Nai-Xin Anne Long

8 DEC 1988

Chinese Opera’s Characteristics

II.  The Stage
     The stage itself is very simple.  A flat platform covered by a red carpet, a large backdrop and two side curtains, which indicate the entrance and the exit, form a suitable stage for performing Chinese Opera.  Brightening the stage is the whole function of stage lightening; no more special design is needed.  On the bright bare stage, members who play percussion instruments of the stage orchestra signal the start of a dramatic piece.  It is the mixture of the redness of the carpet, strong lighting and the sound of drums, clapper, cymbals and gongs that creates the enjoyable atmosphere which Chinese people are very accustomed to.
     A considerably important feature is that “No property or scenery representing realism is allowed on stage” (Cheng 18).  Tables and chairs covered by embroidered red cloth are the main props.  Although in some cases they are pieces of furniture, their symbolic meanings make them more significant.  A chair set in front of a table symbolizes a casual situation; on the contrary, an official locus is introduced by the opposite way of setting.  A table with a chair on it means a mountain; with another table instead, a high wall. Quite commonly, a chair substitutes a bridge, a well, a rock, a loom or the entrance of a jail.  Therefore, by moving tables and chairs, the scene is changed.  Two stagehands do this in front of the audience and their appearance will not lead to interruption or bewilderment (Wang 8).  According to Nicoll, stagehands even evidence the spirit of Chinese Opera:
Peculiarly characteristic of the performance in this theatre is the appearance of stage of the
            property-man, who unconcernedly brings on and removes the few pieces of furniture
            necessary  for  the progress of the pieces, hands small properties to the actors during the course
            of their performance, or even attends to their costumes as they proceed with their parts.  His
            presence there indicates at once that for Chinese spectators realism is not only unnecessary but
            undesired.  In the property-man's appearance among the players is, as it were, a visible and
            constant testimony the the imaginative quality of the entire production.  (540)


     Symbolism also applies to two other items of stage techniques: costumes and make-up.  Through their styles and colors, costumes show characters' status.  Historicity is totally neglected, hence two emperors in different dynasties wear the same yellow royal robe with embroidered dragons.  A plain black robe indicates poverty.  A patched black robe, however, hints prospective wealth and high position of a beggar.  A faithful official wears the green Mang(蟒) while a loyal general wears the green kao(靠).  In fact, from headdress to footwear, every character's stage appearance is strictly ruled.  Backstage workers who are responsible for costumes must bear every character's standard stage appearance in mind in order to costume a play correctly.  As regards make-up, it helps the audience recognize what kind of role is played.  For example, "The make-up for a female role is to paint her face in white and then surround her eyes with a red tint... The Chou, the clown, generally paints his face with a butterfly-shaped white patch in between his eyebrows and his nose" (Wang 15).  Make-up patterns for the Jing(淨) roles are extremely complicated and various.  All different colors and types of forehead, eyes, eyebrows, nose and mouth have symbolic meanings.1
     1For make-up of Jing, see Liu 52-54.