Weng's Speech at GMU: A Theater with No Stage Setting (Transcript)

posted Oct 17, 2013, 1:49 PM by Cynthia Yung   [ updated Jun 30, 2014, 7:02 PM by Louisa H ]

Translator:  Mr. Ye Ding

George Mason University

October 11, 2013

Beijing Opera has been designated as the intangible cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO. What is, after all, Beijing Opera?


The last several decades have seen Beijing Opera in a variety of formats. Some are more like Western opera or drama; some close to musicals, some put on stage modern themes and use symphonic orchestra and full stage props including sky light and sky curtains. All of these reformed theatrical formats are also labeled Beijing Opera. But they will not be within my talk today. What I am going to discuss in the next hour or so is the original Beijing Opera. I would like to emphasize on the following issues: Why is there a need to acknowledge the classic, original and traditional Beijing Opera as intangible cultural heritage of humanity and designate it as an agent of protection and conservation.

What does the original Beijing Opera look like? An outstanding characteristic is: it is not like play, nor opera or western drama which present full and realistic stage setting. The stage for Beijing Opera is virtual and fictitious. There is no scenery, housing or architecture of various kinds. There is no sky-curtain and sophisticated lighting system. General speaking, the stage only presents a table and two chairs. We know any drama and theater has to present the stories which take place between and among people, all of which happen in specific surroundings and environment. How can Chinese theater dramatize these stories with such simple stage setting known as “one table and two chairs”?

All of the personalities in Beijing opera are typological. The role defines their gender, age, status and personalities.


ROLES in Beijing Opera—A typological principle based on categorization

There are four role categories in Beijing Opera: sheng, dan, jing and chou. Sheng is a male, dan female. Jing also known as painted faces represent the male but of coarse and often heavily built characters. They are required to paint their faces to a high degree, for which reason they are often called Painted Faces. Actors playing jing commonly paint their faces in various styles and colors. Each of these style and color has a specific meaning relating to a different personality. With the time constraint, I won’t have time today to go into detailed discussions. Chou is equivalent to clown in western tradition. The clown’s main task is to win laughs from the audiences, therefore, his lines must be especially well-enunciated, sparking with wit. Even though their role might be minor to some extent, their function to enliven the atmosphere is very significant. The whole group paints their noses powder-white, very much like clowns in western opera who often have a red nose. To this extent, they use different approaches but yield equally satisfactory results.

The category of male roles is a large pool. How to differentiate their age? Let us invite Mr. Ma Shaoliang, China’s most recognized master of Beijing Opera now in residence in US to demonstrate for us.

Now please look, this man has a black beard and moustache, representing he is an adult. Now he changes a white beard, so he is an old person. When he changes to a grey-silver beard, his age is somewhere between a middle-age and elderly. These three different male roles are commonly known as Lao Sheng (old male). If he has no beard and moustaches, he is a Xiao Sheng (young male)-a lesser role in the male category.

Qing Yi (Blue Robe) female represents quiet and gentle young and middle-age ladies, mostly faithful wives and filial daughters. Hua Dan (flowery young girl) is a role for a vivacious maiden or a woman of questionable character. Wu Dan (Military type) excels in martial art and acrobatics. These general role categories can be sub-divided into many different groups. Doing so involves the costumes.

Costumes in Beijing Opera also follow the principle of typology and categorization.

Costumes in Beijing opera

Take the female role for example, female roles are further divided into Qing Yi, Hua Dan, Wu Dan and Lao Dan. In facial makeup, only the Lao Dan (elderly ladies) will have a darker powder base on her fact with wrinkles, all of the other roles have a pretty-looking red base color on their facial makeup.

In the vernacular of Beijing Opera, wearing apparel is general termed Xing Tou, and is designed according to strict convention. The following are the more important garments worn on stage.

1.     The cememonial robe (mang). This is a female cememonial robe representing imperial status like empress, princess and concubines in


2.     This robe known as pei, is of satin, with various decorations. Wearing it tells that you are no longer in the palace, but at a more casual setting. With the change of costumes, the specific setting has also changed.

3.     The lined coat known as Xuezi implies a lower status. She is not of a royal status, but rather a woman of regular family.

4.     Jacket and trousers. Old stage traditions at least did not permit women to show their trousers, but now for a century the vivacious character type known as Huadan has always worn jacket and trousers. They represent an even lower social status.

5.     The outdoor cape represents the wearer is outdoor often travel–stained. Does it imply the weather and meteological environment?

Generally speaking, there are 10 different colors in the costumes also known as upper five colors and lower five colors. The upper five include red, yellow, green, white and black and the lower five blue, dark purple, dark and light blue, bronze. Black implies sorrow, pain, poverty and low social status (Wang Baochuan in Wujiapo). White is a color of purity (White Snake). Red symbolizes happiness, but it is also used for criminal costumes (Su San). If you see a role on the stage wearing bright red costumes with two fierce-looking executors with axes in their hands at the back, that means the role is on his/her way to the execution ground (Dou E). On the costumes, you can see beautiful and bright embroideries. Their brightness adds much light and life to the simple stage. On the other hand, it complements the drawback of lack of stage setting.

Pantomiming and acting

Every movement made by an actor in a Beijing opera is made in accordance with time-honored conventions and so is somewhat different from the action of everyday life. They are symbolic as well. For instance, running around the stage in swift tempo symbolizes traveling in speed or military marching, etc. Walking in regular tempo takes the form of the so-called square steps. While walking the square steps, lifting one foot as if stepping over the threshold means entrance into a room. There is neither room nor threshold on the stage, lifting one foot means entering the room. While walking on the stage, if the actor raises one hand and raises his head, it means he is ascending the stairs. Otherwise, if he looks downward, he is descending stairs.

Now let us welcome Mr. Ma to demonstrate.

On the Beijing Opera stage, the holding of a horse whip by an actor indicates symbolically that he is on a horse. If he whips the whip and runs around the stage in fast tempo, it indicates that he is running fast on horseback, known as horse riding. If he holds the whip in a different manner, it indicates that he is walking the horse. All of the actions are represented by strict conventional pantomimic movements.

Another specific characteristic of Beijing opera is to present life with fictitious and virtual action and pantomime. Let us take a look at a well-known Beijing Opera play called Picking Up a Jade Bracelet.

The demonstration is done by another Beijing Opera master Ms Qin Xueling.

This female role has a jacket and trousers implying that the role she is playing is a Huadan—a vivacious and active young girl with a mild and bashful disposition. Please look, while walking, she lifts one foot indicating that she has entered the room. All of her action of pulling the door bar and opening the door and then closing the door by pushing the bar are fictitious and pantomimic. There is no chicken on the stage. Through a whole series of pantomimic dancing, audience knows that she has been counting the chicken and feeding them. There is no sewing gear on the stage, but with a whole set of pantomiming, we know she has engaged in everyday activity of sewing and embroidering.

Next I will talk a little more on the stage setting, the so-called “one table and two chairs”

Lots of symbolism is represented by the one table and two chairs. For instance, in the play excerpt that we saw in Picking Up a Jade Bangle, the one table and two chairs represent the room setting. The table can be a dining table or a desk. If we move the table to the back part of the stage, it represents the altar or the desk in court. If we change a different table cloth and chair jackets (mostly beautifully embroidered with patterns), they could symbolize the imperial desk in the palace. Tables and chairs could also represent high mountains and bridges. If a chair is placed on the side, it is an entrance to a cave.

Beijing opera actors were trained from childhood. They need to receive a whole set of curriculum which teach highly conventionalized actions, dances and acrobatics. Pantomime and dance just like our role categorization, costumes and colors follow strict principles of conventionality.


Every action has specific name. The stage steps and running around the stage are only two examples. In terms of battles, the military setup, acrobatic patterns all follow strict conventions. In terms of singing, singing melodies and tunes all are specifically named and labeled. Music follows conventions after the singing tunes and tempo are combined. For example, in terms of tunes, based on the Jinghu (a two-stringed fiddle) has tuned, 63 leads a Xipi tune (a most popular singing tune adapted from Hubei local opera) and 52 tune leads Erhuang (another singing tune adapted from Anhui local opera), while 15 is fan-er-huang. Tempo runs from slow tempo, original, erliu, running water and fast tempo. If you sing Beijing Opera, what you need to tell the musician is what role you sing and what tune and tempo you will sing. The music orchestra immediately knows how to accompany you in singing. If you tell the orchestra you will sing the original regular tempo of Erhuang tune or running water tempo of Xipi tune, the orchestra will play the corresponding accompanying melody. The actor follows the conventionalized tempo and tune with music accompaniment.

I would like to compare Beijing Opera as a machine. Different parts can make different machines based on the structural specifications. In other words, different conventional structures make up different Beijing Opera plays.

Learning conventions in Beijing opera is just like manufacture different machinery parts.

All of the parts are pre-made. They are assembled together based on different structures. In other words, what every Beijing Opera actor/actress learns in school or troupe is to master these conventions. If he or she is to rehearse a play which he or she has never learned, what he needs to do is to recite the lines by heart and learn the melodies. He of course should know where and when he positions himself on stage and what conventions he should apply on stage. There was no director in Beijing Opera plays, the leading role or his assistants were the director in modern sense. He gathered every actor together and present a whole set of conventions to be applied on stage. Actors/actresses remember them. That is regarded as the preliminary mastery of the play. An excellent actor does not need rehearsal, “see you on the stage” is what he tells his partners.

The fictitious and conventionalized characteristics of Beijing Opera follow the same principles of other art and aesthetic formats, such as poetry and painting. These conventions have been established in the theory of Chinese theatrical criticism. The earliest description in Chinese ancient literary criticism is the theory of comparison symbolism and metaphor. To put it in a simple way, another image or something else is commonly used to make reference to what you are trying to act out or present, but not describing that thing directly and straight forward. This kind of theatrical theory is different squarely from the theory of imitation in the West.

Theory of imitation traces its origin as early as to Aristotle. This rhetoric theory emphasizes on direct description and presentation as real as possible. Therefore, the classic Beijing Opera and Western Opera both have their different paths of evolution. They are both rooted in their cultural background, theatrical principles and aesthetic senses. Their main difference lies in that of realism and impressionism.

Of course, different cultures have gone through processes of convergence and mingling. Today, the new Beijing Opera theater has incorporated lots of realistic factors. On the other hand, the musical plays at Broadway and other theaters have blended many symbolic and impressionistic approaches.

The difference between Beijing opera and musicals

Both Beijing Opera and music plays use music as a major format to present stories. But there is a major difference—conventions. Beijing Opera has a whole system of conventions which is absent in musicals. Music plays create the music and play based on content and story. Of course, the conventions in Beijing Opera are crystalized through thousand years of evolution and revolution from the acting and movements in everyday life. These conventions are advantageous in presenting every aspect of life of the old days. Therefore, Beijing Opera has its own limitations when it tries to represent the modern-day life and seems obsolete and outdated. However, there is no such limitation on musical plays and western opera. Western opera enjoys more advantage in its own artistic format.

In the western theatrical systems, I know there are two—the Stanislavski School of Performing Arts and Brecht School. Of which the Stanislavski is completely based on the principles of realism.

The difference between Chinese theatrical art and Stanislavsky School

The stage realism is trying to represent life in its most faithful and true approach by imitating. Once, a play called Seagull adapted from Chekov’s original novel was performed on the stage. A vicious role was played so well and so vividly that one audience rose from his seat and shot the actor on the stage. The sudden action caused the whole theater in great chaos. Everyone looked at the audience with astonishment and fear. The audience realized that he committed a crime of murder. He shot himself on the spot. The people buried them together with their tome tablets inscribed Best Actor and Best Audience.

Obviously, one will never find this kind of audience in Chinese theatre. Stanislavsky emphasized “true” and “real” in his stagecraft while Beijing Opera emphasizes “false” and “unreal”. It clearly tells you that it is only a play and all of the actors/ actress are only acting. The symbolic and impressionistic theatrical art of Beijing opera is different from Stanislavsky’s system and this difference is all too obvious.

However, there is another theatrical art in the west which has incorporated lots of symbolic factors and impressionistic aestheticism known as Brecht School of Theatrical Art. It also emphasizes the “unreal” factors. How different is that system from Beijing opera?

Beijing Opera present stories via singing and dancing while most theatrical art in Brecht system is only plays. They belong to two different categories of stagecraft. Brecht plays cannot really do away their realism which the plays are born with. Every play is a new creation based on different content and story. There is no system of conventionality as in Beijing Opera. In other words, there is no mechanism of making different parts of the machinery as we discussed just now.

The most outstanding characteristic to describe Brecht theatrical art is principle of alienation effect. In Brecht plays, actors and actresses should alienate from audience, and audience from the play stories. What does that mean? Actors should keep their brain clean and keep distance from the roles that they are portraying. While a Brecht play is on the stage, he intended that the audience keep their reasoning and clear thinking but not indulged in the stories. This is what Brecht’s alienation effect. To some extent, it is similar to the principle in Beijing Opera known as “easy-in and easy-out”. Beijing opera actors should keep a clear brain on the stage and imply to the audience that this is not real. The conventions are extracted and refined from life but not life itself. But this kind of “unrealism” is different from that of Brecht system. The falsehood of Beijing Opera is to present the beauty of conventions and acting. Therefore, the stories are just carriers to serve the art forms and conventions. Stories just suit the psychology of audience to enjoy certain actor and actress or serve technical appreciation. The Brecht plays were most staged in the first part of 20th century. The whole world was in turbulence and his plays were very critical of the time and provoke audience to think and contemplate. Therefore, during the performing of Brecht plays, someone not necessarily related to play would come out interrupting the play and reminding audience to think. This kind of alienation is a highly-acknowledged technical with tremendous social impact on the age. Therefore the unreal factors of Brecht’s interpretation serves the thoughts and the content itself.

Next, I would like to give you an opportunity to appreciate the dramatic conventions in Beijing Opera by showing an episode of a legendary play in Beijing Opera: The Crossroads

Please look. The stage is very bright with lots of lighting, but the pantomiming of the actors make the audience feel that the story took place at night. This is what we call the fictitious and virtual pantomiming. Please take special note of that table. When wine is served, it is a dining table. However, when the actor lies on it with his elbow supporting his head, it becomes a bed. The duet fight is highly conventionalized, sometimes knife to knife, hands to hands. All of these conventions were acquired when the actors were trained. Their fighting set with the rules becomes conventions.

The fictitious and virtual acting style of Beijing Opera is actually a product of China’s lack of material backwardness and underdevelopment throughout the historical ages.

Recognition value of Beijing Opera

In contrast with the Western civilization characterized by industrialization, Chinese agrarian society had endured a much longer history. The theatrical and drama art which correspond to this agrarian tradition had sustained a much comprehensive evolution and development. In other words, ancient Chinese under the material hardship and poverty-stricken life, a slow and long path of modernization, witnessing only imperial dynastic pattern but not a full evolution echoing the time, has cultivated and nurtured a mature and independent theatrical system which is different from any other civilizations. This kind of symbolic, impressionistic, virtual theatrical art established on conventionality has formed its own value in both appreciation and conservation. Personally speaking, this might be the very reason for which Beijing Opera was designated by UNESCO as the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.