Masks in Performing Arts | Peking Opera: China's Traditional Theatrical Treasure

by Second Nature on October 01, 2023

A Brief History

Peking Opera has a history dating back over 200 years, with its roots in the Qing Dynasty during the 18th century. It originated in Beijing, the imperial capital of China, and was initially a fusion of various regional performance styles, including Kunqu Opera from the south and local operatic traditions from the north. Over time, Peking Opera evolved into a distinct art form, incorporating elements from these diverse sources while developing its own unique characteristics.

Key Elements of Peking Opera

  1. Character Types: Peking Opera is known for its four main character types, each represented by specific facial makeup and costumes. These character types include Sheng (male roles), Dan (female roles), Jing (painted face roles), and Chou (comic roles). The intricate facial makeup, known as "jing," is particularly striking and is used to convey the personalities and emotions of the characters.
  2. Elaborate Costumes: Peking Opera costumes are a visual spectacle, characterized by their vibrant colors, intricate embroidery, and opulent designs. Each character type has its own distinct costume style, reflecting the character's social status and personality.
  3. Unique Vocal Style: Peking Opera features a unique style of singing, characterized by high-pitched, melodic tunes and a technique known as "jinghu" or "jingyun" in which the performer's voice rises and falls dramatically. The singing is often accompanied by traditional Chinese instruments, including the erhu and the gong.
  4. Martial Arts and Acrobatics: Peking Opera incorporates martial arts and acrobatic movements into its performances. Actors are trained in these physical disciplines, and the combination of graceful movements and impressive combat sequences adds excitement and dynamism to the productions.
  5. Storytelling and Gesture: Peking Opera relies heavily on gesture and symbolic movements to convey emotions and tell stories. Performers use specific hand gestures, body postures, and facial expressions to communicate with the audience.

Cultural Significance

Peking Opera holds a special place in Chinese culture for several reasons:
  1. Cultural Heritage: Peking Opera is considered one of the most important cultural treasures of China. It has been recognized as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, highlighting its significance in preserving traditional Chinese performing arts.
  2. Bridging the Past and Present: While Peking Opera has deep historical roots, it continues to evolve and adapt to contemporary tastes. Modern productions often incorporate new elements while maintaining the core traditions, making it accessible to new generations.
  3. Cross-Cultural Appeal: Peking Opera has gained international recognition and appreciation, attracting audiences worldwide with its distinctive aesthetics and storytelling. It serves as a bridge for cultural exchange between China and other nations.


Peking Opera stands as a testament to China's rich cultural heritage and artistic creativity. Its distinctive blend of music, singing, acting, and acrobatics has enthralled audiences for centuries. As a revered art form that continues to flourish, Peking Opera not only preserves tradition but also adapts to the changing times, ensuring that its beauty and significance endure for generations to come.