Beijing opera

"It has been a long time since I met my first Beijing opera teacher. I was still a little girl. She chose me for my unusually sonorous voice, to train for the acting and singing type of Old Woman." Feng-yűn Song.

Feng-yűn Song and Beijing opera


Feng-yűn Song began to learn Beijing opera at the age of 8. She became the pupil of Mrs. Shang Chuj-min, a disciple of the largest Beijing female opera school in China. It had always been Feng-yűn Song’s heartfelt wish to introduce Czech lovers of both traditional Chinese and other theatre to the beautiful art of her lifelong teacher Mrs. Shang. This distant dream came true in the fall of 2004.


The Acropolis Palace Prague Center of Independent Culture invited Mrs. Shang Chuj-min and her Beijing opera company to the Czech Republic.
During their weeklong stay, Mrs. Shang Chuj-min and the company staged two evening shows, one in Prague (Palace Acropolis) and one in Český Krumlov, performing beautiful classic operas of the Chang family school as well as classical works written for the Mei and Xun schools. Chinese artists also taught successful workshops on the Beijing Opera at the State Conservatory in Prague.

Original repertoire of the traditional Chinese opera: On the Hill of the Crosses

Staging the original traditional repertoire of Chinese opera under Czech conditions is certainly no easy task.
In the spring of 2003, Feng-yűn Song directed and staged the traditional Beijing opera, On the Hill of the Crosses, casting the NO-NE group of actors, consisting of students of the Acting College in Prague, in the production. The premiere was staged as the graduation performance in the school theater.


On theHill of the Crosses is a 55 minute show, the result of a three-year collaboration between Feng-yűn Song and the NO-NE group, whose studies were led by prof. Václav Martinec.

The Czech script was based on the translation by Vít Vojta from the original Chinese archive text, and its final stage form was adapted by Feng-yűn Song in line with the current Chinese stage script. Arias were sung in Chinese. The music used was recorded by an original Chinese orchestra combined with live Chinese percussion instruments; the actor's makeup was original and the costumes simple.

P.S. The actors from the NO-NE group have since become professional actors at the Malé Vinohradské Divadlo theatre,

Feng-yűn Song has also staged the following Beijing operas:

The King of the Apes Welcomes the Year of the Rooster, 20 minute etude, 2005, Výstaviště, Ostrava
The king of the Apes, 20 minute etude, 2004, Archa Praha Theatre
The Beijing opera staging of the theater production of M Butterfly by Henry Huang, directed by Jiří Seydle, 2003, Východočeské Theater in Pardubice
The Beijing opera staging of the theater production of Marné tázání nebes, directed by J. A. Pitínský, 2001, Archa Theater, Prague.

Traditional Chinese Theater (si-čchű)

Si-čchű is a traditional Chinese form of musical theater. It has four characteristic features: singing (čchang), declamation (nian), expressive movement (cuo), and martial arts movement (ta). A synthetic art, si-čchű unifies traditional music, acting, dancing pantomime, acrobatics, martial arts and graphic arts in a single organic unit.

The merging of these various artistic elements in the art of traditional si-čchű theater is not intended to directly reflect or even mimick reality, but rather to transform and figuratively capture its essence and nature.

Two basic principles forming the foundation of essential imagery are used in the artistic procedures of the traditional si-čchű theater.The first is sie-i (literally writing down of a thought, idea), meaning to capture the nature of phenomena, things, human expressions, feelings, and life situations and to remodel them through the highly structured expression of a perfectly trained actor´s body and voice, and other specific dramatic means. The other principle, sű-ni, is a non-imitating, symbolic, metaphoric and imaginative representation of phenomena from life, using stylization, condensation, adornment, hyperbole and other unusual means to remodel reality.

The history of the traditional Chinese si-čchű musical theater is also one of a creative and developmental process, resulting in a system of patterns, as well as numerous codified forms of acting and stage expressions. This applies primarily to the singing music, the music for nuanced as well as dynamic stage situations (wen-čchang and wu-čchang), singing expressions, stage movements (dancing pantomime, including walking, hand movements, acrobatics, and traditional martial arts), and the graphic symbols used on costumes and makeup.

The codified patterns of expression differ according to acting types. Female types include the girl (chua-tan), the young woman (čching-ji), the old woman (lao-tan), the fighter (wu-tan), and the matchmaker (caj-tan). Male types include the boy (siao-šeng), the old man (lao-šeng), the fighter (wu-šeng), the literary clown (wen-čchou), the fighting clown (wu-čchou), and the type with the makeup mask (ťing).

Musical characteristics of the traditional Chinese si-čchű theater

The musical structure of the traditional Chinese theater consists of two systems:

  1. The serial system of melodic models/patterns (čchű-pchaj lian-tchao-tchi).
    The melodic models (čchű-pchaj) are fixed musical patterns chosen from classical Chinese melodic verses. The original čchű-pchaj are vocal. Some were later transformed into instrumental solo forms. Both cases express a certain mood or atmosphere required in the given dramatic situation. Several melodic models are arranged in a series according to the rules, thus creating the musical unity of individual acts. The musical structure of a show consists of several series of melodic patterns of čchű-pchaj.
  2. The serial system of changing rhythmic models (pan-š´ pian-chua-tchi).
    pan-š´: tempo, dynamics and rhythmic structure
    pan: originally meaning "wood blocks"; refers to an entire bar, determining the accents in the bar.
    ian: originally meaning "the eye"; refers to a drum hit, defining light or lighter beats.
    Basic rhythmic models of pan-š´:
    1pan – 3ian (4-beats), 1pan – 1ian (2-beats), je pan, no ian (one beat, flowing water), no pan no ian (free). A single melodic model may use several rhythmic models and variations.

Beijing opera (ťing-jű or ťing-si)

There are over 300 active regional theaters in China (ti-fang-si). The symbolic theatrical devices presented in these regional theaters are basically identical, but differ greatly in their use of regional music,melodic styles and text, usually presented in local dialects. This keeps the regional theater primarily on the local folklore scene; Chinese from other regions can hardly understand the text, if at all. This is why only the Beijing opera -originally the theater of the Emperor´s palace; a sort of metropolitan theater drawing inspiration from various regional theaters -can reach the people of China nation-wide.

Beijing opera began its formation near the end of 18th century. In 1790, four theater companies from the An-chuj province came to Beijing, reportedly to celebrate the Emperor's birthday. The companies were already famous in their own regions. They mastered the melodic models of er-chuang, kchun-čchiang, s´-pching-tiao and others, forming the basis of the musical-melodic structure of the Beijing opera. In 1828, other major actors from čchu-pan came to Beijing. They brought the melodic model si-pchi, which, along with the er-chuang, became one of the two melodic pillars of the Beijing opera.

Local artists in Beijing have enriched each other during their long term collaboration. They adopted the more perfected elements of other types of theater, including techniques and means of theatric expression. They created original texts influenced by the Beijing dialect, giving birth to a new musical-theatrical form strongly affected by the Beijing culture - the Beijing opera. Its final form, if such a thing can be said to exist in art, allegedly took shape during the reign of the Emperor Tao-kuang (1821-1850), but some believe it was later.

In the early stages of the Beijing opera its basic melodic models already existed, but language characteristic of its texts also took shape, basic acting types were formed, and initial repertoire was created.

Since the mid-19th century, the Beijing opera is the most widespread form of traditional Chinese theater.

The traditional Beijing opera repertoire includes over 1000 plays, of which 300 to 400 are staged frequently. The plots are usually historical or political, and subject matter draws on legends, historical stories, folk tales and novels. The operas are staged as evening plays lasting around two hours (čeng-per-ta-si), or 20 to 30 minute single act plays (če-c´-si). Some plays are staged in several parts over two days or even longer (lian-tchaj-per-si).

We should add that the history of the traditional musical theater si-čchű is a creative process. Acting patterns in the traditional Chinese musical theater always provided room for singing and acting improvisation. Namely the Beijing opera, owing to the efforts of individual artists with personal styles, underwent dynamic development. Numerous theatrical schools and acting types were created in the continuous development process of si-čchű. Among the most influential are the so-called four big schools of the female type (s´-ta- ming-tan) – the Mej (established by Mej Lan-fang), Shang (established by Shang Siao-jűn), Čeng (established by Čeng Jan-čchiu) and Šűn (established by Šűn Chuj-šeng).

Due to its extreme demandingness it is not surprising that candidates for the traditional Chinese musical theater begin to learn their craft in early childhood. The traditional educational system of the si-čchű theater is the so-called Kche-pan, a family type theater school. The relation between the pupils in the teacher is governed by the parent-child model. Nowadays, Beijing opera and other traditional theaters, ballet and western opera are taught at various art schools. From the traditional school model, only paj-š´-č´, meaning order or bowing to the teacher, i.e. becoming a personal disciple and follower of the teacher, has been preserved.

The contribution of Mrs. Dana Kalvodová

Dana Kalvodová was one of the few European sinologists who focused their lifelong efforts on Asian theater. Her goal was to introduce not only theater students, but also the public at large, to the theatre cultures of Asia, and thus break the outdated Eurocentric view of the theater.

Feng-yűn Song met Dana Kalvodová in 1991. Kalvodová was preparing her historic paper on the Chinese theater for publication. To clarify some Chinese terms related to patterns of stage movement, she contacted F.J. Song and the ladies sat in a picturesque café in the Old Town. Dana Kalvodová was a big fan of the baroque play Marné tázání nebes, and her moral support in its staging helped the project from the very beginning. After its premiere in 2001 Dana thanked F.J. Song repeatedly. She brought flowers and a letter of thanks to her dressing room. Before the arrival of the Year of the Monkey, Dana called F.J. Song and wished her a happy New Year in Chinese. Song had no idea that this was the last time she would hear from Dana. She honours and cherishes Dana Kalvodová in her memory with endless gratitude. No wonder Mrs. Dana found her love in the Chinese theater - it is a love of aesthetics, beauty, and the essence of human life and creation.

Dana Kalvodová's publications:
- Chinese Theater, Panorama, 1992, Prague
- Asian Theater, Academia, 2003, Prague, and other books.