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Chinese Opera and Peking Opera Costumes

Updated on July 1, 2013

China is the third largest country in the world, occupying one-fourteenth of the earth’s total landmass, and almost the size of entire Europe. The current population of China is 1.37 billion, which makes it the largest country in terms of population density. China is not only a large country because of landmass and population, but is also an ancient civilization. Contribution of Chinese thoughts, philosophy and art is immense.


China facts

  • Third largest country in the world
  • The current population of China is 1.37 billion
  • More than 55 ethnic communities live in China
  • Peking man originated in China
  • Confucianism and Taoism originated in China
  • There are more than 300 opera forms in China
  • When Marco Polo visited China, in the thirteenth century, Chinese were already burning coals.
  • Chinese were the first people to use paper. They created paper in about 105 AD.
  • Printing was discovered in China in 6th century.
  • Chinese were the first to use paper money. They have been using paper money for more than 1000 years.

History of Chinese Opera

There are more than 55 ethnic communities living in China. The diversity of language and culture has given birth to various kinds of theatrical styles. Since the time immemorial, performing art has played a vital role in Chinese civilization. The earliest record that mentions Chinese theatre art dates back to 1000 BCE.

Opera is a drama combined with singing, dancing and music. Chinese opera has many opera forms. Chuangi, Jingxi, Kungu, Zaju and Nanxi are some of the opera forms in China. Peking Opera (Jingxi), or Beijing Opera in the modern term, is one of the many opera forms in China that came into being in 1790, during the reign of Emperor Qianlong of Ching dynasty, the last of the imperial dynasty (1644-1911). The growth of a large number of performing artistes represented development of Peking Opera art. There are more than 300 types of opera in China, and these different operas styles are have their own ethnic and regional characteristics.

Chinese Opera originated from ancient songs and dance with the history of over nine hundred years. And Peking Opera, or Beijing Opera to be precise, is indispensible part of Chinese culture. The basic performing and storytelling techniques in Chinese Opera include actors' movements, music, dance, dialogues, songs, recitations, acrobatic performance and marshal art. Chinese Opera is very different to the Western drama in a sense that it is not completely based on song or dance. Conventional designs are used in the costumes that mark the grand heritage of Chinese culture.


Places to Visit in China

Imperial palace complex, also called Forbidden City, in Beijing was the centre of Chinese power in the medieval time. It was built in 1406 and spreads over 72 hectors.

The tomb of 8000 life sized terra-cotta soldiers in Shaanxi Sheng, was discovered in 1974 The statues of each soldiers have individually detailed faces. The tomb was built in 221-207 BCE.

The Great Wall of China is a man made wonder. The 5500 miles stone wall was built between 7-4th century BCE, which is the only man made structure that can be seen from the moon.

Aspects of Chinese Opera

Make up, mainly face painting, and costumes are two important aspects of Chinese Opera and also of Peking Opera. Since the stage usually do not have sets or props, stage environment, and time and space, is established by actors' movements, and emphasized by lavish costumes. Through the actors' performance, vivid and life like characters are created and the stage is made full of life.

Peking Opera Costumes are called Xingtou which are made from silk, satin and crepe. Costumes of artistes distinguish the rank of the characters being played. Red is the dominant color for high ranking characters. The characters of virtue also wear red. Lower ranking officials wear blue. Young characters are symbolized with white. Costumes for the old characters are white, brown or olive. Ornate decorations such flowing sleeves and wings attached on the helmet or hats give value to detailed choreography in Peking Opera.

Makeup helps to transform actors into characters. Face paints are extensively used. Red symbolizes uprightness and loyalty, white represents evil or crafty characters, and black is the color of integrity. In Peking Opera, the Jing is a painted face male role. The Chou is a male clown, whose bridge of nose and eyes are marked with white powder. Dan is a female character. These different characters are given different costumes for the performance. In the beginning of Chinese opera, women were not allowed to perform on stage so all Dan roles were played by men.

Apart from elegant costumes, musical instruments also play vital roles in Chinese Opera. The common melodic instruments used in Chinese Opera are fiddle, bowed lute and barrel drums.

Imperial palace complex


Chinese Opera Costumes

Traditional Chinese opera costumes are made mainly according to the styles of dress of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), with inputs from Tang, Sung and Ching Dynasty. However, in the modern times, historical costumes have gradually blended with song and dance costume. Color, style and patterns have made opera costume rich for the stage performances. Performers' roles are denoted by costumes in Peking Opera. Irrespective of season, the costume is always the same. Costumes separate the nature of characters such as good and evil, and loyal and wicked. Lavishness of costumes such as baldrics, plumes, crowns and wings attached on the headdress, long sleeve gives dramatic effect on the stage.

Different Kinds of Opera Costumes

There are various kinds of Opera costumes such as Mang, Kao Pei and headdress. Mang are the ceremonial robes for emperors, princes, generals and ministers. They are embroidered with the patterns of clouds, dragons and sea waves. The costume color for emperor is yellow, whereas officers wear different colors according to their status, traditions, ages and personalities. Kao are the armors for soldiers. Some armors are hard and some are soft. Their color is related to the age and personality of the character. And Pei are informal robes for emperors and civil officials.

Opera headdress comprise items such as crowns, helmets, hats, including wings attached, and scarves. Artificial beard and whiskers are extensively used by male characters. They are usually made from human or yak hair, even fiber glass. Colors of beard and whiskers are black, grey and white. Wide variety of shoes and boots are used in opera performances mainly including flat boots, tiger headed boots, thin sole combat footwear, fish headed boxer shoes and laced boxer shoes.




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    • Vinaya Ghimire profile imageAUTHOR

      Vinaya Ghimire 

      6 years ago from Nepal

      Hello Audra, I love live theater, and opera is my latest discovery. Thanks for your compliments.

      I have not visited many places, only been to India and China. Paris is my dream destination.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I am impressed with all ow your knowledge about all aspects of China. I love the details of the make up they wear. I am not familiar with opera, but the cosumes are spectacular! Voted up! ps...what is your favorite place you have visited in the world?

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile imageAUTHOR

      Vinaya Ghimire 

      6 years ago from Nepal

      Hi Hypenbird, thanks for appreciating my work.


    • Hyphenbird profile image

      Brenda Barnes 

      6 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

      Vinaya, this is just beautiful. The costumes, the history and music made me so pleased and happy. Thank you for this incredible presentation.

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile imageAUTHOR

      Vinaya Ghimire 

      6 years ago from Nepal

      @Frank, you are a nice man, you always read my hubs and leave appreciative comments. Thanks for honoring me with your wonderful comments.

      @Radha, one of my best blogs, wow, so nice of you to say this.

      Actually, no one in my mother or father's side is related to the arts of any kind. However, my father loves art and from him I learned the value of art.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      One of your best blogs. I have a relative who sang at Metropolitan Opera in the 1920s, Geraldine Farrar. She sang with Caruso and made Madame Butterfly and Carmen famous. She was an actress after her opera career and made silent movies with Cecile B. DeMille. When she retired they had a big parade on New York City with many of her female fans who were flappers. My musical ability comes through my mother who is related to her. I knew something about Chinese Opera, but the different colors are interesting. In the West we use white for moral goodness and black for shady and evil characters. They do the opposite. Thanks for the great article.

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 

      6 years ago from Shelton

      You know VG.. what I like about your hubs is that you are detailed and complete.. you don't take short-cuts.. so nothing gets missed.. voted up and detailed :)

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile imageAUTHOR

      Vinaya Ghimire 

      6 years ago from Nepal

      @lovedoc, I live close to China, but never been to the country. However, since I was in High school I have always wondered about Chinese art, culture and history.

      @Mhatter, thanks for stopping by

      @Ruchira, Chinese opera is so different from Western Opera. I hope you will find this interesting.

      @Angelgeme566, praising me too much? wow! So nice of you.


    • Angelme566 profile image


      6 years ago

      You've described and discussed it here Chinese Opera in a manner that won't bore a reader.

      I find you an extraordinary writer for you always write things which most don't even remember or others really don't know about such thing , you teach me to love history more. Thanks for writing and refreshing world history. How i wish to climb to the wall of China !

      Videos are so so colorful ,and lovely audio and music though i didn't understand what is being sung there.

      Voted Up ! Interesting , useful..

      My best regards ! Voted Uo , interesting , useful !

    • Ruchira profile image


      6 years ago from United States

      interesting hub, vinaya. i love opera but chinese opera is new to me.

      voted up indeed as interesting.

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 

      6 years ago from San Francisco

      used to go, when it came with a drink. SF Chinatown

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      These are some very interesting facts about China. I would love to visit Beijing and the Great Wall of China. This hub is nicely written and presented. I'm interested in learning more about Chinese culture and arts. If you're ever in Epcot Center, (Orlando) stop by the China pavilion. thanks for sharing


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