A factual analysis of the Beijing Opera ‘Farewell to Princess Yu‘, performed in the ‘Temple Theatre‘ in Beijing.
by Luciana B. Veit
Behind the Beijing Opera
The Temple Theatre is located in an hutong (narrow old street) in Beijing. It was previously a temple and is more than 340 years old (like the Peking Opera itself).
Such an historical space indicates effortlessly what is about to come. The venue, which seats approximately 150 persons, makes the audience feel treasured with its wooden columns, red and green ceiling, walls and staircase that leads to the two-storey gallery (used strictly just by the performers).
One can’t help but imagine the way it used to be some 200 years ago, when citizens came during the day for a cup of tea and a chat while one-act operas performed in the background.
But that was long before Mei Lanfang conquered the world with his charm and the acting excellence of his dan roles, one of the best-known transvestites in the theatre.
Although traditional in style, the Temple Theatre offers a modern touch with its block seats, where men and women watch the show under the same roof, a phenomenon that began only in 1931.
Lacking a downstage curtain, the small stage has a simple squared form, albeit with one right-side corner stretching into the middle of the auditorium. Two black columns with carved golden Chinese sayings support the front of the stage. If the audiences were allowed to sit sideways from the stage, they would be facing it on three sides. There is no trap door, but there is an opening in the middle of the low stage ceiling used by monkey-warrior characters to descend from heaven. It looks like a circled balcony emerging from black squares with golden dragon patterns.
Backstage is behind the upstage, separated only by an black curtain embroidered with golden flowers. The black floor and curtain represent the cold north (Beijing region), the element of water (holy for its ability to change forms) and, together with the sign of the warrior, it leads to the correct performance in a ritualistic space.
The dominance of black on a traditional Chinese stage is quite unusual, because contemporary Beijing Opera stages normally have yellow curtains.
Before each act starts, a stage checker enters carrying a red (to stop evil energy) wooden block in order to present the name of the next performance. Those not familiar with the plots can follow them through subtitles in “Chinglish”, shown on a digital screen beside the stage.
Looking at the stage set for Farewell to Princess Yu (BA WANG BIE JI), among other plays to be performed that night, I noticed that it was empty at first. But those who knew better just had to wait for the checkers do their job during the performance’s development. Checkers are responsible for setting the props, but not responsible for giving an indication of an exact time in history.
“Wen xi” (routine acts) were written in times of peace and the “wu xi (fighting act)” indicate times of war, like in Farewell to Princess Yu. These are hints of specific historical times.
Farewell to Princess Yu’s stage set did not remain the same from beginning to end. As mentioned before, the stage was empty at first as the emperor entered, bringing the bad news of the approaching enemy to Princess Yu. As soon as the sheng (warrior, the main male role in Beijing Opera) confirmed that the situation was serious, the setting changed. The curtains were removed, revealing a surprising backstage that used a stage extension with a tasteful, modern wall covered in crumpled paper and purple light effects; all with snow falling in the background.
One chair was placed on the extension, symbolising a royal tent somewhere on the battlefields. The only other props used for this act were a set of swords belonging to Princess Yu and another sword belonging to the emperor.
Together with the story’s tragic development, this setting definitely awakened a sad emotion within me.
In a contemporary theatre lighting is used to heighten the emotions. Normally this is not the case with the Peking Opera which uses basic, general and bright yellow lights. But the lighting at the Temple Theatre was carefully arranged according to the highs and lows of each act. Red was used to portray tension; blue, coldness and sadness, despite its spirituality as seen by locals; yellow spotlight to help emphasise the main character’s most decisive moment.
The music also helped to set the mood: it was an opera, after all.
The orchestra is so important that it is seated on a side-stage, on the same level as the actors (and not by the auditorium). In other Peking opera houses the orchestra is located backstage, though it is still visible to those sitting in the opposite corners of the auditorium. In every Peking opera house, if the actors don’t succeed in catching the eyes of the audiences, the musicians will certainly attract their ears.
But the work of the actors and the musicians aren’t enough on a half-empty stage. The audience’s powers of imagination and visualisation are crucial because, without them, the Peking Opera would only be half as entertaining.
The quality of illusion created by the Peking Opera is strong, but it is not always conclusive. It is not a matter of speaking Chinese, even if it is the same dialect. It is also not a matter of understanding the simple pantomime movements, such as when the actor opens or closes an imaginary door or rows an invisible boat.
In one particular moment I needed longer to realise that the wu sheng wasn’t only showing-off his acrobatic skills, but rather fighting the enemy’s army.
Older generations know all about foot-binding and Peking Opera, but there’s a lack of understanding of the art’s symbolism that scares away younger audiences from this UNESCO heritage. The new generation prefers to watch movies with self-explanatory settings, or to attend a South-Korean boy-band gig instead.
I experienced an audience-fashi relationship during the performance, but I couldn’t speak for others. The incapability of non-theatre professionals to read signifiers justifies the decadence of the opera’s popularity.
Regardless of the illuminated higher stage, which suggests that it is a holy place and that the audiences in the dark are simple mortals, the intimacy of the space was still there. Was it because of the Temple Theatre’s proportions, or because of the magic that even a near-bare stage is able to provide?
Through Farewell to Princess Yu I gained the impression that the fashi were not performing for the space, but directly for me. That is why audiences keep the Beijing Opera’s experience in their minds for a long time, or at least until they watch the next movie.
Beijing Opera – Costumes and Make-up
A Peking Opera actor doesn’t own his body: he lends it to the characters he portrays. But on the day of the performance, he acknowledges that although he knows his part par cœur, he still needs make-up – which he applies himself, diving thus into the role’s inner being – and a sophisticated costume to achieve a complete transformation.
The transformation elements of the Peking Opera are highly stylised and strictly traditional, without modern twists, just like the plots. Make-up, costumes and gestures are the visiting card of the roles being interpreted. When this is not the case, the audiences may “throw eggs and apples at actors” who fail to explain their identity through their appearance. Why would it be different when local audiences are so visually orientated?
In the West actors are chosen for their talent, but sometimes for their physical resemblance to the character (including gender) as well. The true appearance of a Chinese actor is absolutely insignificant. Men play women. Women could play men. But it wasn’t always so.
Beijing Opera became famous worldwide through Mei Lanfang, a boy who looked feminine and was forced to train uniquely for dan (women) roles. He became a legend. But it was only in the middle of the twentieth century that women were allowed to act at all and alongside men. From that moment, criticism over cross-dressing ruled China, when allegations of homosexual abuse by powerful men toward famous dan impersonators became public. Was this one of the main reasons for the ban on opera for nearly ten years after the Cultural Revolution?
When analysing the Beijing Opera and its characters, including the play Farewell to Princess Yu, it is important to keep in mind that all characters are illusory. They are not necessarily mythical because generals, princesses, nuns and boatmen are not inventions, but their features are always very exaggerated: tremendously witty, miraculously beautiful, heartbreakingly sad or frighteningly enraged. These qualities are always reflected in their appearance.
All the characters were created according to tales or true-life stories of the capital’s region, most of them dating back to the Qing Dinasty (1644 to 1912). The essence of the Beijing Opera is about showing the pains and the virtues of their own people.
According to the book by Xu Chengbei, Peking Opera: The Performance behind the Painted Faces, “the most common character in the opera is sheng (man of high social status). There can be lao sheng (old male and), wu sheng (warrior) and xiao sheng (handsome and young).”
Every sheng has a strong and notable delineation of the eyebrows. Moreover, a sheng with a white face indicates he is untrustworthy. So, the colours of a character’s face will depend on their main characteristics or emotional state. In Farewell to Princess Yu the wu sheng displayed a tanned skin for his warrior role, as one who is always outdoors. He also had two short vertical lines between the eyebrows to remind the audience of his seriousness and steady worries.
If Xu Chengbei is correct, then the dan roles are: “Qing yi (of high social status and gentle), hua dan (vivacious, beautiful, but from ordinary household), lao dan (old female), and wu dan (female warrior)”.
Regardless of age and status, the dan make-up is fixed, and does not reveal an emotional state. What differentiates one character from another are the costumes. Because men perform most of the dan roles, it is important to achieve extreme feminine characteristics through calculated make-up techniques. White powdered face and neck; eye sockets with red eye shadow and thick black eyeliner; small mouth embellished with red lipstick and finally, black paint to give the illusion that a piece of hair is stylishly “glued” to each cheek bone, almost reaching the chin.
The jing is the painted face: rough, bold and explosive. “The range of make-up patterns is huge because they were first based on masks, used to scare away evil spirits or frighten the enemy during a battle” explains Chengbei. Just like the sheng and the dan roles, jing can also be a royal, a warrior or simply a civilian.
In Farewell to Princess Yu the emperor himself is a jing. A long black beard covers his mouth and reaches his chest, and thick white paint serves as the make-up base. The black lines on his forehead and that go slightly up around his eyes show that he is a fierce old man, gripped by worries, but still a warm-hearted person.
There is no chou (funny or deceitful clown) role in Farewell to Princess Yu, but his traditional make-up is a nude-powdered face with comic white paint circled around the nose.
Xifu, or costumes, are as important as the make-up. Fabric, patterns and colours are decisive. The symbolism of the costumes in Peking Opera is complex, but the season never causes a change in costume. It is the actor who indicates the weather by his movements.
The wu sheng wears thin-soled black combat boots, black military trousers and shirt as the sign of the warrior; also an orange waistcoat and a sort of black-golden apron, adorned with sun and water symbols, that reveals a close proximity to the emperor.
Princess Yu can be easily recognised because of her robe and trousers in the emperor’s colour – yellow – and because of the repeated phoenixes as patterns, symbolising the “royalness, beauty, duty, virtue and reliability”. She also has a sword attached to her waist, for these are dangerous times.
Stunningly beautiful headdresses are not the dan’s accessories only. All four opera characters wear them, although the phoenix headdress is reserved for princesses or high-ranking concubines only.
Although water-sleeves (double white-silk sleeves attached to the cuffs of a costume) are symbols of the Peking Opera wore by men or women, Princess Yu doesn’t wear them, displaying her hands clearly as she dances with the two swords before ending her own life.
The costume of the jing emperor increased the size of the actor, unlike the costumes of Princess Yu and the warrior. Wearing black boots with white platforms, he appeared taller than he was. His costume was three sizes larger than the actor’s real size and the effect of the gold (colour of the sun and of absolute power) decorating the black robe and trousers enlarged the character even more. In addition to a massive sword that hung from his waist, the exaggerated thick, heavy and long golden apron focused once more on greatness.
Other than the stage setting, the make-up and costumes of the Peking Opera are strong signifiers of each role’s functions, easily recognisable to the audience, besides being magnificent in their appearance.
Beijing Opera – The Movement
All fashi must excel in singing, reciting, dancing and acrobatic-fighting in order to perform on the Peking Opera stage. Not all of the four essential characteristics appear in every single play, but in Farewell to Princess Yu this theatrical language is very much present.
The body language is accurate and every single movement is carefully studied, such as sitting down, crying and striking a pose. There is room neither for improvisation nor for a display of personality in the actor’s acting style. Naturalism doesn’t belong in the Peking Opera. All these movements are highly theatrical, deliberately not how people behave in normal life.
It starts when the fashi enter the stage from the upstage curtain (never from the middle of the audience), walking an imagined curve and striking a pose. This move is not only designed for character recognition and a welcome applause, but it also shows the character’s self-control and mental spirit.
Music accompanies the act most of the time and, depending on the situation, one will hear the “xi pi, a vigorous and quick tune; or er huang, a gentle, steady and deep tune”. Music is important to the acting, but the reciting is performed without it.
Jinghu is a stringed instrument that leads the small orchestra. “The jinghu player normally works exclusively for the star actor of the evening” – “normally” because there was no exchange of jinghu players the night I watched Farewell to Princess Yu. The pipa (traditional flute) follows. Additionally, it would be impossible to ignore the deafening sound of the cymbals and gongs, which were used historically for calling the spectators’ attention from outdoors.
Since I couldn’t pass judgment on the Chinese language, I tried to pay attention to the way in which the actors delivered the lines. Fashi never speak the way we do in daily life: a short sentence in a dan’s high-pitched voice, for instance, can last more than two minutes with no music as background. When the jing recites with his baritone voice – not a voice type rule though – he also shows great emotion. It is very different for the wu sheng who acts more through movement than spoken lines.
No matter who is telling the story by dancing or fighting, recitation or singing (which is far less difficult than reciting as there is music to support it), acknowledgment of the audience happens all the time. The characters speak to them and rarely directly to the other characters onstage.
The delivery of the lines is always combined with the stylised gestures. When the jing emperor is angry or worried, he plays with his beard. When Princess Yu informs us that she is considering suicide, she wipes the tears falling from her eyes.
The full body language is not marginalised at any moment. Everything goes hand-in-hand. The eyes follow the princess’ hands and voice intonation; the standing pose with legs apart of the emperor supports his heavy costume; the arms crossed behind the warrior’s back signals his promptitude for serving his nation without fear.
The concentration of the performers’ presence occurs naturally due to the combination of all the theatrical elements working together.
According to the ancient rule, an experienced actor should not share the stage with a younger one, but this is not the case any more. What is important today is that acting is pleasant to watch.
There is another general stage rule that applies to the Peking Opera: the character with the greatest status will stand on the right, while the ones below him stand on the left. It was curious to see the emperor sitting on the backstage extension, motionless, while watching from afar the last moments of his princess’ life. Perhaps that was a signifier for how much he cared for her, respecting thus her decision to say “farewell” through a final dance.
As soon as she dies the emperor walks back to centre-stage, followed by the entrance of the warrior, who informs him that the enemy troops are outside the royal tent and there isn’t anything else he can do. What he still can and will do is fight one last battle to protect the emperor.
For the scene, the wu sheng makes use of the extended stage that reaches into the audience. There he performs a carefully choreographed combat, although his moves are reminiscence of rhythmic gymnastics rather than real martial arts fighting.
From the audience’s point of view it is not difficult to keep track of the action, because when one character recites or dances, the other is quiet. And when one moves around the stage, either all move according to the choreography, blending together, or it happens one by one.
However, in Farewell to Princess Yu’s final scene, when the warrior fights for his honour, the emperor follows the princess and also commits suicide out of hopelessness and pride.
Those simultaneous scenes confused the audience because both of them were of major significance and yet were placed in two different stage areas.
What was clearer were the animal characterisation for all three fashi. The princess, for all the values already mentioned, embodied the phoenix. The tiger’s spirit possessed the warrior, while the dragon came in the form of the explosive, yet wise jing emperor, with its mythical and hugely divine figure.
Although there are more than fifty studied hand gestures (which have no story-telling power other than aesthetic raison d’être) and forty-five known facial expressions, it is hard to say that every single performer of the one hundred Peking Opera troupes across China can master Mei Lanfang’s celebrated moves. There is no stylised performance that can change that: talent is still a matter of individuality and not just training.
One cannot stamp the opera acts as being uniquely melodramatic or tragic, because they are both of these qualities. I would classify the Farewell of Princess Yu as highly tragic, although the Drunken Princess is pure melodrama. Despite their genres, the acts normally live up to the audiences’ expectations that first occur from the suggestive titles. The Peking Opera is exquisite because of the pantomime movements and general acting skills, but not necessarily because of its literature.
As the fashi know how to make an entrance and an exit, their bows are ignored in between acts. There is no gran finale because only the last act allows choreographed bows, leaving the lead actors for last.
The truth is that there is no Chinese modesty on the local stages because every artist needs his moment of glory – applause – although not every one gets it. That is curious indeed.