Peking Opera is a classic Chinese form of theater that combines instrumental music, singing, dancing, acting and acrobatics. Contrasting to Western Opera, the music quality and the visual aspects are considered equal in importance. Incepted in the mid nineteenth century, it is known for its intricate plots, dramatic gestures, artistically applied face paint and elaborate costumes. Covering a great variety in its political satire, breath taking stunts, slapstick humor, and whimsical singing style, the performances are highly entertaining, even if you don't understand Chinese.

The plots for the plays usually originate from legends, myths, history, or other plays. Over 200 popular plays are widely performed with countless less well known ones constantly being created and circulated.

The Roles

There are five types of actor/actress roles that are played in Peking Opera:

  • Sheng - The male role(s) in the feature. There are three sub-categories of Sheng. Xiaosheng is the young man role. Sometimes a main character, he is usually romantic and has a delicate singing voice. Laosheng is the older male role. He's usually a serious and loyal character, like a royal person's advisor or minister. His singing tone is low and vigorous. Wusheng is the male warrior role. His singing ability is compromised for well performed acrobatic ability and skill with a weapon.
  • Dan - The female role(s) in the feature. Women characters, just as in other cultures, were traditionally played by men impersonating females. There are four sub-categories of Dan. Qingyi is the older, mature female role. Qingyi literally means "blue gown"; this is more often than not the color of the robes she wears. Her character represents Confucian ideal of a good, moral woman. Huadan is the younger female role. As a pretty and flirtatious character, she is often a prostitute or a young maid. Her falsetto voice is laced with innuendoes and double meanings. Daomaodan is the female warrior. She is very similar to the Wusheng male role, except female. Laodan is an elderly female role.
  • Jing - The Jing role is perhaps the most well known character of Peking Opera in the West. It is a male role with intricate colored face paintings depicting his character. Sometimes he is a historical general, sometimes an emperor, sometimes a bandit leader. He sings forcefully and in a low pitch.
  • Mo - The Mo role is a minor male role. He is roughly equivalent to servants and gentlemen in Shakespearean drama.
  • Chou - The Chou role is a male comic relief character. He cracks jokes and makes puns, but rarely sings. When he does, it's usually in mockery of someone or over dramatizing something insignificant.

There are three main elements of Peking Opera music. There is musical speech, which is the actors speaking musically, arias, which is like a solo song for a character, and the instrumental music. Instrumental music is occasionally in the foreground to convey moods and drama, but usually in the background punctuating the acting on stage. The musicians are split into two groups: the Wuchang and the Wenchang.


The Wuchang, which means military instrumentation, is basically a percussion section.

  • Ban - Two pieces of wood clapped together to accompany the movement of characters.
  • Daluo - A large gong. It produces a falling pitch.
  • Xiaoluo - A small gong. It produces a rising pitch.
  • Naobo - Cymbals. Chinese cymbals sound drastically different than Western ones do. When struck together, they have almost a "bop" or "pop" resonating quality as opposed to a familiar "crash" sound.
  • Datanggu - A large barrel drum.
  • Xiaotanggu - A small barrel drum.

Indicating entrances and exits, emphasizing emotion and words, creating sounds effects, and increasing the general liveliness are several objectives of the Wucheng.


Wenchang, meaning civic instrumentation, are all the melodic instruments.

  • Yunluo - A set of ten gongs that produce different pitches when struck. Because they can be used to play a melody, they are with the Wenchang side of the musicians.
  • Erhu - The Erhu is a bowed lute chordophone with two strings. A unique point of interest about the Erhu is how the bow is between the strings and the body instead of outside the strings. The bow can't be taken out unless the strings are undone first.
  • Dizi - The lead aerophone. It resembles a recorder, but with a notched end.
  • Sheng - An aerophone based on the pipe organ principle. By blowing air through it and barring off certain passages, drone effects can multiple notes and be played.
  • Suona - A buzzy, double reed aerophone. It looks like a flute made of bamboo.

These melodic instruments play during introductions, interludes, dances and mime.

Note that there are many more instruments than the ones I listed here. These are just some of the most common ones. A special thanks goes to dharmaraja for clarifying the spelling of most of the Chinese terms.

Sources: Summerized from various World Music Class at lectures and handouts. Kent State Stark, 2002. Wong, Isabel K. F. Excursions in World Music. NJ: Prentice Hall 2001.