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Peking Opera before the Twentieth Century Colin Mackerras Peking Opera, which takes its name from having been bom and matured in Beijing (currently the common romanization of the name of the city which was known as Peking)—the capital of China now and also at the time when this art form originated —is a highly comprehensive art, integrating music, singing, gesture, costume, make-up, movement, words, acrobatics, and stagecraft in a way unique in the world. Nevertheless, its form and content have their origin in earlier types of Chinese theater, mainly deriving from other parts of China. As possibly the most highly developed of numerous styles of regional theater which had grown up in China since the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), its development gathered momentum during the succeeding Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the latter a period dominated by the Manchus. In the twentieth century the Peking Opera has become a kind of national Chinese theater, with many both inside and outside the country associating it with "Chinese opera." Yet in fact at the beginning of the twentieth century it was not performed very commonly outside of Beijing and a rather small number of other centers. The early history of the Peking Opera took place in the China ruled by the Qianlong Emperor, whose reign (1735-96) was among the longest in all of the long history of the country —a reign that witnessed the acme of grandeur and power which so impressed the Europeans of his day. By the late years of this great reign, however, decline had begun to set in and accelerated over the next few decades. The Western imperialist invasions of China began in 1839 and grew more numerous and fiercer as the nineteenth century wore on. By the end of the century China had deteriorated to a very sorry state indeed; in the year 1900 the devastating Boxer Rebellion burst right into the capital Bejing itself, with eight foreign powers forming a united military front to invade China and to expel the ragged Boxer peasant army from the city. 19 20Peking Opera The Origins ofPeking Opera. Chinese theater does not share the usual Western categories of tragedy and comedy, but instead is divided between "civilian" or "civil" (wen) and "military" (wu). In the former the concern is focused on such matters as marriage, love, religion, and righted injustice, while the main thrust in the latter is warfare and rebellion. In the course of time, the single most important feature of "military" theater came to be acrobatic or gymnastic displays which represent battles. There were, of course, regional differences affecting both technique and content in the theater of the eighteenth century and thereafter. Nevertheless, in spite of such differences, the main distinctions lay in the music and the orchestras which accompanied them. The minor styles, which were very much folk theater, had extremely small casts with only two or three characters in each item. The larger-scale styles were based on ancient dramas of the Yuan period (1279-1368) and also, later, novels and occasionally local stories. Many of the various dramatic styles belonged to several "musical systems" (shengqiang xitong), which were groups of regional styles with common musical and other features . One of these was the Clapper Opera, which arose in northern China about the sixteenth century and by the eighteenth spread virtually throughout the north and into parts of the south. Another system, derived from the style favored by the aristocracy and characterized by the dominance of its music by the Chinese side-blown flute (dizi), is called Kunqu because of its origin in Kunshan, near Shanghai, in the sixteenth century. In performance and musical terms it is rather slow-moving even when the story is exciting. A third "musical system" is the Pihuang , so named because it represents the amalgam of two melodic systems, Xipi and Erhuang. Xipi originated in western China, initially from a style of Clapper Opera, and Erhuang in Yihuang, located in Jiangxi province in southeast China;1 these came to be heard together, thus forming new styles of drama, during the eighteenth century or possibly earlier in various regions of China, including Hubei, Hunan, and Guangdong provinces in the south...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 19-42
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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