COSTUMES

(1) Peking Opera costumes do not conform to periods of history. A performer’s costume primarily designates his or her role on the stage no matter the era when the action takes place.

(2) The costume remains the same regardless of the weather. The weather is described verbally in every scene and is portrayed by the actor’s movements, rather than his or her clothing.

(3) Peking Opera costumes must enable the audience to distinguish a character’s sex and status in one glance.

There are 20 major kinds of costumes, including the ceremonial robe, or ‘Mang’; the informal robe, or Pie; and the armour, or Kao, for soldiers. Ten colours are used, half of which are the five primary colours, namely, red, green, yellow, white and black; in contrast to the other group of pink, blue, purple, pale-brown and pale-blue, all of which are labelled secondary colours.

Refer to

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COSTUMES – Mang, the Ceremonial Robe

The ‘Mang’ is the most formal of costumes, usually worn by characters of high and noble rank in scenes such as formal banquets or court ceremonies. The name ‘Mang’ is derived from the four-clawed ‘dragon’ that is usually depicted on robes of officials, as opposed to the five-clawed dragon that is reserved for imperial robes. There are many different styles of depicting dragons on the ‘mang’, each with its own unique symbolism.

Civil officers have dragons on their ‘mang’ depicted in close-knit groups, symbolising virtuous simplicity:

On the other hand, dragons on the ‘mangs’ of military officers are splashed across the front in various active stances, indicating martial strength and courage. The style of this robe is called ‘xizhudalong’ (great dragon chasing the fireball), a depiction that brings the energy of young generals to mind.

As they are most formal costumes in Peking Opera, ‘Mangs’ are only available in the five primary colours (yellow, red, black, white and green):

Yellow is reserved for characters playing the roles of Emperors or members of the Imperial Family.
Black symbolises a character of justice or passion.
White symbolises youthful energy and suaveness. Young male protagonists or youthful heroes usually wear the colour.
Green symbolises martial valiance and is reserved for generals or famous heroes.
Red symbolises noble majesty and is usually worn by characters of extreme high rank (e.g. prime ministers or noble princes).
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COSTUMES- Pie, the Robe

‘Pi’ and ‘Pie’ are informal robes worn by officials and characters of wealth and influence. They are usually worn in domestic scenes. Relatively simple designs of flowers and auspicious symbols (e.g. cranes) characterise the ‘pi’ and ‘pie’, as both are essentially casual outfits.

The costume depicted above is worn high-ranking officials and their wives in domestic scenes. The ‘ancient bronze’ colour symbolises the wisdom and gravity of these characters. Cranes, an age-old symbol of longevity, are also embroidered on this robe.

The ‘Pie’ is distinguished by the diagonal opening of the garment across the chest which is gathered and tied to the side.

Young, wealthy scholars wear the costume depicted above. The soft colour and flowery embroidery symbolise his youthful elegance.

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COSTUMES – Kao, the Armour

The ‘Kao’ refers to armour worn by male and female generals in battle scenes. Made of several woven layers, they are supposed to mimic the stiff layers of actual Chinese armour.

In battle scenes, four flags are worn to symbolise the total preparedness for war. Besides being a reference to command flags awarded to generals in the past, they also serve to underscore the general’s authority.

The flags may be removed when the armour is worn off battle scenes but the characters are still in a state of war, such as a scene in a military camp.

Compared to their male counterparts, female ‘kaos’ are usually more ornate and have brighter colours, symbolic of feminine prowess.

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COSTUMES – Toukui, the Headdress

Toukui or opera headdress comprises such items as crowns, helmets, hats and scarves. Crowns are for the emperor and nobles; military generals and warriors wear helmets while ordinary peasants wear soft scarves or straw hats. Some headgear, such as crowns, are rigid, while others are soft. Generally, the higher the character’s rank, the more elaborate his or her headdress.

Emperors, Imperial consorts and noble ladies often wear fantastical and elaborate headdress to signify their importance. 

A ‘Phoenix Crown’ is worn exclusively by Empresses, Imperial Concubines or Noble Ladies in extremely formal situations. The crown is topped by five phoenixes and features strings of cascading pearls and luxuriant silk tassels. These moving parts help to accentuate the movements of the actor’s head, and can be used to display different emotions by a simple twitch.

Scholars are often depicted in soft hats.
Another famous headdress embellishment is the 5-foot pheasant feathers that are attached to the crowns and helmets of young male or female generals. The feathers are not merely for show but are used to display various emotions. For example, an actor displays anger by dropping his head and shaking it in a circular fashion so that the feathers move in a perfect circle. Surprise is shown by what’s called “nodding the feathers.” One can also “dance with the feathers” to show a mixture of anger and determination.
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FAMOUS CHINESE OPERA STORIES – Tale of the White Snake

This story brings us far back in time. Long ago, at Mount Emei, there lived two snakes: one white and the other green. Both snakes possessed the ability to transform themselves into human beings.

One particular day, they took on the form of two attractive maidens and visited a beautiful lake known as Xihu Lake. The white snake named herself ‘Bai Suzhen’, which means pure and loyal. The green snake adopted the name ‘Xiaoqing’, which literally means ‘little green’.

They were thrilled to be able to explore the vicinity of the lake together, and to behold the enchanting scenery of one of the most beautiful places in the world. Unfortunately, it started to rain, and they were forced to take refuge under a willow.

Shortly after, a pleasant young gentleman named Xu Xian happened to pass by,  He had an umbrella with him. Seeing the two beautiful maidens seeking shelter under the tree, he immediately lent them his umbrella and helped them find a boat that could take them home.

It was love at first sight for Bai. As she wanted to see him again, she requested that he come to their house the following day to retrieve the umbrella. He agreed. This was the first of many frequent visits that allowed Bai and Xu to get to know each other better. Soon enough, they were both deeply in love.

Not long after, Bai proposed that they be married. Xu was delighted, because as an orphan, he never thought that a beautiful woman like Bai would want to marry someone as poor as him. After getting married, the young couple set up an apothecary. Bai had an exceptional talent of compounding drugs and their business flourished effortlessly.

Near their house, in the town of Zhenjiang, there lived a priest named Fa Hai, who recognized Bai as a snake demon. He was an unromantic man who showed little emotions for anything or anyone. He was aware of the great danger that snake demons posed to humans, so he sought to warn Xu.

Xu, however, refused to believe that his wife was a snake demon. To prove his point, Fa instructed Xu to get Bai drunk during the Lantern Festival. If she was a snake demon, she would revert to her true form.

Curious, Xu followed Fa’s instructions. That night, when a drunken Bai retired to her bed, she reverted to her true self- an enormous white snake. Xu was so terrified at the sight of what had become of his wife that he immediately died.

When Bai recovered, she was horrified to discover her husband dead. Desperate to bring him back to life, she appealed to Xiaoqing to help to find the herbs that could revive him. To obtain the herbs, Bai and Xiaoqing had to engage in numerous fierce battles with the magic medicine’s guardians. Eventually, they succeeded in acquiring the herb and Xu was brought back to life.

Xu was immensely grateful to Bai and Xiaoqing for reviving him, and touched by Bai’s heroic act of love.

However, Fa was unsatisfied. Determined to separate the illegitimate couple, or so he thought, he kidnapped Xu and took him into protective custody at the monastery. Bai was distraught, and appealed to Xiaoqing for help again. Xu was likewise upset at the separation.

After numerous attempts, Xu managed to escape from the monastery. He rejoined Bai at the willow where they first met. There, she confessed her true identity to him. Xu swore his love for Bai, snake demon or not.

But Fa remained determined. This time, he captured Bai and imprisoned her under the Pagoda of Thunder Peak. Xiaoqing and Xu tried all they could to free Bai, but Fa Hai was too skillful. Xiaoqing then made a decision to journey back to Mount Emei to master the necessary martial arts before returning to fight Fa Hai again. Xu and Bai were eventually reunited after Fa was successfully defeated and killed by Xiaoqing.

 

For more stories, see

Fifteen Strings of Coins or The Butterfly Lovers

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FAMOUS CHINESE OPERA STORIES – Fifteen Strings of Coins

In a quiet village of Wuxi County, there lived a butcher named You Hulu. He lived with his adopted daughter-in-law, Su Shujuan. One day, he returned home from work with a string of 15 coins which he had borrowed from a man. When Su asked him where the coins were from, he replied jokingly that he had sold her and the string of coins was the purchase price.

Su was horrified as she thought that You was serious. Fearing for her future, she decided to take refuge at her aunt’s house. As soon as You went to sleep that night, Su fled. In her hurry to escape, she left the front door of the house ajar.

A notorious idler, drinker, and gambler known as Lou Ashu, which means “Lou the Rat”, happened to pass by You’s house later that night. He noticed that the door was unsecured, so he stepped in to look for something to eat as he was hungry then. While looking for food, he spotted the string of money that You had hidden under his pillow, and wanted to steal it. But this woke You. You fought Lou, trying to chase the intruder out of his house. In the brawl that ensued, Lou grabbed a cleaver from the table and hacked You to death. He then fled the scene.

The next morning, the neighbors were shocked to see You’s dismembered body on the floor. They also noticed that Su was missing and that the string of 15 coins was stolen. They hastily concluded that Su had stolen the money, killed You and ran off with her lover. The villagers, determined to avenge You’s death, sought to capture Su.

Meanwhile, Su found herself lost and stranded in a dense forest, en route to her aunt’s house. Fortunately, she met into an honorable young man, Xiong Youlan, who helped her find her way out of the forest. He even decided to accompany her till she reached her aunt’s village.

Unbeknownst to them, the neighbours had set a trap to capture them. They were set upon by You’s neighbors, who seized them and ripped open Xiong’s traveling bag. Coincidentally, they found a string of 15 coins in his bag. They dragged them before the county magistrate, Guo Yuzhi, who condemned them both to death for the murder of You.

Almost everyone seemed convinced that Su was responsible for You’s death. Fortunately, there was a detective, Kuang Zhong, who was not convinced by the evidence of the case. He got a stay of execution for 2 weeks to investigate further. When Lou, the real murderer, heard this, he fled further into the countryside.

Detective Kuang gathered several counter-evidence. First, he had found strands of the string of coins at the scene of the murder, whereas the string found in Xiong’s bag had been intact. Second, he learned that Su had a reputation for being quite staid, and was thus unlikely to have a secret lover. Further, there was no evidence of her having known Xiong before the murder. Third, he had found a gambling receipt in the house, but as far as anybody knew, neither You nor Su ever gambled. Kuang began to suspect that Lou was involved in this case.

Kuang, disguising himself as a glyphomancer, set off to find Lou. Glyphomancy is the art of telling fortunes based on the Chinese characters in people’s names. He found Lou in a temple, and offered to tell Lóu’s fortune. He did this using the word ‘Shu’, the last syllable of Lou’s name which meant ‘rat’.  Rats have the habit of  stealing oil, which is pronounced as ‘You’ in Chinese, a pun on the name of the murdered man, You. Kuang thus warned Lou that he could likely find himself in trouble with the authorities, as they may have suspected him of You’s murder.

On hearing this, Lou became exceedingly frightened, confessed his crime to Kuang and sought for his advice. Kuang instructed him where to flee, and Lou did so. Kuang then sent officers to arrest Lou at his hiding place.

Lou was eventually condemned to death for murdering You and the innocent Su and Xiong were cleared.  The villagers were also comforted that You’s death was avenged for.

 

For more stories, see

The Tale of the White Snake or The Butterfly Lovers

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