are enhanced by the use of colorful carpets. The Fu Hsing Academy's brochure states: "The stage of Chinese opera is outfitted by the imagination of the audience."

The music relies mainly on already existing melodies, many from folk songs, to which the playwright adds fitting lyrics. The basic unit of the aria consists of two poetic lines or sentences with either seven or 10 Chinese characters each. The first line must end with a rising-tone character; the second, with a level tone. The number of couplets is dictated by the plot, as is the number of arias per scene. The singers are trained to sing "from the abdomen" and practice by placing three fingers below the belt (to feel the vibrations?). Nowadays the lyrics to the arias are displayed on screens situated on the main floor of the theater, one on each side of the stage.


2. Musical instruments used in Chinese opera.

A Mini Orchestra

The orchestra, wen wu chang, is typically a small ensemble of about six or seven musicians situated at one side of the stage. Experienced musicians know the music so well that they usually perform from memory. The conductor is the percussionist who plays a drum and wooden clappers. String instruments, wen chang, include a high-pitched fiddle or a two- stringed Chinese viola, hu chin, a three-stringed lute, san hsien; and a four-stringed Chinese banjo or moon guitar, yueh chin. The main function of the string instruments is to accompany the singing; however, they may also be used for special effects, such as a rooster crowing or a horse neighing. The wu chang are percussion instruments, such as drums, ku; wooden clappers, pai pan; gongs of various sized, luo; and cymbals. The orchestra may also include a bamboo flute and an oboe.

The musical accompaniment also punctuates the spoken parts. The head percussionist not only conducts the accompaniment but also coordinates the development of the dramatic action. The various gongs are also used to coordinate the action as well as the position and personality of each character as the plot develops. The large gong is used in serious, exciting, and formal situations or settings, such as a government office or a military post, and also to accompany the actions of the sheng and ching roles. The small gong is used to relax the action, accompany humorous situtations, accompany the actions of young maidens and clowns, and create a quiet atmosphere for settings such as a household, a temple, or a convent. Generally, the large gong accompanies the actions of important persons; the small gong, ordinary persons. For a classically grained Western musician, the high decible percussion accompaniment seems almost deafening at times.

The dramatic effect is significantly enhanced through a skillful use of astract choreography and acrobatics designed to manifest the personality of the various characters. Training in supple body movements, therefore, is as important as vocal training in the education of actors and actresses for Chinese opera.


3. This woman in bright martial attire is famous for her high-pitched, squeaky voice.

A visit to the opera museum of the National Fu Hsing Dramatic Arts Academy is quite an experience. On permanent exhibit are numerous costumes, armaments, headgear, musical instruments, and props used in Chinese opera. Notes in both English and Chinese give concise explanations of the various displays. It is a most appropriate starting place for a "Chinese Opera Experience." Call the National Fu Hsing Dramatic Arts Academy for reservations: (02) 796-2666. Take bus no. 247 or 287 to the academy, which is located at 177 Neihu Road, Section2.
Travel in Taiwan Culture
Copyright 1995 Vision International Publishing Co.