The Beijing Opera
Modern observers in the West may not understand why, but they can certainly recognize when males are used to portray female roles in the Chinese theater. A quote from Act 2 Scene 7 of David Henry Hwang's opera, “Madam Butterfly,” provides a useful example of how and why males are used to play female roles. There, a male singer who plays female roles in Beijing Opera deceives a French diplomat into thinking he actually is a woman. He explains that males take the female roles "because only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act" This explanation resonates on multiple levels with varying degrees of irony, suggesting that gender is as performative in life as it is in theater. To this end, this paper examines how men playing the tan role in the Beijing Opera define and enforce the idea of femininity by performing the female role to determine how men perform femininity on stage in the Beijing Opera. A summary of the research is provided in the conclusion. Review and Discussion
Background and Overview.
The importance of actors and acting has long been celebrated in China; in fact, the first document concerning “actors” can be found in the Records of the Great Historian, written by Sima Qian (145-90 BCE), who was appointed to the court of Emperor Wu (reigned 141-87 BCE) of the Western Han dynasty (cited in Thorpe 269). Likewise, the use of male actors to portray female characters also has a long history in China, although many contemporary researchers consider its origins to be primarily in the last century and a half. According to Tian (2000), “The art of male dan --specialists in female roles -- is one of the most important issues in traditional Chinese theatre, especially in jingju (Beijing or Peking opera)” (78). Beijing opera, or literally “opera of the capital,” emerged in the mid-19th century in China by incorporating components of huidiao from Anhui, dandiao from Hubei, and kunqu, the traditional opera that had predominated the country since the 14th century; performed in Mandarin, the dialect of Beijing and of the traditional elite, the jingxi musical verse plays came to be performed throughout China, although most provinces and many major cities developed their own operatic variants using local dialects (Brandon 2).
As Beijing opera spread out from its original roots in Beijing to become an actual national theatre in China, there were some issues that arose concerning tradition and innovation. For instance, in his book, Diasporas and Interculturalism in Asian Performing Arts: Translating Traditions, Um (2004) reports that, “The art as performed in Beijing was considered the 'pure' form, referred to as 'jingpai' ([Bei]jing style). But somewhat paradoxically, innovation was only regarded as truly successful if it was recognized in Beijing. For instance, liupai, the schools or styles of acting representative of the creative work of individual actors, could only be established through the validation of Beijing audiences and critics” (161). Before the mid-20th century, Beijing opera was considered to be actor-centered, both in terms of performance as well as the creative process; this mindset meant that all major creative work was either accomplished by or supervised by the actors but even this creative work had be approved by Beijing (Um 161). In fact, “An actor's original composition, scripting, staging and performance achieved the power of long-term influence and continuity only when Beijing conferred liupai status” (Um 161).
According to Brandon (2006), Beijing operas are highly conventionalized in terms of movements, costumes and makeup; the respective attitudes of the individual characters in Beijing opera products are communicated through traditional postures, steps, and arm movements. In addition, both actors and actresses wear carefully applied face paint to indicate which characters they portray and various acrobatic movements are often employed to suggest...
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