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Archive for January, 2010

Four Roles of Peking Opera:Sheng, Dan,Jing and Chou

Peking Opera features “character categorization.” In accordance with gender and disposition, characters are divided into four basic roles: sheng (male character type), dan (female character type), jing (character type with a painted face), and chou (a clown). Each role type comes with its ownsubdivision.

Sheng is a grown-up male. It can be further divided into four types. First, lao sheng playing middle-aged or old men with beard. A lao sheng can be of a type specializing in singing, or a type specializing in martial arts. Lao sheng is the most common male character in Peking Opera. Cheng Changgeng and Tan Xinpei, regarded as founders of Peking Opera, were both lao sheng players. Second, wu sheng, or man with martial skills. A wu sheng can specialize in long weapons or short weapons. The long-weapon wu sheng wears armor, looks dignified and has a moderate skill of singing and recitation, whereas the short-weapon wu sheng wears short clothes and is swift of action. Third, xiao sheng playing young handsome men, most of whom are scholars. This character is frequently portrayed in love stories. Xiao sheng can be further divided into gauze-hat sheng (a court official), fan xiao sheng (scholar using a fan), pheasant-feather fan sheng (a handsome young man), and a poor sheng (a scholar failing to become an official). And fourth, hong sheng playing characters with a red face such as Guan Yu and Zhao Kuangyin.

Owing to the uniqueness of Peking Opera, the role of xiao sheng had long been relatively unimportant. While many plays give prominence to lao sheng and dan (female) roles, xiao sheng is relatively obscure. In the history of Peking Opera, well-known actors playing the xiao sheng role were few in number. Earlier acclaimed xiao sheng players were Cheng Jixian (1874-1944), Jiang Miaoxiang (1890-1972) and Jin Zhongren (1886-1950). Later renowned players were Yu Zhenfei (1902-1993) and Ye Shenglan (1914- 1978). Among xiao sheng impersonators, the only one able to play in shows xiao sheng is the hero was Ye Shenglan.

This is quite different from Western operas where the young hero is very important and is played by highly acclaimed actors. In performance, xiao sheng’s most striking feature is singing and recitation with a combination of real and false voices. His falsetto is relatively high-pitched and fine, making the role distinctively different from lao sheng. On the other hand, xiao sheng’s falsetto is different from that of the dan (female) role. It should be strong but not rough. And it should not be as soft and gentle as a woman’s voice. Fine-tuning nuances in a xiao sheng’s singing is difficult. This is why not many actors have excelled in playing this role like Ye Shenglan.

Dan is a general term for female characters. The gentle and quiet is called qing yi and usually represents orthodox yong women. The vivacious is called hua dan and represents girls of ordinary households or extroversive disposition. There are also lao dan (old female), wu dan (female with martial skills) and cai dan which used to be played by male actors. Only “painted face,” or jing, usually has facial makeup. They are all male with a rough, bold and uninhibited character. They speak loudly, shout at the slightest provocation and, if irritated, may use force. The jing roles are divided, too, into the “Singing-oriented” type, or wen jing, and the “martial” type, or wu jing. Actors impersonating jing commonly paint their faces in various styles that range from a single color to be wildering combinations and patterns.
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The Social Context of Folk Arts – Wedding Ceremonies

Traditional wedding is meant for the union of a male and a female, yin and title=”A large-scale “Happy baby” ball flower papercut yang, which lead to human propagation and perpetual life. The folk art works on custom wedding ceremony bear distinctive features on the theme. Fish, being a proliferous legendary animal, is often used to symbolize having multiple children.  A yin-yang paired fish became a cultural code in Chinese folk art works.

At wedding ceremony, paper-cut “Fish playing around lotus,” “Fish biting lotus,” “Lotus bearing seeds” and “Happy dolls” (baby with coiled hair holding a pair of fish) are pasted on the ceiling of the bridal chamber.  In northern Shaanxi, red or green paper-cutting of “Baby with coiled hair holding a pair of fish” in a big ball flower design is pasted on the center of the cave window. They are called “revolving flower,” as the revolving sky. The lower and middle part of the cave window is usually a lattice window in 36 counts. A large totem animal paper-cut (a tiger, a sheep or a deer) is over the middle four lattice; each corner lattice has a corner flower; the rest space are filled with colorful paper-cuts like “Buckled bowls,” “Paired fish,” “Fish playing around lotus,” “Lotus bearing babies,” “Rat eating pumpkins,” “Squirrel eating grape,” “Monkey eating peach,” “Rabbit eating cabbage,” “Golden pheasant visiting lotus flower” etc., making up a diamond square shaped “36 lattice window of clouds.” The colorful paper-cuttings against the white window paper liner definitely add a delightful atmosphere. In here, rat, squirrel, rabbit and golden pheasant are male; and lotus flower, pumpkin, grape, cabbage, peach are female. Putting animals and plants implies combining male and female for multiplication.

In the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River, gift bread for wedding ceremony from the maternal family is a round bread made of two connecting fish, or a tiger head on a dragon body with a fish tail, with a world of living things plugged on the back. In Hua County, Shaanxi Province, the wedding bread is a “High rise bread platter” with a reed cylinder in the center as if connecting to the sky; and paired fish stuck on very layer from bottom up, such as a paired fish sharing one tiger head or a sheep head; a paired dragons with a tiger head; or a fish tail with a phoenix head. The top layer is a treasure bottle and a happy baby, a symbol of wealth and more children.  At the wedding, two “High rise bread platters” are placed on each side of the table where the bride and the groom bow to the sky, to earth and to each other. It is quite a scene.

In Shaanxi, Shanxi and east of Gansu, a custom wedding embroidery is a hand made red undergarment, showing a fish (the bride) with an open cut on her body (a female uterus). It is part of the dowry as a gift from the bride to her groom. Other embroideries include male and female animals of proliferous nature; hanging ornaments of flowers and fruits; or a “Needle holder”, a “Needle toad”, as gifts for the female in-laws to show off bride’s craftsmanship. A custom in the monkey totem tribal culture in Henan is for the bride to embroider a male monkey, symbolic of her husband, and hide it at the bottom of the suitcase to take with her to the husband’s family on the wedding day. A secret porcelain “Happy baby,” with female coiled hair but a male body, is placed under the bed sheet on the wedding night. It is meant to be crushed during intercourse, a prayer for more children. Traditional porcelain “Happy baby” is still being made today at a porcelain cellar known for manufacturing the Song Dynasty porcelain in Yu county of Henan Province.