The characters of a Chinese Opera play can be divided into 4 broad types- Dan, Sheng, Jing and Chou. An actor is usually trained to take up roles of a single type, though some versatile performers are able to master more than one type during their career. The four types are discussed below.
Dan is the general name for female roles in Chinese opera. It is interesting to note that Dan roles were played by male actors up till the 1930s, when it then became socially acceptable for females to perform in opera. Dan is further divided into many roles which include laodan, wudan and so on. Laodan are played by older women, while Wudan refers to martial women. Young female warriors are known as Daomadan. Virtuous and elite female characters are referred to as Qingyi. The Qingyi role requires females with a high-pitched voice and good-looks, who are often more skillful actresses that are difficult to find. Vivacious and unmarried women are Huadan. A Huadan character is usually below 16 years of age, so the actress chosen for the role must correctly depict a youthful character.
The Sheng is the main male role in Beijing opera. Like the Dan, it is further divided into many subtypes. The Laosheng is a dignified older role played by older male actors while young male characters are known as Xiaosheng. The Xiaosheng character has a high, shrill voice and can only be played by younger actors. Wusheng refers to martial men. Actors playing these roles have to sing well, and also well-versed in martial arts.
The Jing is a painted face male role and is either a primary or secondary character of a play. The personality traits of the character vary according to the colour and design of his face mask. The Jing character is a forceful one, so actors who are chosen for these roles usually have a strong voice and are able to exaggerate their movements. There are 3 main types of Jing- Tongchui, Jiazi and Wujing. The Tongchui role emphasises singing, while the Wujing role is characterised by skillful physical performances such as martial art fighting. The Jiazi role is in between, involving a good balance of both singing and fighting.
The Chou is a male clown role. This role is usually a minor role, however it can be one of the most difficult roles to perform. Chou roles can be divided into Wenchou and Wuchou. The former involves civilian roles while the latter refers to military roles. Wuchou is the more demanding of the two. It requires an actor with good humour and wit because the nature of the role gives much space for the actor to improvise and involves comic acting in addition to the usual singing. In the past, a Wuchou would burst into an unscripted folk song and the orchestra would follow suit to play the song. However, in recent years, such improvisation is rarely seen anymore.