Larger than Life: Peking Opera

If you lived in Beijing, you’d probably know all sorts of stories which you didn’t learn from a book, movie, or TV show.  Instead, you’d see them performed live on stage, in the form of Peking Opera! Peking is the old name for Beijing, and people here have their own unique form of opera. It’s very different than the kinds of operas we see in the United States.  Their characters are larger than life, with really exaggerated features, from big mime-like movements to bold make-up that makes their facial expressions visible even from the seats in the way back. There are four main types of characters, and each have all sorts of symbolism, tradition, and meaning.

Today, Ling and I visited a special school for people to study this unusual art form.  Learning about various aspects of the culture and art of China is a big part of Global Leadership Adventures, and throughout the upcoming weeks, we will participate in workshops on Kung Fu, kite making, Chinese calligraphy, paper cutting, and more.  The students that we will be working with do not arrive in China until Sunday, but we decided to spend the morning with another group of students so that we could meet their leaders and get a better sense of what to expect when our program begins. The students got to participate in a workshop and try out some of the movements used in Peking Opera.  We also got to see some demonstrations, to give us a sense of what it is like.  The singing is really high pitched and loud because it’s meant to be performed in a tea house where people are moving about and talking.  The movements are really bold and exaggerated so that everyone knows what’s going on.  Here’s a little video so you can see what the workshop was like:

The woman who ran the workshop told us that it was better to learn like this before going to a performance.  If we just went to a show, we wouldn’t have understood the amazing skill that goes into each moment of the story.  We never would have guessed that it takes two hours to put on that make-up, or that most performers train from age 6. Now that we understand more about it, we might be ready to appreciate a performance, even though it would still be really different from anything we’re used to.  I agree — it’s hard to appreciate something if you don’t understand it! And the more you know, the more things there are to make you smile.

*Note: More than 10 years ago, I traveled to India and stayed for a month in an area where lots of Tibetans live.  It was the first time that I learned of any other operas than the ones from Europe that typically show in the United States.  I visited a Tibetan opera performance and was really impressed with the movement, costumes, and make up.  Tomorrow, the next group from Teachers for Global Classrooms leaves for India.  I encourage you to check out some of their blogs as they explore India:

Bon Voyage to the TGC India Group!

Categories: China

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4 replies »

  1. this is opera information is really cool Ms. Krakauer!!

    i’ve seen several operas like the one you described in here, and they remind a lot of Kung Fu. most of the characters that i have seen look like the fourth character (i think), or Dan. they’re pretty interesting.
    when you saw the operas in the India, were they like the operas in China? were they similar to the ones from Europe?

    wish you a great summer in China!!
    😉 ~ anna

  2. Chinese calligraphy and kite-making. Those aren’t things you’ll do in most workshops here in the USA! That sounds like a lot of fun! Enjoy your trip!

  3. i learned about something like this during my 7th grade chinese social studies unit, SO COOL!

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