In 1790, four famous Anhui Opera troupes came to Beijing as part of the celebrations for the 80th birthday of Emperor Qianlong (1711-99) of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). They proved to be a big hit, which enabled them to stay.
In 1828, some famous Hubei Opera troupes came to Beijing. The artists of the Hubei and Anhui troupes often performed jointly on the stage, and around 1840, Peking Opera began to formally take shape. The art form grew even faster during the reign of the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), who was a Chinese opera lover.
In 1904, Peking Opera actor Ye Chunshan opened the country’s largest and most established Peking Opera school — Fu Lian Cheng, which trained about 800 top-level performers, including Yuan Shihai and Ma Lianliang.
One of the unique practices of Peking Opera is nan dan (men playing the roles of women) as at that time women were forbidden onstage. The nan dan performer wears dazzling costumes and sings a soprano aria.
The heyday of nan dan was the first half of the 20th century, when Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), Shang Xiaoyun (1900-76), Cheng Yanqiu (1904-58) and Xun Huisheng (1900-68), who have been called the Four Great Dan, established the four dan styles that bear their family names.
Mei Lanfang was the first actor to present Peking Opera outside of China. He toured the United States in 1930, visiting New York, Chicago and San Francisco. The tour lasted five weeks rather than the originally scheduled two, due to the great acclaim he received. His son, Mei Baojiu, who died in Beijing in 2016, aged 82, carried on his father’s legacy. With no children, Mei Baojiu passed on his teaching to his apprentices, both male and female.
Like many traditional art forms, Peking Opera has been facing an increased market competition and shrinking viewership. However, Peking Opera companies and the government have been seeking to revitalize the art through employing contemporary technologies and offering modern adaptations of old classics.
For example, in 2001, veteran Peking Opera actress Yuan Huiqin adapted the Peking Opera piece, Empress Dowager Xiao, which focuses on the ethnic nomadic tribe Qidan during the Liao Dynasty (916-1125), into a six-episode TV drama. The series took a contemporary approach to Peking Opera and featured Yuan in the lead role.
In 2008, Yuan initiated the idea of shooting a film, the first of its kind in the country, based on the Peking Opera piece, Dui Hua Qiang (Silver Spear). She played the lead role of Jiang Guizhi, a loyal wife.
One of the most successful Peking Opera artists among the younger generation is Zhang Huoding. The 46-year-old is one of a few Peking Opera performers who can receive the acclaim usually reserved for a pop star in China.
Zhang’s main job now involves teaching at the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts in Beijing. Born in Baicheng city in Northeast China’s Jilin province, Zhang began her studies in Peking Opera in Tianjin in 1986.
Upon graduation three years later, she focused on the Cheng school — one of the four major Peking Opera styles that emerged in the early 20th century — under accomplished performer Zhao Rongchen (1916-96).
The Cheng school, founded by famed Peking Opera master Cheng Yanqiu, is known for its sorrowful and graceful singing, especially when portraying vulnerable and constrained female roles.
Zhang caused a sensation in 2015 by performing the famous Peking Opera pieces, The Legend of the White Snake and The Jewelry Pouch, at the Lincoln Center in New York. Given her influence and popularity, the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts launched an art heritage center named after her in November 2015. The center is dedicated to teaching, performing and research into the Cheng school of Peking Opera.