Nai-Xin Anne Long

8 DEC 1988

Chinese Opera’s Characteristics

III.  The Play
     From reading Chinese Opera plays, it is easy to find that all characters are divided into four main categories: they are  Sheng(生), Dan(旦), Jing(淨), and Chou(丑).   Dan is female.  On the basis of age and personality, each main category is sub divisible.  Generally speaking, Sheng includes Lao-sheng(老生) or virtuous old men; Xiao-sheng(小生) or handsome gentlemen and Wu-sheng(武生) or  young warriors.  Dan includes Qing-yi(青衣) or sedate ladies with dignity; Hua-dan(花旦), either vivacious young girls or viragos; Wu-dan(武旦) or lady warriors; and Lao-dan(老旦) or old females.  The subdivisions of Jing, which is also called Hua-lian(花臉), are Tong-chui-hua-lian(銅錘花臉) and Jia-zi-hua-lian(架子花臉).  The former is associated with persons who are upright, strong and resolute; the latter, rude ones or outlaws. Chou is divided into Wen-chou(文丑): either comical characters or villains; and Wu-chou(武丑): agile, chivalrous ones.  Chou also plays funny female characters.
     The second feature which can be found in plays is narration.  Almost every character, during the initial appearance, narrates his or her name, status, family background, what kind of situation he or she is in, what has happened, what is expected to happen, etc.  If the narration is made by a leading man or a leading lady, which are usually played respectively by Lao-sheng and Ching-yi, typically it consists of a piece of yin-zi(引子), a piece of poem and a piece of monologue followed by a long lyric song.2 Very often, similar contents of narration is briefly repeated by other characters or even by the same character in other acts through singing, monologizing and conversing. 
     Chinese Opera is criticized as a kind or drama which "has little to offer in terms of high literary merit or philosophical speculation" (Wilson and Goldfarb 390).  Anyone who just focuses on plays while researching Chinese Opera would probably make a conclusion similar to that.  Complexity and conflict are not considered so important as in western drama; they are indeed, not even indispensable in some plays.  For example, a goddess spreading flowers to bring fortune to people is the whole story of Tian-nu Spreading Flowers (天女散花). Moreover, a program for theatrical performance customarily embraces three or four selections from plays; therefore plots performed on the stage are quite simple.  Maybe this is one of the reasons that critics devalue Chinese Opera.
     2yin-zi is a half-song, half-chanted little literary piece with abstract meaning which reflects a character's situation or mood.