Beijing opera followed the traditions of classical
Chinese operas, and was developed on the basis of Kunqu opera and
many other local operas. Accordingly, the characters on its stage were
divided into sheng, dan, jing and chou, the
four major role types, according to their sexes, personalities, ages,
occupations and social status (In the early phase of Beijing opera,
there used to be sheng, dan, jing, mo and chou five major categories. Later, sheng and mo merged
into one.). Different role types had their specific features in singing
and other aspects of performance.
Sheng - sheng was a type of male role
subdivided into lao sheng, xiao sheng, wu sheng, hong sheng, and wawa sheng. Except for hong sheng and wu sheng, the others performers' facial paint was very light to
make the figures look good. Therefore, this type was called jun ban (handsome make-up).
- Lao sheng - also called xu sheng or huzi sheng (characters with whiskers). Lao sheng actors mainly played middle-aged or old male roles. In terms of
performance, lao sheng specialized in singing, acting or
acrobatic fighting, respectively.
- Hong sheng- lao sheng with face
- Xiao sheng - actors played the part of
young male characters. They did not wear whiskers, and their stage
appearance was usually delicate and handsome. One distinguishing feature
of their performance was the application of both true voice and falsetto
in singing. Falsetto was a specially trained voice, which sounded shrill
and high-pitched. Xiao sheng could be subdivided into wen xiao
sheng (the civil role) and wu xiao sheng (the acrobatic
role). The civil type could be further categorized into xiao sheng wearing gauze hats, who were usually young
scholarly-officials. Xiao sheng holding a fan in his hand was
usually a figure in a love story, impressing the audience with his
easyand elegant bearing. Xiao sheng, with two long feathers
on his head as decoration, was usually of handsome and martial bearing. As for wu xiao sheng, it could be further divided into those in long
garments, wielding long-handed weapons, and those in short costumes,
fighting at close range with short weapons.
Wu sheng - actors played characters good at martial arts. It could also be subdivided into wu sheng in long garments and wu sheng in short costumes. Wawa sheng actors played the part of little boys.
Dan - The dan actors played different types of female roles with different social status, ages and personalities. The roles of dan could be further divided into qing yi, hua dan, hua shan, wu dan and lao dan.
Qing yi - also called zheng dan, played the part of young or middle-aged female characters, who were usually demure and dignified, such as understanding wives, loving mothers, chaste widows, etcetera. Most qing yi actors wore black garments, the reason why qing yi had the alias qing shan (black garment).
Hua dan - The actors of hua dan played the part of lively and cheerful young females with witty mind, and quick motions. Most hua dan actors wore short costumes like short gowns, short trousers, short coats and short skirts, always in bright colors.
Hua shan - The hua shan actors combined the performance of qing yi and hua dan. Instead of emphasizing either singing or acting in the performance, hua shan actors paid attention to both aspects.
Wu dan - The wu dan actors played the part of female characters good at martial arts. Wu dan could likewise be divided into two types: wu dan in short costumes and usually not riding a horse, and wu dan in long garments, helmets and armor, usually riding a horse. Since the character often held a short sword in her hand, a wu dan in a long garment could also be called dao ma dan (the dan character, riding a horse with a sword in hand).
- Lao dan - actors played the part of old female characters.
Jing - also called hua lian (characters with painted facial make-up), took the male roles. Jing could be further divided into zheng jing, fu jing and wu jing.
Zheng jing - also called da hua lian (the first-rank hua lian), usually specialized in singing in their performance and were often addressed as singing hua lian.
Fu jing - included jia zi hua lian (minor painted face role) and er hua lian (the second-rank hua lian). The acting style of er hua lian was similar to that of the clown. Sometimes, fu jing also played the part of some humorous or cunning characters.
- Wu jing - also called wu er hua or shuai da hua lian, who specialized in acrobatic fighting. The actors might not be very good at singing or reciting.
Chou - the clown, also called xiao hua lian (little hua lian) or san hua lian (the third-rank hua lian). This was a lower rank than da hua lian (the first-rank hua lian) and er hua lian (the second hua lian) of jing actors. Chou could play both evil characters and kind figures. Their roles portrayed insidious, cunning and selfish persons, and upright people with sharp wits and good humor could be depicted vividly as well. In traditional opera, the parts of people with low social status such as fishermen and messengers were usually acted by chou actors. Their individualities often shared the features of being humorous. Chou, too, could be subdivided into the civilian clowns and clowns with martial skills.
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