Nai-Xin Anne Long

8 DEC 1988

Chinese Opera’s Characteristics

III.  The Player

       Referring to the importance of the player in Chinese Opera, Borckett says that “The focal point of the Chinese theater… is the actor, for the simplified stage focuses all attention upon him” (291). Actually, the player offsets both the simplicities of the stage and the play.  How do players make simple plots attractive on a simple stage? Interpretations are given as in the following.


       In Chinese Opera, every detail of the performance is highly stylized; in other words, it is anything but imitation of true life.  So a player must be familiar with the whole performing system.  Long before he or she can be called a player, a very young child aged seven or eight starts being trained.  The process of training is very strict and full of hardships.  For example, every day in the early morning, students spend one to two hours on a special method of voice training.  Then a series of actions and acrobatics training including practice of turning somersaults and fighting postures with or without weapons will cost more than two hours.  All these are done before breakfast.  In fact, to be a great player, one is supposed to keep similar so-called morning efforts as a lifelong daily routine.


       After eight years of training, Chinese Opera learners are theoretically qualified to play because at least they have learned all the performing skills required for a certain kind of role.  A Tan role knows how to use the long sleeves to express a character’s feelings; a Ch’ou role can, as Scott describes, “move around the stage the whole time in a crouching posture, literally sitting on his haunches and moving along with a rapid heel and toe movement of the feet to propel himself forward” while playing a dwarf (10).  Nevertheless, one who is only able to perform is not necessarily a good and popular player.  A very important concept about Chinese Opera is that a voice is always melodious and each action is a dance.  So good players should always make their voices and actions meet the standard of beauty.  When a Hua-tan role opens an invisible door by a series of hand gestures and steps over an imaginary threshold, she is, in fact, dancing gracefully. The next instance may offer a clearer image of how delicate a short piece of performance could be.  In a dialogue, one character with emotion wants to express his feelings by speaking or singing; firstly he stretches one of his long sleeves.  By this motion, he is telling the stage orchestra that he needs some percussion music.  Then accompanied by the percussion music, the actor turns over his sleeve and calls the other character’s name in s strong, high voice.  This calling then leads to another kind of percussion music or stringed music and he can start speaking or singing.  Within no more than ten seconds, such a complicated combination of dance-like actions, song-like voice and the subtle cooperation between an actor and orchestra members is completed.  Simultaneously, how well the actor controls his voice and sleeve exhibits whether he is well-trained or not.


       For all Sheng roles and Tan roles except Lao-tan, having a good-looking face and a slim figure is a qualification.  A Jing role must look tall and robust.  All successful Ch’ou actors are short.  One who can sing and dance well still can not be popular if he or she is short of nice appearance.



       In a professional troupe, generally speaking, performers who sing a lot, like Lao-sheng, Ching-i and T’ung-ch’ui-hua-lian, possess higher statues, for singing is the most essential element in opera. Famous stars in the golden age of Chinese Opera, which was approximately sixty years ago, are so influential in terms of singing that even nowadays performers are still listening to their records to mimic their voices. Their different specialties of singing led to, for example, the classification of so-called Mei-branch Ching-i and Ch’eng-branch Ching-i; Yu-branch Lao-sheng and Ma-branch Lao-sheng; etc.  The Mei, Ch’eng, Yu and Ma stand for Mei Lanfang, Ch’eng Yench’iu, Yu Shuyen and Ma Lianliang, who were all celebrated players.  Conventionality and authority of singing are highly pursued.  It is a great honor if one has a title to place among a certain branch of roles.