It is regarded that Beijing Opera was born when the Four Great Anhui Troupes came to Beijing in 1790. Beijing Opera was originally staged for the royal family and came into the public later. In 1828, some famous Hubei Troupe players came to Beijing. Hubei and Anhui troupes often jointly performed in the stage. The combination gradually formed the mainstream of Beijing Opera's melodies. One of the rare forms of entertainment, it was favored by people from all walks of the society, from the high-ranking government officials to the lower levels of society. There are thousands of pieces covering the entire history and literature of China, even including revised stories from the west.
There are as many kinds of Chinese Opera as there are dialects. It has been estimated that there are thousands branches of Chinese Opera. Most of them are local, dominating a region within a province and its surrounding area. However, Beijing Opera is the national standard, and has a higher reputation than any of the other branches of Chinese Opera. Almost every province of China has more than one Beijing Opera troupe. Beijing and Tianjin are respected as the key base cities in the north while Shanghai is the base in the south.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Beijing Opera suffered along with other kinds of theatrical arts in China. All the traditional pieces reflecting the Old Societies were banned from performance. The famous Eight Model Plays, featuring the communist activities during the anti-Japanese war and the civil war with the Nationalists, as well as the class struggles after the founding of the People's Republic, were then developed. Many outstanding Beijing Opera and Kunqu Opera actors and actresses performed in these operas. Although "Class Struggle" was the theme of most of these plays, these plays introduced some new forms of stage performances. Many people who grew up during the Cultural Revelution are still in favor of the music and singing from the Eight Model Plays.
Traditional Beijing Opera was allowed to be shown again in 1978. But due to the threat from other entertainments, Beijing Opera's out-of-date styles and the lack of historical and theatrical knowledge of the young, this art had lost a lot of its audiences. Most of the audiences are old people, who were children when Beijing Opera was at its peak. The art is dying.
There have been campaigns and efforts to rescue this and other theatrical arts. The Chinese Opera journal has sponsored the annual Plum Blossom Award for more than ten years. Each year, the journal invites dozens of opera and drama players to perform in a Beijing theater. The award goes to those who top the poll conducted by the journal. Winners, who must be younger than 45, include actors and actresses from all around China. A Plum Blossom Chinese painting was selected as the Award's offical logo. Other performance competitions among the young actors and actresses have been screened live and aired in China Central Television (CCTV), the largest TV network in China, and national radio stations. A so called Beijing Opera Month just finished lately in Beijing.
First edition: April 4, 1995
Last revision: April 2, 1997
Copyright 1995-1997 by Xu-Ming Wang
Special acknowledgement to Daiyu