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The ten Chinese characters shown on left are from a song sung in a Chinese New Year Eve television program. It probably says everything about the roles in Beijing Opera. The first five characters list the five role categories. The rest tells what roles appear in the plays, from the powerful supernatural beings to animals like tigers and dogs. There are currently four main role categories in Beijing Opera. They are Sheng - Male Role, Dan - Female Role, Jing - Painted Face Male and Chou - The Comedy Role.
Any role in these categories or sub-categories can be the leading role in a play. Except the second category, the other three categories are for male characters.
The reason the role categories take the names of Sheng, Dan, Jing and Chou is that it is said that they were chosen to mean the opposite. Sheng in Chinese may mean "strange" or "rare", but the chief male is a character of most seen. Dan, which means "morning", "masculine", is in contrary with the feminine nature of the characters. Jing means "clean". In fact, the paintings on face make the characters look like unclean but colorful. And Chou in Chinese sometime represents the animal "Cow", which, in some aspects, is slow and tardy. In contrast, Chou characters are usually active and quick.
Sheng has some sub-categories, including Senior, Junior, Acrobatic, Junior Acrobatic, Child, Red-face, Poor, Official, etc. These are classified according to the role's characteristics. Male roles are either civil or military. The actors themselves are mainly trained for three main parts: Senior Male Role or Lao Sheng, a middle-aged or old man who wears a beard, Junior Male Role or Xiao Sheng (Hsiao sheng), a young man; and Acrobatic Male Role or Wu Sheng, a man of military tenor, especially skilled in acrobatics.
Lao Sheng actors are required to attain the dignity of bearing and gentle, polished manners of the middle-aged mandarin official or scholar; in military plays they may be a general or high-ranking officer of a gentler and more cultivated disposition than of the painted faces. Their apparel accordingly is of good quality but not too garish in its design or color. A Lao Sheng has a black or white beard, depending on his age, and wears a black hat with two fins on either side which vary in shape according to his rank in a civil role. When a military role is played, the costume is quieter and of a more uniform color than those of the warriors in the painted-face roles, but the Kao or amour is also worn. A Lao Sheng's voice is soft and pleasant to listen to, neither too harsh nor too high pitched, but gentle and firm. Minor officials or land owners who have attained a small degree of responsibility are also included in this role.
The red face Lao Sheng or Hong Sheng has only two roles. One of such a role is Guan Gong (Kuan Kung) who is regarded as the God of War. He is greatly revered and respected. Guan Gong is one of the heroes of the Chinese classical novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The other Hong Sheng role is Zhao Kuang-Yin, the first Song Dynasty Emperor.
The junior male or Xiao Sheng (Hsiao Sheng) requires of its actor the distinguishing feature of a shrill and high-pitched voice to indicate his youth. The part is extremely difficult to sing, and when the actor is speaking his voice must suddenly drop from its high-pitched quality to indicate the voice-breaking period of adolescence. The Xiao Sheng is usually small and slight of stature, and his clothes are often quite elaborate if a young man of society or a young warrior is being represented, but can be subdued if they are those of an impoverished scholar. The young warrior can often be distinguished by his long pheasant feathers which rise in sweeping curves from his hat. No beard is worn for this part.
Wu Sheng actors are mainly acrobats, although they sometimes have a part which requires much acting. They play any part in military or civil plays which requires a high standard of acrobats. The skill of these actors is demonstrated in the fighting scenes, which take on a stylized form in Beijing opera, and also in scenes from legendary stories when immortals and devils tumble and twist about the stage showing off feats of skill. In military plays swords and spears are wielded deftly and quickly without the attacker actually touching his opponent. These movements require great precision in timing, and the actor ducks and twists his body, often turning somersaults at same time. If he is a young military officer, the Wu Sheng will also have pheasant feathers in his hat, and four small flags or pennants strapped to his back and high-soled boots, all of which make his acrobatic feats even more spectacular. His costume is often bright in color, especially in the legendary plays. A Wu Sheng actor is not trained as highly in singing, for acting and acrobatics are his outstanding feature, but he has a pleasant voice, slightly stronger than Lao Sheng but rather quiet in pitch, and he sings with a natural voice.
The Dan (Tan) or female role can be divided into six main parts which principally indicate character; Qing Yi(Ch'ing I), modest and virtuous; Hua dan(Hua tan) flirtatious; Gui Men Dan(Kuei Men Tan), a young, married girl; Dao Ma Dan(Tao Ma Tan), a stronger, more forceful character, usually a woman general; Wu Dan(Wu Tan), the female acrobat; and Lao Dan(Lao Tan), an old woman.
A Qing Yi actress portrays a lady of good and sympathetic character Usually of a quiet, gentle disposition and graceful in her movements, she is the Chinese ideal of a beautiful woman. As a wife she is faithful, as a young girl a model of propriety. Her good breeding is shown by the graceful, flowing movements of her 'water sleeves'. The Qing Yi's costume is elegant, simple and of good quality, but not as vivid in color as that of the Hua Dan. Her singing is of a pure, high-pitched quality.
For a Hua Dan actress the gay, flirtatious personality of a young girl is required. Usually not of such a high social standing as the Qing Yi, the Hua Dan actress with her coy, coquettish and generally quicker movements arrests the attention of the audience. This is a difficult part to play successfully. The Hua Dan's facial expression is continually changing and her mischievous eye movements are particularly attractive. Because of her lower social status more hand movements are required, as in olden times it was not considered polite for a well-bred Chinese lady to show her hands. Costume, usually vivid in design and color, consists of a jacket and trousers, and a red or coloews handkerchief is carried to flutter in the actress's hand. Her character, needless to say, is not as virtuous as that of the Qing Yi and therefore her singing voice has a gayer and slightly stronger quality. She also has to do more speaking than singing.
A Gui Men Dan is the young, unmarried girl, who in later life will develop into a Qing Yi or a Hua Dan; her immaturity is clearly shown in her reactions, for though naughty and slightly mischievous, she has not the confidence of the Hua Dan, although her schemes and plans are often just as successful.
A Dao Ma Dan plays the part of the female warrior. She is trained mainly for acting and singing and performs many skilful movements especially with the pheasant feathers in her head-dress and her military weapons. She still retains feminine charm, however, and a very versatile actress is required for this role. Her parts, such as that of Mu Gui Ying, are of the heroines in Chinese history who were famed for their military prowess. A Dao Ma Dan's clothes can be very elaborate, as she wears the four pennants strapped to her back and the Kao
A Wu Dan is the female acrobatic role and the Wu Dan actress steps into or takes any female role that requires a high degree of acrobatics. She is purely an acrobat but her role demands a talented actress for a successful performance.
A Lao Dan is simply an old woman, but great skill is required for this specilized part. The Lao Dan actress cleverly portrays in her bent back and faltering but dignified movements her character's advancing years. She is often seen carrying a staff. Unlike the other female roles, the Lao Dan wears no make-up and her costume is more subdued in color and design. Her voice tends to be slightly deeper, because the natural voice is used, not the forced high-pitched one used on other Dan roles.
To see a Jing (ching) actor for the first time is a startling experience for the spectator. This part is more noted for courage and resourcefulness than for scholarly intelligence. Often playing the part of a high-ranking army general, the Jing actor with his painted face can also be seen as a warrior or official . His robust, gruff, bass voice and grotesquely painted face together with his swaggering self-assertive manner all combine to make him the most forceful personality in most scenes in which he appears. Jing actors are usually, in fact, extroverts. The general rule for the basic color is: red for good,white for treacherous, black for brusque, and blue for wild, i.e. a bandit would have a blue face. All Jing actors wear a heavy, ornate costume and a head dress with a padded jacket underneath to enhance the effect, They can be divided into three main types: Dong-Chui(T'ung Ch'uei), better known as Hei Tou (black face), who is good at singing and usually a loyal general; Jia Zi(Chia Tze), who is good at acting , and generally a more complicated character; and Wu Jing, who is mainly proficient in fighting and acrobatics and seldom plays a very prominent role.
Lastly there is the Chou or comedy actor who generally plays the role of a dim but likeable and amusing character with blinking eyes and all the appropriate gestures. Sometimes the Chou can be a rascal, with a slightly wicked nature. Alternatively a scholar or prince--an eccentric or representing the sort of scholar or prince who would not command much respect. Chou parts can be divided into two types: Wen Chou, who is usually a civilian, such as a jailer, servant, merchant or scholar; and Wu Chou, who performs minor military roles as a soldier and must be skilled in acrobatics. His costume is either elaborate or fussy if of high social standing, but simple if of a low standing.
Mention must be made of the Monkey King who has a special place in the hearts of all who are interested in Chinese opera. Played by an exceptionally talented Wu Sheng actor, the Monkey King holds every minute of the audience's attention with the quick, agile movements of his lithe body, and his blinking eyes. He is traditionally supposed have accompanied a Buddhist monk who went on a long journey across the mountains from China to India to collect the Buddhist scriptures and bring them back to China. The Monk's legendary companions on this journey are a pig (to provide the humor), a not so learned monk, supposed to represent a shark spirit, to mediate in quarrels, and the Monkey King, who possesses special supernatural powers to combat evil spirits encountered on the way. The Monkey King's costume is bright yellow in color and consists of a voluminous jacket and baggy trousers to enable him to perform his movements with ease and grace. He mimics a monkey the whole time, with his knees always bent and his hands held dangling in front of him, occasionally even scratching himself. His eyes have a mischievous twinkle in them as they blink at the audience.
The Monkey King also has a trouble of monkeys who behave in the same manner, but all have their own characteristics--one is greedy, one naughty, one sleepy, etc.--and their skilful acrobatics and movements are a continual source of delight and object of affection for the audience.