Research paper on Chinese Art and Culture: Main Features of Beijing Opera

Main Features of Beijing Opera

This is an Esl research paper on Chinese culture. You can get similar papers as a foreign student from China or any place in the Far East from this assignment writing website. Just ask support for directions on how to order a custom research paper. However, placing an order yourself is a simple enjoyable process. ENL papers are available too. The aural dimension of Beijing opera is so fundamentally important to the identity of this theatrical form that attending a Beijing opera performance is traditionally referred as ‘listening to theatre’ (tingxi), and acting in a play is termed ‘singing theatre’ (changxi). However, when Beijing opera singers apply stylized makeup, dress in elaborate costumes, and go onstage to ‘sing theatre’, they actually do much more than sing and speak. Beijing opera singers are in fact consummate performers, who act, sing, speak, dance, and often perform acrobatics as well. A general understanding of the aesthetics that apply to the total performance of Beijing opera, and of the plays that provide the characters, plots, and overall performance structure, is therefore a prerequisite to the discussion of its main features and simply, aural performance.

Beijing Opera as Total Theatre

The total performance of Beijing opera presents an array of theatrical elements – music, story, voice, movement, makeup, costume, and stage properties. According to Li (2010), the presence of these numerous elements justifies calling Beijing opera ‘total theatre’, which refers to theatre as the place of intersection of all the arts. Beijing opera, by this more specific standard, not only qualifies as total theatre, but also in fact exemplifies the concept. Its performance elements are bound together, almost organically related to one another, by the fundamental aesthetics of traditional Beijing opera performance: the aesthetic aim, the basic aesthetic principles, and role types of its dramatic characters (Xu, 2005). Beijing opera performers refer to the importance of these fundamental aesthetics by saying that they make Beijing opera, a complete, integrated art (wanzheng yishu), possessed of a complete set of things (yitao dongxi), that is, a complete set of performance elements and techniques (Li, 2010). In the performance of traditional Beijing opera, the stage is perceived as a platform upon which to display the performers’ four skills (gong): song (chang); speech (nian); dance-acting (zuo); and combat (da), which encompasses not only actual fighting with fists, knives, swords, and spears, but also acrobatics as well. Dance-acting (zuo), includes pantomime, pure dance, and all visible, physical results of action in the western sense. These skills are displayed within the context of drama, in which each performer portrays a dramatic character (Xu, 2005). The display of skills, however, is not an end in itself. Even the most virtuoso technique will be criticized as empty (kong), if in performance it does not contribute to the pursuit of a larger aesthetic aim. The fundamental aesthetic aim of traditional Chinese painting, to write, the meaning xieyi rather than to write realistically is frequently referred to by Beijing opera practitioners as being analogous to their own. Traditional painting is not realistic in the western sense; for example, landscape paintings are rarely identifiable as portraying a precise portion of a specific place. Rather, a painting of a particular mountain will resemble that mountain in broad terms, and will convey the essence of the mountain and the spirit of the total concept mountain. Beijing opera likewise aims first to strike the audience with a resemblance of life, and then to convey the very essence of life. It is through the display of skills, externalizing the thoughts and feelings of major characters and elaborating upon their actions and interactions, that Beijing opera performance transcends a resemblance of life and builds an overall effect that conveys its essence. In the pursuit of this aesthetic aim, performers adhere strictly to a basic aesthetic value: everything within the world of the play must above all be beautiful (mei) (Li, 2010). In its simplest applications the demand for beauty requires, for instance, that a beggar be dressed in black silk robe covered with multicolored silk patches rather than in actually dirty or tattered clothes, which would not be considered beautiful. Figure two shows Beijing opera masks commonly used in theatre whereas figure three shows an actor putting on make-up of the masks. The demand of beauty also affects the portrayal of certain emotions; a performer playing a young woman who has just received heart-breaking news should never cry real tears, for the accompanying red eyes and runny nose are considered anything but beautiful. Instead, the act of crying is suggested, both vocally and physically; when done skillfully, the resulting portrayal is very moving as well as almost painfully beautiful. In training schools and rehearsal halls, the criticism heard with much the greatest frequency, directed at song, speech, dance-acting, and combat alike, is that the particular sound or action being performed is incorrect because it is not beautiful (Xu, 2005). Actually, the highest praise that can be given a performance is to say that it is beautiful. Ultimately, beauty as an aesthetic value connotes conformance to the aesthetic aim and principles of Beijing opera, and anything that is not within the aesthetic parameters of Beijing opera is not beautiful within that world.

Synthesis, Stylization, and Convention Features

Principal features of synthesis, stylization, and convention govern every aspect of traditional Beijing opera performance. Together, these principles provide the basic fabric of Beijing opera performance – the overall patterns (guilu) that characterize each aspect of Beijing opera performance, as well as the relationship among them. Synthesis Story, music, song, speech, and dance-acting are present in almost every Beijing opera performance; many include stage combat and acrobatics as well (Li, 2010). These elements are not simply presented in sequence, however. It is there synthesis (zonghexing) that is characteristic of Beijing opera performances. Song and speech in performance occur simultaneously with the dancelike movement of the performer; dance-acting and combat are interwoven on the stage with melodic and percussive accompaniment. The primary skill displayed in some passages is an aural one, song, or speech (Li, 2010). In others, it is visual dance acting or combat. However, if the focus at a given moment is aural, as when a singer relates a sad separation from a loved one, that song is performed within the complementary visual fabric presented by the unceasing gentle synchronized movements of eyes, hands, torso, feet, and often the body through space. If the focus is visual, as upon a brave warrior ascending a steep mountain, that pantomime is enacted within a texture of percussive sound provided by the orchestra. Percussive sound also provides aural punctuation to speech, which is performed within a visual fabric of movement punctuation as well. Figure four shows the roles of Beijing opera. In this case, stylization refers to the divergence between the behaviors of daily life and their presentation on the stage, that is, the representation of those behaviors in performance, within a particular style. In Beijing opera, stylization is considered to be the act of raising and refining (tilian) the behaviors of daily life, with the aim of making them beautiful, and making them a part of the world of Beijing opera performance (Li, 2010). The most basic physical, visually perceived characteristic of stylization in the performance of Beijing opera is roundness (yuanxing). Roundness applies to posture and movement, both of various parts of the body in isolation and of the entire body in or through space. Straight lines and angels are to be avoided; positive aesthetic value is perceived in the presentation of a three dimensional network of circles, arcs, and curved lines. In stasis, this means for instance, that an outstretched arm will be held in an extended curve unbroken at either the shoulder or elbow by angles. In movement, this aesthetic applies to action as small as the gaze of an eye, and as large as the blocking of major characters. For many types of characters, the performer’s eyes are used to focus the attention of the audience; to lead it with the movement of gaze. In such an instance, if the performer intends to indicate an object on the ground, gaze of eyes will begin away from the object with a sweep up, and then curve down to rest on the object. In movement through space, the performer similarly avoids straight lines and angles. The foundation of Beijing opera’s aurally perceived stylization is its musical system (shengqiang xitong); the elements of the musical system as presented vocally and in form of orchestra in the performance of Beijing, opera plays serve to create a characteristic aural world for Beijing opera. Conventions In the broadest sense, conventions (chengshi) are an aspect of stylization; conventions are also departures from daily reality. However, conventions are more specialized: they include specific practices to which fairly precise meanings have been ascribed by tradition (Li, 2010). The use of a particular conventional sign serves to signal its ascribed meaning to the audience. A great many such conventions are utilized in Beijing opera performance; the meanings of some are immediately recognizable to an uninitiated audience member while others require pre-knowledge for comprehension. Dance-acting conventions most frequently fall in the former category, especially pantomimic actions such as opening and closing doors and windows, mounting and descending stairs, tending fowl, sewing, and movement over rough terrain and in conditions of darkness, heat, cold, rain, and wind. These actions are directly communicative and require no informed expertise of the spectator r(Xu, 2005). Conversely, aural conventions require that audience members learn beforehand their ascribed meanings because very few aural conventions are immediately understandable without pre-knowledge of their significance. The most important aural conventions are individual elements of the musical system, which through their appropriate combination conventionally expresses specific emotions. Language and Special Beijing Opera Pronunciation The language of Beijing opera, sung and spoken by Beijing opera performers in their display of song and speech skills, is a major component of aural performance. Since song and speech serve different purposes in performance, song is used primarily to express emotion, and speech to advance the plot through the social interaction of dramatic characters. All Beijing opera stage language, however is composed within a system of language levels. Moreover, especially in singing the rhymed lyrics of Beijing opera, the pointed or rounded quality of each written character’s pronunciation should be clearly distinguished and articulated. Even in speech in which written characters’ pronunciations are not being used as rhymes, these qualities are considered extremely important for both listening comprehension and aesthetic effect. The precision and exaggeration of the pointed and rounded qualities of sound is in fact one of the most outstanding features of all Beijing opera vocalization. The mandarin Chinese spoken and sung on the Beijing opera stage is the most clearly and precisely pronounced and articulated rendition of that spoken language. However, certain written-characters do have special pronunciations in Beijing opera theatrical language that differ from their normal mandarin pronunciations. There are two major reasons usually given for these differences. Historically, Beijing opera came into being through the creative combination and development of a number of regional theatre forms and kunqu (Xu, 2005). In the process of this development, certain regional pronunciations of written characters were adopted into the newly emerging form, primarily from Hubei, Anhui, Sichuan, and Sozhou dialects. Many of these regional pronunciations are still retained in Beijing opera’s stage language (Mackerras 1983). For instance, the word ni, which is the mandarin pronunciation of the written character meaning ‘you’ many be pronounced /li/ in Beijing opera, following the Anhui dialect pronunciation. He, mandarin for ‘what’, may be pronounced /huo/ as in Hankou dialect, the regional speech of a city that is now a part of Wuhan in Hubei. Liu, Mandarin for ‘six’ may be pronounced /lu/ according to its Sichuan pronunciation, and wo, for ‘I’ often becomes /ngo/, following the pronunciation of Suzhou, the home of kunqu. Such special pronunciations are referred to as ‘accustomed’ or ‘traditional’ sounds (xiguanyin) when they occur in Beijing opera. Second, during the development of Beijing opera, alterations have been made in the mandarin pronunciation of certain written characters for ease or variety in pronunciation and projection of sound (Xu, 2005). Certain sounds are frequently given altered endings, making them much easier to sustain and complete. For example, /zhi, chi, shi/, and /ri/, which do not contain standard vowels, don't carry well and are very difficult to sustain because they occur quirte for back in the mouth; they are frequently delivered with the additional simple vowel /i/ (e), enhancing the ease with which they can be pronounced and projected: /zhrii, chrii, shrii/, and /rii/. Further, there are many more rounded sounds in standard mandarin than there are pointed; the number of pointed sounds increased by altering the initial consonants of certain words. For instance, the word for ‘elder sister’, jie in standard mandarin, may be pronounced /zie/. Jiu, mandarin, may become /cian/, and ‘just’, qie in mandarin, may become /cie/. Although the specific pronunciation changes just discussed are recognizable as having been made for ease and variety in sound production, the reasons for alteration of pronunciation in the majority of ‘go to the mouth’ written characters are not readily discernible. In fact, both types of special pronunciations are usually referred to in practice as ‘go to the mouth’ written characters, translated here as ‘special pronunciations’. All are established by tradition; no overall set of rules or regulations exists by which special pronunciations can be logically established. For instance, most sounds represent a number of words with very distinct meanings; they are differentiated from one another by speech-tone, and of course by written characters. For each sound that may have a special pronunciation, there are only certain specific words that will take that pronunciation; all others will not. The performer must simply memorize the sounds and specific written characters whose pronunciations may be given special pronunciations, as well as those special pronunciations themselves. This process of memorization is an ongoing one; it occurs each time a student or professional performer learns an established play from a particular school, in which the words that have special pronunciations and their specific altered pronunciations have been set by tradition.

Stage Time Features

In terms of stage time, a number of Beijing opera plays cover very short periods of time. For instance, the action of silang visits his mother occurs within a twenty four hour period, from early morning of one day, when the barbarian princes learns of silang’s plight and helps him to visit his Chinese family, to early morning of the next day, when he returns from that visit and the princess must plead for his life. However, many plays for instance may be considered epic in the sense that the action of the play may span years or even decades. In the exposition of plot, stage and performance time in a Beijing opera play are often compressed. For example, a few lines of speech and several circles of the stage may portray a journey of several hours, or months’ duration. The passage of many years may not even be enacted at all with a character simply stating at the beginning of a scene that a certain number of years have passed since the last action portrayed.

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Conversely, although the Beijing opera has developed its own system of physical training to meet special professional needs of theater, it is indisputable that it is in great part both aesthetically and physically and elaboration of the ancient skills. Unlike its counterpart in the West, indigenous Chinese drama never separated itself from the song and dance that were the origins of virtually every theatre in the world. The Chinese classical play is in effect a synthesis of speech, music, and dance, which are interrelated and each dependent on the other. The word for music seems to be synonymous with theater, since the two were integral parts of the same thing according to Chinese concept.


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