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A beginner’s guide to Peking Opera: its history, characters, and how to watch

By LingoAce Team |US |July 17, 2023

Chinese Culture

What is Peking Opera?

Peking opera, also known as Beijing opera, is one of China’s most iconic performance arts. It combines speech, singing, mime, and acrobatics performed to classical Chinese music to tell compelling stories. Like Western opera, Peking opera is known for its distinctive singing style and elaborate costumes. However, its stories and performances are rooted in traditional Chinese culture that is distinct from its Western opera counterparts. Not sure what it looks or sounds like? You can watch Peking opera videos online here.

History of Peking opera

Did you know that Peking opera isn’t an ancient Chinese art form? In fact, most historians attribute the creation of Peking opera to the Qianlong Emperor’s 80th birthday celebration during China’s Qing Dynasty in 1790, which featured a performance by the Four Great Anhui Troupes. The troupes often performed together, and their unique style became mainstream in cities like Beijing, sparking the creation of the Peking opera. Their style of opera was coined ‘Peking’ opera, as ‘Peking’ means Beijing. However, what we know as Peking Opera today still took a century to fully develop!

Although Peking opera isn’t an ancient art form, its roots can be traced to ancient China’s Three Kingdoms Period (220–280 AD). From this period until the creation of Peking opera, Chinese performers continued to innovate new forms of regional opera and theatrical styles.

Everyone should watch Peking opera at least once. This iconic art form is a perfect culmination of other traditional Chinese performing arts and other styles of regional Chinese opera. In fact, in a single Peking opera performance, you may experience acrobatics, regional folk songs and music, and even Shaolin martial arts!

While Peking opera maintains its traditional form, it has also evolved to adapt to modern tastes. Contemporary performances may incorporate elements of Western theater, contemporary themes, and innovative stage designs. This fusion allows Peking opera to remain relevant and engage new audiences.

Why is Peking opera important?

Peking opera is a valuable part of China’s cultural heritage. It has played a significant role in Chinese culture, reflecting its history, values, and aesthetics. Peking opera serves as a repository of Chinese traditions and embodies the essence of Chinese storytelling and theatrical arts. Because of this, the Chinese government and cultural organizations collaborate to preserve and promote Peking opera through training programs, festivals, and educational initiatives.

Peking opera’s importance is also recognized globally and has been named a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Peking opera troupes have collaborated and inspired artists worldwide, contributing to cross-cultural exchanges and fostering appreciation for Chinese performing arts.

What are the characters and features of a typical Peking opera?

One of the distinguishing features of Peking opera is its fusion of various artistic elements. It combines singing, acting, dancing, and martial arts into a cohesive and mesmerizing story.

Peking opera performers undergo rigorous training from a young age to master these diverse skills.

Music and singing

If you’ve ever seen a Peking opera performance, the first thing you will notice is the singing. Peking opera features a unique style of singing known as "jinghuang, a high-pitched, stylized vocal technique. These vocals are accompanied by traditional Chinese instruments, including Peking opera's signature percussion-heavy orchestra. The melodies are rhythmic and complement the dramatic action happening onstage.

Stories and themes

Peking opera draws heavily from classical Chinese literature, historical events, and folk tales. The stories often revolve around themes of loyalty, filial piety, honor, and patriotism. Popular plays include: “The Legend of the White Snake,” “The Heavenly Maid Scatters Blossoms,” and “Assassinating the Tiger General."

Makeup and costumes

The vibrant and elaborate Peking opera costume and makeup are an integral part of the performance. Each color and design have symbolic significance, representing a character's personality, status, and emotions. For example, a character with “white face” makeup or mask is typically cunning and treacherous, while a character with “red face” makeup or mask is typically brave and loyal.


Peking opera consists of four main roles: Sheng (male roles), Dan (female roles), Jing (painted face, usually male roles), and Chou (clown roles). Each role has specific characteristics and performs distinct movements, gestures, and vocal styles. The actors’ ability to convey emotions through subtle gestures and facial expressions is highly valued.

Where can you watch Peking opera?

If you’re not in a Chinese-speaking country, it can be difficult to watch Peking opera live. The National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing China has a YouTube channel with a playlist of many classic operas and other performing arts styles including dance and acrobatics. Another option is to simply Google, “Peking opera performance online” and see what you can find.

Traveling Peking opera troupes regularly perform in major cities around the world. Just check the events calendar at your theater, performance arts center, museum, or university.


Is Peking opera all male?

This is no longer the case today. Women were prohibited from performing until the 1930s. Before then, female roles (or Dan) were played by men in women’s Peking opera costumes.

Why is it called Peking opera?

“Peking” is the postal romanization of China’s capital city, Beijing, that was used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This style of opera was developed by the Four Great Anhui Troupes, who often performed together and became mainstream in Beijing. Hence, this style of opera was coined ‘Peking’ opera.

Today, Peking opera's popularity and cultural significance can be attributed to its rich heritage, diverse artistic elements, and powerful storytelling. With the colorful Peking opera costumes, mesmerizing music, and skilled performers, Peking opera continues to captivate audiences, both within China and around the world.

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