Famous Opera Synopses
Introduction of Peking Opera
Known as China's national opera, Peking Opera, which originated in the late 18th
century, is a synthesis of music, dance, art and acrobatics. It is the most influential
and representative of all operas in China.
Based upon traditional Anhui Opera, it has also adopted repertoire, music and
performing techniques from Kun Opera and Qingqiang Opera as well as traditional
folk tunes in its development, eventually forming its own highly stylized music
and performing techniques.
Peking Opera can be divided into "civil" pieces, which are characterized by
singing, and "martial" ones, which feature acrobatics and stunts. Some operas are
combination of both.
Its repertoire includes historical plays, comedies, tragedies and farces. many
historical events are adapted into Peking Opera plays, which in the past were an
important primer on history and ethical principles for poorly educated folk.
Two orchestras, playing string and percussion instruments, accompany the singing,
which follows a fixed pattern but has a variety of melodies and rhythms. The "jinghu",
a small two-strings bowed instrument, is the backbone of the orchestras.
The operatic dialogues and monologues are recited in Beijing dialect, and some of
the words are pronounced in a special fashion, unique to the opera.
The actors and actresses, in addition to singing, use well-established movements,
such as smoothing a beard, adjusting a hat, jerking a sleeve or raising a foot, to
express certain emotions and meaning.
The hands and body trembling all over indicates extreme anger and the flicking of
a sleeve expresses disgust. If an actor throws his hand above his head and flicks his
sleeves back, he is astonished or surprises. An actor or actress demonstrates
embarrassment by covering his or her face with one sleeve.
Some of the movements are less easily understood. An actor grasps his sleeves
with a quick movement and then promptly puts his hands behind his back in a decisive
manner to show that he is bracing himself for some peril to come.
Sometimes a movement can go on for as long as 20 minutes. For example, while an
actor is conceiving a plan, his fingers and hands flutter nervously at his sides,
and when the plan is formulated, he just thumps his fist against the palm of his
hand with a resounding smack. When worried the actor will rub his hands together
for several minutes.
Peking Opera's acrobatic fighting, whether between two parties or in a melee,
is a skillful combination of martial arts and acting.
There are four roles in general: the male, the female, the "painted face", and the
clown, which are further classified by age and profession. Sheng or male roles
can be divided into three categories: the old, the young and the martial arts expert.
Dan or female roles includes the young and the middle-aged, the innocent and
dissolute, girls with martial arts skills and old women. Jing or painted face
roles are always played by frank and open-minded men with brightly colored faces.
Chou or clown roles are marked by a dab of white on the ridge of the nose.
This character is sometimes positive, kind-hearted and humorous, but sometimes
negative, crafty, malicious or silly. Each role has its fixed singing and
Like the acting and singing, the makeup is stylized, inspired by the masks worn by
dancers in Tang, Song and Yuan dynasties operas. The makeup highlights and exaggerates
the principal features of the characters.
For the painted face role, the color of their made-up faces can be an indication
of their characters or personality. Red indicates uprightness and loyalty; white is
craftiness and cunning. Blue indicates a vigorous, courageous and enterprising nature
while yellow shows an intelligent character, but a less extroverted one. Black shows
a sound and honest character while brown is often the symbol of a stubborn and obstinate
The costumes are based on those of the Ming Dynasty, no matter when the story
is set. The props can include a cloth wall, tents, parasols, whips, paddles and
weapons. The props are realistic, but not so elaborate that they detract from the
performance. Exaggeration and symbolism are characteristics of the opera. Holding
a whip is enough to indicate an actor is galloping on a horse. A few soldiers on the
stage may represent a whole army. An actor circling the stage suggests a long journey.
Often there are just a table and a few chairs on the stage. The description of many
situations depends on the performance of the actors and actresses. In this respect, it
is quite different from modern plays of the English languages for the lack of stage
manager to tell the setting, the time and overview.
Opening a door, walking at night, rowing a boat, eating, drinking and the like are
all demonstrated by the stylized movements of the actors and actresses. Performers also
use their eyes and facial expressions to help convey the specific meaning.
In the past 200 years, numerous schools and celebrated performers have emerged. Many
of them are emulated by modern-day actors and actresses.
Famous male actors include Tan Xinpei, Yang Xiaolou, Yu Shuyan, Ma Lianliang and
Zhou Xinfang. The most famous actors who played female roles are Mei Lanfang, Shang
Xiaoyun, Cheng Yanqiu, Zhang Junqiu and Xun Huisheng.
Peking Opera represents an important part of Chinese culture and has become a
refined form of art as a result of the hard work of hundreds of artists over the
past two centuries.
Famous Opera Synopses
Banquet at Hongmen(Hongmen Yan): A mix of attempted murder and political
intrigue, this opera pits powerful warlord Xiang Yu against Liu Bang, the future emperor
of the Western Han Dynasty(206 BC- 24 AD). Xiang invites Liu to a banquet at a place named
Hongmen in an attempt to murder him. Getting the murder intelligence in advance, Liu's
officers help Liu crush the conspiracy.
Battle of Chibi(Chibi Zhi Zha): A traditional Peking opera adapted from
"The Romance of the Three Kingdoms," this tells the story of a powerful army from the
Wei Kingdom that is defeated at Chibi by the allied forces of the Wu and Shu kingdoms,
led by Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang, masters of military strategy.
Beating the Dragon Robe(Da Long Pao): Bao Zheng, a high-ranking
official of the Song Dynasty(960-1279), stages a play for Emperor Zhao Zhen at the
Lantern Festival about an undutiful son who is killed by a thunderbolt. This angers
Zhao because it suggests he has been an undutiful son. the emperor learns, however,
that his mother has been driven out of court by another concubine of his father and
is leading a miserable life in a village. The emperor immediately orders her brought
back to the court. The mother censures her son and tells Bao Zheng to give him a beating
for having been so unfilial. Bao asks the Emperor to take off his robe and beats that
Breaking the Siege(Zou Maicheng): Guan Yu, one of the top generals of
the Shu Kingdom in the Three Kingdoms Period(220-280 AD), is defeated by the combined
forces of the other two kingdoms, Wei and Wu. He withdraws into the tiny town of Maicheng,
to which the allied forces then lay siege. Guan realizes all he can do is break out, but
is killed trying.
Courtesan Yu Tangchun(Yu Tangchun): Set in the Ming Dynasty, this opera
tells the story of a prostitute who falls in love with a scholar who frequents her brothel.
When the scholar runs out of money the procuress bars him from returning. Meanwhile, the
prostitute is sold to a merchant from Shanxi Province. The merchant's wife poison her
husband and the prostitute is blamed. The scholar has become a high official in charge
of justice at Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi Province. He has questions about the merchant's
murder and orders the prostitute to be brought to Taiyuan. He sees the accused is his
former lover and is so shocked that he loses his self-composure, which betrays his
involvement with her. He pays a private visit to her in jail but is discovered by
another official, who is persuaded to investigate the case and find the truth. In
the end she is cleared of the charge and is married to her former lover.
Drunken Beauty, The(Guifei Zui Jiu): Yang Yuhuan, better known as Guifei
(imperial Concubine of the First Order), is the consort most favored by Emperor Ming
Huang(685-762 AD) of the Tang Dynasty. She is invited by the emperor to admire the flowers
and have a drink at the Pavilion of One Hundred Flowers. As appointed, Guifei comes to the
pavilion with her entourage of palace maids and eunuchs. she waits a long time but the
emperor fails to appear. She finally gets word that Ming Huang has returned to the western
Palace Court to visit Meifei, another concubine. Disappointed and resentful, she has no
alternative but to drink alone. She becomes bitter when she recalls how she was doted on
in her early days at the Palace. Wine aggravates her sadness and makes her quite drunk.
She returns to her quarters, helped by the maids, gloomy and lonesome.
Emperor Cao Cao and Scholar Yang Xiu(Cao Cao Yu Yang Xui): The first
Emperor Cao Cao of the Wei Kingdom during the Three Kingdoms Period(220-280 AD) admires
scholar Yang Xiu's genius, but is sometimes irritated by the clever scholar's audacious
exposure of his tricks. Yang wants to find favor with the emperor, but always offends
him by laying bare his tricks. The scholar finally is executed by the emperor when he
once again reveals the mind of the bad-tempered emperor.
Five Mice Fighting in the Capital(Wu Shu Nao Dongjing): Five martial arts
masters in the Song Dynasty(960-1279) become sworn brothers, known as the "Five Mice." The
fact that martial arts masters Zhan Zhao is nicknamed the "Royal Cat" by the emperor
irritates the Fifth Mouse Bai Yutang. Ho goes to the capital, kills a eunuch and writes a
poem in the temple where the emperor pays respects to his ancestors. The emperor sends the
Royal Cat to catch the culprit. Then other four mice come to the capital to wreak havoc.
Forest of Wild Boars, The(Yezhu Lin): Lu Zhishen, a fugitive in the Song
Dynasty(960-1279), runs away to become a monk after killing a scroudrel. He becomes sworn
brothers with Lin Chong, a military officer. At temple festival, Gao Shide, son of defense
minister Gao Qiu, takes l;iberties with Lin Chong's beautiful wife. Her maid runs to tell
Lin, who threatens the scroudrel away. Gao Shide then frames Lin Chong to get his wife.
Lin is arrested and exiled in Cangzhou. Gao bribes the two escorting soldiers to murder
Lin on the way. Lu Zhishen follows them secretly and, seeing the soldiers are about to
kill Lin in the Forest of Wild Boars, he comes to the rescue.
General and the Premier Make up, The(Jiang Xiang He): King Zhaoxiang of Qin
State during the Warring States Period(475-221BC) pretends to agree to return the 15 cities
to Zhao State, but demands the precious jade Heshibi. King Huiwen of Zhao State knows that
Zhaoxiang's intention is to get the jade, but he dares not refuse the offer. Lin Xiangru is
recommended to take the jade to Qin State, but when he finds out that King Zhaoxiang has no
intention of returning the cities, he threatens to destroy the jade and kill himself by
jumping into a pot of hot oil. Zhaoxiang is awed by Lin's bravery and releases him to
return the jade to Zhao State. Lin accompanies his king to a banquet given by Zhaoxiang at
Mingci in honour of King Huiwen. At the banquet, Zhaoxiang insults Huiwen by forcing him
beat the drum. Lin forces Zhaoxiang to do the same. The Qin ruler then demands more cities
from Zhao while Lin rejects the demand. Meanwhile, Zhao's general Lian Po leads his troops
to their aid. Lin is appointed premier of Zhao State. General Lian is unhappy about this
and stops Lin and his men three times on their way to the palace. Putting the state interest
above his own, Lin tolerates all the insults. His men are angry. Lin points out:" It is
dangerous to the state if the general is on bad terms with the premier." On hearing this,
Lian Po is ashamed. he ties a stick to his back and goes to Lin's home for forgiveness.
They become good friends and Zhao becomes a great power.
Hai Rui Dismissed from Office(Hai Rui Ba Guan): During the reign of Longqing
of the Ming Dynasty(1368-1644), Xu Ying, son of the former but powerful prime minister Xu
Jie, seizes the land of a peasant Zhao Yushan, hounds the peasant's son to dealth and
abducts his granddaughter. Hong Alan, Zhao's daughter-in-law, sues Xu Ying at the local
court of Huating county. Xu bribes the magistrate and forges documents to cover up his
criminal activities. The magistrate, having pocketed a fat bribe, has Zhao Yushan tortured
to death and the plaintiff Hong Alan thrown out of the court room. Hai Rui is appointed
Governor, having jurisdiction over a large area south of the Yangtze. He comes to Huating
county to try the case of Hong Alan personally. At court he lays bare Xu's crimes,
sentencing him to death and punishing the corrupt officials. The retired prime minister
calls on Hai Rui, asking him to be lenient with his son Xu Ying. Hai Rui turns down this
unjustified request, insists on the original sentence and orders Xu Jie to return the
lands taken previously. Xu Jie sends his men to the capital to bribe the influential
eunuchs and Hai Rui dismissed from his post.
Mu Guiying Takes Command(Mu Guiying Guashuai):She Taijun, widow of a
famous general of the Song Dynasty can not sit idle when she learns that the Western
Xia regime has invaded the Song Empire. She sends her great-grandchildren Yang Wenguang
and Yang Jinhua to the capital city for information. There they break into the martial
arts competition arena and kill Wang Kun, the son of the defense minister who wants to
take command of the Song troops in order that his family may usurp the power of the
empire. The emperor then learns that they are descendants of the Yang family and agrees
to put their mother, Mu Guiying, in command of the troops. She is reluctant to take
command because she knows that the emperor is a capricious person. Widow She, however,
persuades her daughter-in-law to take command, putting aside her private resentment in
order to save the country.
Orphan of the Zhao Family, The(Zhao Shi Gu'er): Zhao Dun, a minister of the
Jin Kingdom during the Spring and Autumn Period(770-476 BC), is framed by a general named
Tu Anjia, who then kills all members of the Zhao family except a six-month-old baby who is
substituted by one of the servants with his own son. The servant brings up the baby boy and
tells him the whole story. Then the boy, who has grown into a warrior, wreaks his revenges
on the general. This is said to be the first Peking opera introduced to Europeans.
Taming of the Shrew(San Da Tao Sanchun): Tao Sanchun, the daughter of a
high-ranking official during the Five Dynasties period(907-960 AD), is famous as a shrew.
When Chai Rong, emperor of the Later Zhou Dynasty(951-960 AD), comes to the throne, people
are sent to take her to the capital to marry the official Zheng Ziming. He asks his friend,
a general who goes disguised as a highwayman, to subdue the shrew so that she will not
bully her husband in the capital. When the wife finds out about the plot, she gets angry
with her would-be husband. She goes to look for Zheng Ziming, who has already runaway
from her. Another general, Zhao Guangyin, is summoned by the emperor to settle the
dispute between the two and hold a wedding for them.
Two Sisters of the Qiao Family(Fenghuang Er Qiao): Set at the end of the
Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), this opera features the marriage between the two beauties
of the Qiao family and the heroes Sun Ce and Zhou Yu. At the beginning of the opera Sun,
the founder of the Wu Kingdom, borrows 3,000 soldiers from a warlord and forms an alliance
with the Qiao family, whose army is headed by the two daughters. Sun looks down on the elder
sister, who offers to compete with him in a martial arts contest. The younger sister, who
falls in love with Zhou Yu, Sun's best friend, reveals her sister's skills to Sun. The elder
sister fails in the contest and marries Sun.
Two Sisters of the Red Mansions, the(Honglou Er You): The two sisters,
together with their mother, are staying at the mansion of Jia Zhen. The two sisters,
Second Sister You and Third Sister You, are well-known for their beauty. Third Sister
You meets Liu Xianglian, an opera star, and falls in love at first sight. Jia Lian
secretly makes Second Sister You his concubine. Then he flirts with Third Sister You,
who reproaches him. She wants to marry Liu Xianglian, but he breaks off their engagement
and Third Sister You commits suicide do demonstrate her innocence. Liu, heart0broken,
enters a temple to become a monk.
Unexpected Reunion(Qi Shuang Hui): This opera tells the story of a
brother and sister who are mistreated by their stepmother while their father is away.
After the stepmother commits adultery with a local official, the two run away from home.
The brother later passes the imperial examination and is appointed a provincial magistrate,
while the sister marries a county governor. The two , who meet again quite by coincidence,
save their father, who is in jail having been wrongly accused by their stepmother of murder.
Wang Zhaojun's Marriage(Zhao Jun Chu Sai): In the early Han Dynasty
Huhanxie Chanyu, king of a northern kingdom, comes to the Han capital of Chang'an to seek
the hand of a princess of the Han royal family in marriage. Wang Zhaojun, a maid of honor
in the palace, volunteers to marry Chanyu. She bids farewell to her home, and climbing
over mountains and crossing rivers on her way, she expresses her deep love for her
country and her wish for a lasting friendship between her motherland and her new home.
White Snake(Bai She Zhuan): In this popular fairy tale, White Snake--fairy
Bai Suzhen--who has practised Buddhism for thousands of years and can metamorphose into a
beautiful woman, wants to taste the love of a human being. She falls in love with Xu Xian
at the Broken Bridge on West Lake and wants to marry him. Fa Hai, a monk at Gold Mountain
Temple, prevents the fairy snake from marrying him by using his magic power to subdue her
and put her under the Lei Feng Pagoda. Many years later, Xiao Qing, her little sister who
is actually a green snake, comes to rescue her.
Women Generals of the Yang Family(Yangmen Nu Jiang): This opera tells the
popular Song Dynasty story of the famous women generals of the Yang family. Widow She
Taijun and her granddaughter-in-law Mu Guiying, who is also a widow, lead other widow
generals of the family to defeat invaders from the West Xia regime. The male generals
of the family have all laid down their lives fighting to defend the country's borders.
Wu Song at Shiziopo(Wu Song Da Dian): Wu Song, a well-known folk hero
in the Song Dynasty who has killed a tiger with his bare hands, is exiled to Mengzhou
because he has killed his sister-in-law who has committed adultery and murdered her
husband. One day he passes Shizipo and puts up at the inn run by martial arts master
Zhang Qing. Zhang's wife, who does not know Wu Song, wants to kill him. They are having
a fight when Zhang Qing comes home and recognizes Wu Song. He stops the fight, and they
become good friends.
Xiao He Chases Han Xin under the Moon(Xiao He Yue Xia Zhui Han Xin): Xiao
He, the most famous important staff officer under Liu Bang, the first emperor of the Han
Dynasty, recommends an able general named Han Xin to Liu Bang. Liu looks down upon Han Xin,
who leaves, irritated by Liu's cold manners. Xiao He, knowing how useful the general will
be to Liu's career, chases him and persuades him to stay, and then recommends him again.
Yang Ping Pass(Yang Ping Guan): Cao Cao wants to get revenge on Liu Bei
for the death of general Xiahou Yuan. Cao stations his troops at Yangping Pass to fight
Liu Bei. Chief staff officer Zhuge Liang wants someone to burn Cao Cao's grain store so
Cao Cao will have to withdraw for lack of food. Old general Huang Zhong decides to carry
out this plan despite attempts of other generals to dissuade him. Huang, surrounded by
Cao's army after he burns down the grain store, is rescued by general Zhao Yun.
Yang Silang Visits His Mother(Silang Tan Mu): An episode from the Yang
Family Generals, this story takes place in the Song Dynasty. Yang Silang, a Song general,
is arrested by his counterpart in the Liao army and later married a Liao princess, Tiejing.
After 15 years, when Yang Silang hears that his mother and brother are leading a Song army
to the border area, he wants to see them very much. But that's near impossible. When his
wife, Princess Tiejing, realizes he is worrying, she helps him cross the heavily guarded
border. He finally meets his mother, but in the end returns to his lovely princess(Yang
Silang is the fourth son of She Taijun of the Yang family) .
Zhulian Fortress(Zhulian Zhai): The Tang empire is shaken by a peasant
uprising headed by Huang Chao. The emperor's envoy goes to warlord Li Keyong for help.
Harbouring a deep hatred toward the emperor of exiling him. Li refuses to help the Tang
emperor. The envoy turns to Li's wife as he knows that, despite his martial arts skill,
Li is henpecked. Li then leads his army to help the emperor. On their way, the army is
blocked at Zhulian Fortress by bandit Zhou Dewei. Li defeats Zhou and adopted him as
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