The role categories of Chinese opera started to take their present shape during the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368), when the first important dramas were written. These role categories were direct predecessors of the role types of the present Peking Opera. Some characters from even earlier periods are known, such as the two protagonists of the Tang Dynasty (618–907) adjuntant plays, canjun or the adjutant and canggu or the grey falcon. However, those role types employed by the later Peking Opera originate from the Yuan Dynasty. There were two leading role types, who also sung: mo or the male characters and dan or the female roles. Besides them, there were also villains played by the jing or the painted-face actors as well as chou or the comic characters.
During the Yuan Dynasty both men and women performed on the opera stage. Later, it was regarded indecent for both sexes to act together and thus, in Peking Opera, all the roles, even the female characters, were performed only by men. This practice was not changed until the beginning of the 20th century, when women were allowed to step onto the Peking Opera stage. There were also exceptions: for example, the regional opera of the Shaoxing area, the yueju opera, in which all the role types were played by women.
All the role types in Chinese opera have their own characteristic costuming, vocal technique, body language, and make-up style. Actors have generally specialised in only one role type, although exceptions are known. A Peking opera fan recognises the characters making their entrée onto the stage even before they open their mouths, as their costuming and make-up already reveal crucial information about them. Furthermore, the active opera audience generally knows the repertory by heart and can thus concentrate on the actors’ interpretation.
The role categories discussed here are also employed by most of the over three hundred regional opera styles, though sometimes with slight variations. The main role categories in Peking Opera are sheng or the male roles, dan or the female roles, jing or the painted-face characters, and chou or the comic characters. All these role types are further divided into sub-categories according to their specific characteristics.
Peking Operas can be divided into two basic groups: the civilian plays called wen, and the martial plays, called wu. In the civilian plays the emphasis is on recitation and singing, while the martial plays are characterised by their fighting scenes featuring martial arts and breathtaking acrobatics. Consequently, the male role categories fall into wen or civilian characters and wu or martial characters.
Laosheng or “elderly scholar” is one of the most prominent character types in Peking Opera. In fact, during the early period of Peking Opera laosheng was the dominant role category. It includes middle-aged or old men, who mostly wear an artificial beard. Its colour indicates the character’s age; a black one for younger ones, a grey one for older middle-aged men and a white one for old men; thus the epithet, a “bearded scholar”.
This category includes emperors, elderly scholars, officials and other high-ranking characters who maintain the prevailing moral hierarchy of society. From the scholar’s black cap protrude two swaying wing-like extensions. Their ornamentation indicates the character’s status in the bureaucratic hierarchy. Virtuous lower officials and wealthy landowners are also included in this category. The singing voice of the laosheng character is pleasantly soft, never tense but rather warmly assuring.
Further laosheng characters are divided into three important sub-categories. (Other categories are also known.) Angong laosheng or a “balanced elderly scholar” concentrates on singing, not so much on physical action. That is why this category is often called the “singing elderly scholar”. The category includes emperors, generals, ministers, and scholars.
Another sub-category is the shuapai laosheng, or a “less successful scholar”. They are often officials who have lost their position or impoverished scholars. Although they sing, their acting technique, however, emphasises physical action. One more sub-category of elderly male roles is kaoba laosheng or the “armoured and armed elderly scholar”. They are often heroic generals who combine imposing singing with martial arts and other dance-like movements among their skills.
A specific sub-category is hongsheng or the “red-faced elderly scholar”. It has its origin in the legendary general Guan Yu, who is one of the central characters in the famous Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which narrates events which took place in the 2nd and the 3rd centuries AD. He is also known as Guang Gong or the god of war. He is a manifestation of righteousness and bravery. The statue of this god is usually red, and on the stage he wears an exceptionally long artificial beard. An actor specialising in this role must master both singing and martial arts.
The category of wusheng or “martial men”, with its many sub-categories, specialises in martial arts and acrobatics. Most often they are generals or brave warriors, but sometimes also Robin Hood-like righteous rebels. Although their technique does not emphasise singing, they must have a pleasant and powerful voice. Otherwise, their acting technique concentrates on acrobatics and the skilful handling of different kinds of weapons.
There are important sub-categories of wusheng. Changkao wusheng (a flag-carrying and thick-soled martial man) usually portrays a general or a lower military officer who carries four flags on the back of his armour and wears thick-soled boots. Special skills of this role type include fighting on horseback. They express power and honour. In the fighting scenes they must master quick and intricate footwork. Their gestures should be confident and clear and they must master the technique of handling the flags on their back.
Another sub-category is duanda wusheng or the “thin-soled martial man”, whose armour is less heavy. The men of this type do not carry flags in their armour and their boots are thin-soled. They are often infantrymen and their skills include fighting without weapons. Their acting style demands furious energy and virtuoso acrobatic skills.
A special role type belonging to the wusheng category is Sun Wukong or the Monkey King. Operas featuring the Monkey King are called by the generic term houxi or the “monkey plays”. Specialities of this role category include animal movements, i.e. in imitation of a monkey, both in acting and in fighting scenes, as well as juggling skills.
Xiaosheng or the “young scholar” category includes all those scholar types who do not wear an artificial beard. Their vocal technique is demanding, since its particular blending of the falsetto singing and the lower speech voice should create an impression of the breaking of the voice of an adolescent youth. This vocal technique bears certain similarities to the singing of the dan or the female characters. However, if we refer to the aesthetic qualities of calligraphy, a young scholar’s voice should be like “iron wrapped in cotton”. This category mainly includes young scholars, often involved in romantic adventures. This role type, too, has several sub-categories.
One of them is zhiweisheng or the “pheasant plume sheng”. The name is derived from the long pheasant feathers protruding from his scholar’s cap. The expert handling of the plumes is his special skill. Several features and emotions can be expressed simply by manipulating them by means of small movements of the head. Characters belonging to this category are often young generals or other officers, and their movements should indicate youthful heroism. They should also be good singers and be able to master the martial arts.
Another sub-category is the shanzisheng or the “fan scholar”. Characters of this category are mainly young scholars who carry a fan. A special skill of this category is the masterful handling of the fan. Fan movements, together with singing, reflect their refined, sometimes even vain, nature. They are often the romantic heroes of love stories.
A category of its own is shamaosheng or “transparent capped scholar”. As the name indicates, his cap is made of black, semi-transparent cloth. This category includes young officials characterised by the “fragrance of literature”, one of the attributes of refined scholars.
Qiongsheng or the “impoverished scholar” refers, of course, to poor scholars. They usually wear a worn-out robe, which indicates that they have previously seen better days. When expressing their disappointments, they should be able to do it with a certain “bitter sourness”, another quality related to scholars. Impoverished scholars may be talented, but are only rarely portrayed in a sympathetic light.
Wuxiaosheng or “young martial scholars” usually play the roles of generals with a scholar’s background. Their acting technique combines martial arts and acrobatics. Their technique differs from that of an ordinary wusheng or “martial man”, since they must be able to add to their interpretation an element of youthful refinement or even boyish innocence.
A special category of its own is wawasheng or the “infant scholar”, which indicates child roles played by young boys. They do not use the falsetto technique of the xiaosheng but sing with their natural voice. This category is exceptional, because actors cannot specialise in it, since the type is directly connected with the performer’s actual age.
Dan indicates all the female role categories which were performed in Peking Opera until the early 20th century only by male actors. Later, they were performed by both female and male actors and they are nowadays performed mainly by actresses. In the early phases of the development of Peking Opera dan roles were overshadowed by sheng or the male roles. Later, dan roles rose to prominence thanks to famous families of female impersonators and individual female impersonators. Dan roles, too, are divided into several sub-categories.
Qingyi or the “blue-robed” types have got their name from the blue robe they often wear, although many other costume types are also known. They are usually faithful wives or good daughters full of filial piety. These middle-aged or younger characters should express trustfulness, harmony, righteousness, and good taste. Their behaviour is always restrained, controlled, and graceful. Actors specialising in this category should master singing and the yunbai-style (rhythmic speech) recitation. Similarly to all the other role types, the qingyi characters also have their own dance-like movement techniques, hand gestures, facial expressions, costuming and make-up.
Another important sub-category of the dan role types is the huadan or “flower dan” type, a vivacious, often coquettish woman. She can be an innocent and lovable girl but also an experienced one, or a cunning vamp and anything in between. In the acting technique the emphasis is on miming, which often expresses “feminine” qualities such as prettiness, flirting, shyness etc. These characters come from classes that are lower than the noble qingyi ladies. They are often servants and their body language is less restrained than that of the qingyi characters.
For a male impersonating a female this role type is demanding, since the facial expression is of crucial importance. Eye movements and other facial expressions are quick and constantly changing. The characters usually wear trousers with a jacket and they hold a red handkerchief in their hand. The various handkerchief movements form one of the huadan character’s special skills. As the huadan characters are not as virtuous as the qingyi ladies, their singing technique is lively and more natural. However, the focus in their technique is not on singing but on mime. The huadan characters, too, are further divided into sub-categories.
The third basic female role category is the energetic wudan or “female warrior”. Performers specialising in this category should master martial arts and acrobatics and they sing only rarely. There are similarities to the duanda wusheng male warrior roles, but seldom does a female warrior wear their heavy armour with its protruding flags. Instead, they wear light trousers and a jacket and they are often foot soldiers who specialise in powerful arm movements and in hand-to-hand combat.
The fourth female role category, daomadan or the “sword and horse dan” are female warriors fighting on horseback. They wear heavy armour with four flags at the back. Actresses specialising in this type focus on martial arts and acrobatics, although not to the same extent as the wudan actors. Daomadan actresses should be able to sing lengthy arias while at the same time constantly gesticulating with dance-like movements. Sometimes they wear headgear with long pheasant plumes, which they manipulate in various ways. They should, however, maintain their female elegance even amid the turmoil of a battle.
The fifth female role type, huashan or the “flower robe” is a rather recent category in the Peking Opera. It is a kind of combination of the qingyi and huadan categories in which the actresses should master both singing and acting skills. Wang Yaoqing and Mei Lanfang, famous female impersonators of the early 20th century, are regarded as the creators of this category. Sometimes huashan roles also employ martial arts but not to the extent as the actual martial types do. A huashan character should be livelier than the restrained qingyi lady though not as down-to-earth as the playful huadan character.
The last of the main sub-categories of the dan roles is laodan or the “old lady”. This category includes various characters, such as empresses, mothers, aunts or other old women. Their vocal technique differs from that of other dan categories, since they use a “natural”, low vocal range. And of course, their gait, gestures and facial expression should all indicate old age and they often lean on walking sticks. Their costumes are less flashy than those of the younger female characters.
Another name for the jing category is hualian, the “painted face”, because a knowledgeable audience instantly recognises the characters’ social status and inner qualities through the actors’ make-up. The types included in this category are mainly men of action, such as powerful generals, heroic warriors, courageous rebels, scheming ministers, righteous judges or gods and other mythical beings, either good or bad. This category is therefore vast and includes various, very different characters. They can be divided into wenjing or the civilian types and wujing or the martial types.
An actor specialising in this type should have a low and powerful voice, full of primal energy. Their extrovert nature is reflected by their arrogant and self-conscious way of walking. They wear colourful outfits and are definitely the most flamboyant characters of the Peking Opera!
The colourful make-up of the jing characters is full of symbolism. It is possible here to refer only to their colours. Red refers to loyalty, bravery, and rightfulness; black indicates faithfulness, incorruptibility, and violence; blue refers to bravery, determination, and even cruelty; yellow and white symbolise hidden scheming, brutality, and treacherousness; green is the colour of evil as well as of ghosts and demons, but surprisingly it is also the colour of chivalry.
Violet symbolises bravery and wisdom; grey is the colour of old villains; gold and silver refer to gods, the buddhas and supernatural beings, while pink is the colour of old age and dignity. Most of the colours are combined in various ways and patterns according to which the audience is able to recognise the characters’ ambitions and other inner qualities. The colour symbolism is, however, not rigidly fixed but fairly flexible.
Because of his colourful make-up, the Monkey King, Sun Wukong, is also sometimes included in the jing characters, although his acting skills are those of wusheng or a martial man. The chou or comic roles also have their distinguishable make-up, which will be discussed later. The jing characters are usually divided into four sub-categories.
The first of the sub-categories is tongchui hualian or the “bronze battleax hualian”. The technique of the actors specialising in this type focuses more on singing than on physical action. The category is also called zhengjing or the “real jing”, the “black-headed”, and also the “big hualian”. These characters are usually elderly and represent the upper strata of society; sometimes they can even be emperors. The actors playing the role of the legendary judge Bao Zheng, for example, usually belong to this category.
Another sub-category is jiazi hualian or fujing (deputy jing), which is also known as erhualian or the “second hualian”. Actors specialising in this category focus on acting rather than singing. This category includes a vast gallery of types including civilians, soldiers and even emperors. Compared with tongchui hualian, this type is livelier and more relaxed and usually uses colloquial language.
The third sub-category is wuhualian or the “martial hualian”, also known as wujing or the “martial jing”. It is clearly related to wusheng or the “martial men” category, since both of them specialise in martial arts and acrobatics. This category has its own sub-types.
One more basic variation of the jing type is shuaida hualian or the “somersaulting and fighting hualian”. This sub-category includes various kinds of soldiers and heroes. It differs from the wuhualian because actors specialising in this category should also master a wide range of acrobatic skills. This type is also further divided into sub-categories which can be recognised mainly according to their outfits.
One could mention hongjing or the “red-faced jing” as the last basic category of the jing type. Actors belonging to this type usually play the role of the legendary general Guan Yu, which is also the case with the hongsheng type (a sub-category of the laosheng category). However, they differ from each other, as the hongjing technique concentrates on acting skills and martial arts while hongsheng types focus on singing.
The fourth major role category in Peking Opera is chou, the clowns or the comic characters. The category is also called xiaohualian or the “little hualian” as well as sanhualian or the “third hualian”. The epithet “little hualian” derives from the practice that the chou actors paint only a white patch around their nose and eyes while the make-up of jing or the painted-face characters covers the whole face. Sanhualian, on the other hand, refers to dahualian or the “big hualian”, one of the sub-categories of the jing type.
The characters belonging to this major category are all somewhat stupid, troublesome or stingy figures although not all of them are necessarily bad. In fact, they are mostly warm-hearted and honest, yet simple, personalities who mostly belong to the sphere of the common people. Since the role gallery of Chinese opera covers the full range of the hierarchical society, this category can also include, for example, corrupted officials, minor culprits, boatmen, servants, prison guards, and quarrelsome women. (Female clowns are also known.) However, in only a few operas are clowns in the leading roles.
The clowns use colloquial language and sometimes even regional dialects. Thus they have an exceptionally direct contact with the audience. No wonder they are often the spectators’ favourites that are allowed to tell even less pleasant truths about mankind. The chou characters are divided into two major sub-categories, that of the wenchou or the “civilian clowns” and that of wuchou or the “martial clowns”.
The first category of wenchou or the “civilian clown” is divided into several sub-types. The division is based on several characteristics, such as the social status, the disposition, the age, the outfit and the way of speaking. As the term “civilian clown” indicates, these characters are ordinary people with civilian professions.
One of the sub-categories is called paodaichou or the “uniform and belt clown”, which is also known as quanchou or the “clown official”. Characters belonging to this group are usually dignified or aristocratic figures who wear the official’s robe, cap and belt. They have rather high positions in the bureaucratic hierarchy and they can be either bad or good characters. As bureaucrats they must gesticulate in a restrained manner though naturally with a clear comic touch.
Another sub-type of the “civilian clown” is fangjinchou or the “scholar’s cap clown”. Its name is derived from scholars of the Ming period who wore a certain kind of cap as a symbol of their status. These kinds of comic scholars move their head constantly, bow, and flatter their superiors. They are often spiteful, cunning and mean, but of course in a comic way.
The third type of the “civilian clown” is called chayichou or “black jacket with sleeve borders clown”. They only use colloquial language and wear a felt hat, soft shoes and a blue cotton jacket with black sleeve borders (chayi or a “tea costume”). They also wear an apron, as they are often waiters, innkeepers or horsemen. Only rarely do they sing, but in acting they have much greater freedom than any other role category. Of all the role types of Peking Opera they most clearly reflect everyday life and its realities, naturally as comic stereotypes.
Unlike the civilian clowns, wuchou or the “martial clowns” must master acrobatics. Actually, their technique is almost the same as that of the wusheng or “martial men” but it focuses more on virtuosity. One of the sub-categories of martial clowns is kaikoutiao or the ‘talking hopper”, who must be able to combine acrobatics with clever speech. In addition, they only use colloquial language. Some wuchou actors have also performed the Monkey King, Sun Wukong, since they are able to master the Monkey King’s quick facial expressions and other special qualities. In its anarchy the Monkey King can well be regarded as a comic character.
In Peking Opera the focus is on the actor’s art. Traditionally, the stage has been almost empty and sets and props are employed very economically. As has already been pointed out, every role category has its own movements, gestures, facial expression as well as vocal techniques. Into all these special aspects actors should be able to blow fresh life. For talented actors this demanding technique is not a hindrance. They are able to master it while creating an impression of spontaneity and pulse of life. For a mediocre actor this is not necessarily so easy. Traditionally, the audience in China goes to the theatre to enjoy the unique interpretations of outstanding actors rather than to see a story they already know.