My first foray into the World of Beijing Opera or “Jingju”
This was originally part of “Beijing Bites Back: A Little Adversity Abroad “, but I realized that not only was it put-you-to sleep-long, but also that Jingju is so awesome, I was doing it a disservice by not giving it it’s own post. So here it is. Last Friday, CET took us to see Beijing Opera at the Liyuan Theater. Word around China is that Beijing Opera is like nothing you’ve seen before; you either love it or hate it (you’ll see why). Luckily, I loved it.
A quick disclaimer before we get going:
I’m not a huge fan of “political correctness”, but I also don’t want to come off as culturally insensitive and/or ignorant. The fact is, my English vocab is almost as limited as my Chinese vocab, and so when I describe something using words that some people might consider “not PC” or ethnocentric, truthfully it’s just the best way I know how to relay an image to readers and shouldn’t be interpreted in a negative way.
That out of the way, here’s what went down.
My Lonely Planet China Guide says that “of all Chinese Opera, Beijing Opera, or Jing ju 京剧, is by far the most famous with its colorful blend of speaking, singing, swordsmanship, mime, and acrobatics,” – and really is like no opera you’ve ever seen.
A minute into the first act, I’m thinking to myself “this looks like a really well choreographed version of Barnum and Bailey’s or Star Wars: China, and sounds like a combo of screaming banshees and the noise I used to make on the kitchen pots when I was 4 years old.” (Hence cultural insensitivity explanation.) The costumes are over the top flamboyant with more colors and feathers than a peacock (a guess since I’ve only seen one peacock in my lifetime), and the language so archaic even our Chinese roommates couldn’t understand it – truth.
Here’s some video I took:
We saw four scenes:
Farewell to Concubine – which happens to be the magnum opus of the Mei School of Beijing Opera (not too shabby).
- The Crossroad – basically two guys with more athleticism, flexibilty, and mime – ability than I’ve ever seen, dueling it out with swords on stage.
- Yang Silang Visit to His Mother – After being captured by the Liao army, Yang Yanhui changes his name and marries a Liao Princess. 15 years later, he decides he misses his mother and wants to pay her a visit in the middle of wartime.
- The Drunken Concubine – The King stands up one of his concubines and she drinks herself to oblivion…happens to the best of us.
As crazy as it is, Beijing Opera is said to reflect the national essence of China; is one of the best, if not the best, representations of Chinese culture (even if it has only been around for a little over 200 years); and is considered one of China’s cultural treasures.
The movements (both improvised and choreographed), music, costumes, masks and facial painting, and vocals all have a meaning that I may not necessarily fully grasp right now, but in general, they’re meant to create a symbolic picture of everyday Chinese life.
I may add to this post if and when I learn more about Jingju, but at this stage, if you want more info you’re best bet is probably going to be Wikipedia, or check out this site.
I’ve been to a show at the Vienna State Opera, and if you had asked me afterwards if I had any interest in Opera at all, I would’ve answered with a definitive “no”. But I’ll tell you what; I genuinely loved Beijing Opera. Maybe it was because it was just so out there it that in some reality it made sense. I don’t do anti-conformity, but I think sometimes, things that are out of the ordinary are genuinely more interesting. For me, just appreciating Beijing Opera for what it is, as opposed to trying to analyze it or compare it to something else, was what made it enjoyable.
On a final note, CET has been awesome, I legitimately don’t think I have one complaint. But the thing they do best, or what I appreciate most, is the effort they put in to actually get us out in China, experiencing culture, and in a way that’s unique – not everybody takes a boat through Beijing’s canals to get to the Summer Palace, or actually camps on the Great Wall. I don’t mean to sound like an ad, but if you’re someone who’s considering studying abroad in China, I’d say CET is one of your best options.
If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below and I’ll get back to you!