In spite of its name, Beijing opera did not originate
in Beijing. Based upon the local tunes of Anhui Province and the Han
tunes of Hubei Province which spread into the capital city from southern
China, it absorbed facets of other theatrical arts such as the popular
local drama genres bangzi, the Beijing tune, Kunqu opera and native dialects to evolve into a totally new type of
In talking about the evolution of Beijing opera, it
was necessary to start from the "Sanqing Troup" in Anhui which went to
Beijing in the fifty-five year of the reign of Emperor Qianlong to
celebrate the Emperor's birthday. As the performance was warmly welcomed
in the capital, many other Anhui opera troupes went to Beijing.
Among them, Sanqing (Three Celebrations), Sixi (Four Blisses), Hechun (Vernal
Spring) and Chuntai (Spring Stage) were the most renowned as the
four best Anhui opera troupes.
The Anhui opera performances in Beijing were the
forerunners of Beijing opera. However, it was not until the arrival
of Han opera from Hubei Province that Beijing opera was born.
Han opera, also called the han tune, was a
local opera popular around the Hanshui River in Hubei Province, which
circulated into Beijing at the end of Emperor Qianlong's reign. There
had already been frequent mutual exchanges between Anhui opera and Han
opera; so, when the Hanshui actors went to Beijing, they joined the
Anhui troupes there rather than set up their own troupes for
performances. The merging of Anhui opera and Hanshui opera
created the conditions for Beijing opera to evolve.
The major tunes of Han opera were xipi and erhuang. Xipi was derived from bangzi opera in Northwest China. Erhuang originated from Jiangxi Province, spread
into Anhui Province, and extended further into the provinces of Hunan,
Hubei and Guangxi. This explained why the two tunes were also jointly
called the hu-guang tune. Xipi was a northern melody,
whereas erhuang was from the south. Having been polished by
actors from Hanshui and Anhui, the two were merged into pi-huang tune (sometimes referred to as han tune or chu tune). Ye Diaoyuan described the pi-huang tune in his Bamboo Branch
Songs at Hankou (written in 1850, the thirtieth year of the reign of
With instruments of yueqin, xianzi and huqin,
What a perfect harmony they are reaching!
The tune shifts so well
with the plots,
With joy it smiles, when
sad, it deplores.
For singing, fandiao's sad
tune sounds weeping,
Erhuang chants slowly, and xipi goes sweeping;
Daoban pitches high, and pingban
Each sound is round, clear
and dragged far and long.
Widely recognized around Hankou, the han tune
began to circulate throughout China. Although the pi-huang tune
did exist in Anhui opera, it was not fully developed. The merging of the Hanshui and Anhui troupes enriched and reformed the Anhui opera tunes.
Under such an influence, the performance given by the Anhui troupes
gradually changed from a jumble of different tunes into a new musical
form with pi-huang as the main tune. As for the techniques of
singing and reciting, the rules in the book Pronunciation in Central
China became the standard. The local pronunciation in Hubei was
maintained for the four tones, and some Beijing accents were assimilated
to promote communication between the actors and the audience.
Thus a received criterion for performances by the Anhui troupes
With fifty to sixty years of
development from 1790, the years between 1840 and 1860 witnessed
the birth of Beijing opera with its own characteristics in
theatrical programs, tunes, articulation and performing arts.
In respect to music, an integrated system had been
worked out by the Anhui opera troupes. In this system, the pi-huang tune played a major role, and the auxiliary tunes were the Kunshan tune, the chui tune, bozi and nanluo. At that time,
the tunes and beats of both xipi and erhuang had grown
quite sophisticated. As for the pronunciation on stage, the acquisition
and assimilation of the Beijing accent became a new feature. During the
reigns of Emperor Daoguang and Emperor Xianfeng, the Beijing
dialect was gradually absorbed into Anhui and Han operas in the
capital, and finally became an integral part of the
At that time, some regular
patterns of pronunciation became fixed, for example, "shisan zhe,"
zi" and "jiantuan zi." Shisan zhe was a set of
thirteen rhyming categories for singing and reciting verses in dramas.
They were based on the characteristics of the Anhui dialect, the Hankou
dialect and some Beijing pronunciation. Yunbai was a
unique way to articulate dialogues on the stage in the four
tones of classical Chinese. It drew on the opera tunes of Anhui, Hankou and Kunshan (with
the Hubei dialect as the strongest element). It also employed the
characteristics of the Beijing dialect to sound more melodious and
understandable to the Beijing audience. The term shangkou zi referred to a special way to articulate yunbai in Beijing opera.
Actually, they retained traces of certain local pronunciation from Kunqu opera and Hankou opera during the development of Beijing
opera, and some were the products of a blend of the three
source dialects. In short, shangkou zi was a unique
phonetic standard for stage. Jiantuan zi referred to another standard to pronounce
the initial consonants of some Chinese characters. The correct way to
pronounce jiantuan zi was mandated in Pronunciation in Central
China, which was a phonetics book compiled in the Yuan Dynasty on
pronunciation in the capital city, especially for the singing and
reciting of northern dramas. In short, the combination of the Beijing
accent and the hu-guang dialects finally brought about
the standardization of singing and speaking in Beijing opera.
In regards to the play programmes, many were designed
exclusively for Beijing opera. The themes were broader, with politics
and history as the favorite topics. As for the scripts, they were more
abundant, vivid, and had some distinctive features as compared with the pi-huang scripts. For example, the language for Beijing opera
scripts was clearer and more standardized, with fewer dialects. Beijing
opera used standard stage settings and props, costumes and make-up.
All these marked the independent status of Beijing opera.
Three outstanding figures - Cheng Changgeng, Yu Sanshen
and Zhang Erkui - made remarkable contributions to the development of
Beijing opera, for which they were duly credited as "the former top
three lao sheng in Beijing opera" and "the tripartite
talents in Beijing opera."
Cheng Changgeng was born in Qianshan, Anhui Province.
He went to Beijing in the twentieth year of the reign of Emperor Daoguang (1840), and was famous for his acting of Zhao Lian in the Famen Temple, Lu Su in Borrowing Arrows, Wu Yun in The
Wenzhao Pass and Liu Zhang in Yielding Chengdu. During the
reign of Emperor Xianfeng, he took the lead in the four best Anhui
troupes and was respectfully addressed as "Big Boss." In his singing,
Cheng Changgeng merged the Kunshan tune and the Yiyang tune into pi-huang, representing the Anhui style among lao sheng
Yu Sansheng (1802-1866), who came from the Luotian
area in Hubei Province and went to Beijing during the reign of Emperor
Daoguang, was the leading lao sheng (middle-aged or old male
character) actor in the Chuntai Troupe. He excelled in playing the role
of Huang Zhong in the play The Dingjun Mountain, Yang Silang in Silang Visits His Mother, Yang Linggong in Knocking against
the Stele, and Chen Gong in The Capture and Release of Cao Cao.
He mainly applied pi-huang from the han tune in his
singing, merging it with polished erhuang from the Anhui tune.
His innovation was adopted both in the xipi tune and the fandiao of the erhuang tune in Beijing opera, which won him the honor of the greatest
contributor to the improvement of the singing tunes.
Zhang Erkui (1814-1860), a native of Zhili (today's Hebei Province), was the chief lao sheng in the Sixi Troupe. He
was famous for his performance in The Golden Water Bridge and The Taming of the Princess. Zhang Erkui represented the Beijing
style at that time. His singing was mainly in the Beijing accent,
magnetic and firmly articulated. Together with the emergence of the lao sheng,
wind instruments in Beijing opera were finally replaced by
string instruments; and on the stage, the three styles of Anhui,
Han and Beijing became more harmonious and unified in
pronunciation, rhyme, singing and chanting.
During the reigns of Emperor Tongzhi and Emperor
Guangxu, the "later three top artists" of Beijing opera -Tan Xinpei,
Jiang Guifen and Sun Juxian were celebrated in Beijing. Their
popularity also marked the greatest splendor of Beijing opera.
Tan Xinpei (1847-1917) was a native of Wuchang in
Hubei Province. He first learned to act wu sheng and switched to
acting lao sheng. In the early years of the reign of Emperor
Guangxu, Tan Xinpei joined the Sanqing Troupe. In the thirteenth year of
the reign of Emperor Guangxu, he was transferred to the Sixi Troupe. He
combined the hu-guang accent and the pronunciation in Central
China to form his own articulation style, which gained wide recognition
as a model tune in Beijing opera. Tan Xinpei incorporated the singing
techniques of other role types into his arias, giving them a rich
variety. His singing was sonorous in vocal inspiration and
Wang Guifen (1860-1906) was born in Hanchuan, Hubei
Province. His voice was so resonant that it sounded as if it could shake
the clouds. Sun Juxian (1841-1931), once an amateur actor from Tianjin
city, became a professional in his thirties. His voice was rich and loud
like thunder, and his singing was powerful, majestic and emotional. From
about 1917 to 1938, Beijing opera advanced to its most splendid era,
during which many new plays were performed. Performing techniques were
honed, and many outstanding artists appeared: Yu Shuyan, Yang Xiaolou,
Mei Lanfang, Shang Xiaoyun, Xun Huisheng and Cheng Yanqiu, to name only
a few. A galaxy of brilliant stars shone on the stage in this
The scripts of Beijing opera
mushroomed as well; more than five thousand are still extant.
^ Back to Top