Cantonese opera

Cantonese opera

pic=Vancouver Cantonese Opera Extravaganza 22May2005 - 11 crop.jpeg
t=1. 粵劇
2. 大戲
3. 神功戲
j=1. jyut6 kek6
2. daai6 hei3
3. san4 gong1 hei3
p=1. Yuè jù
2. dà xì
3. shén gōng xì

Cantonese opera is one of the major categories in Chinese opera, originating in southern China's Cantonese culture. It is popular in Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and Malaysia. Like all versions of Chinese opera, it is a traditional Chinese art form, involving music, singing, martial arts, acrobatics, and acting. 粵劇 ("Yuèjù") should not be confused with 越劇 ("Yuèjù"), the theatre of Zhejiang.


There is a debate about the origins of Cantonese opera, but it is generally accepted that the opera form was imported from the northern part of China and slowly migrated to the southern province of Guangdong in late 13th century, during the late Southern Song Dynasty. In the 12th century, there was a theatrical form called "Southern style" (Chinese: 南戲 (Cantonese: Naam4 hei3, Mandarin: Nánxì)) or the Nanxi (Southern drama), which was performed in public theaters of Hangzhou, then capital of the Southern Song Dynasty. With the invasion of the Mongol army, Emperor Gong of Song dynasty, called Zhào Xiǎn (趙顯), fled with hundreds of thousands of Song people into the province of Guangdong in 1276. Among these people were some "Narm hei" artists from the north. Thus "narm hei" was brought into Guangdong by these artists and developed into the earliest kind of Cantonese opera.

Many well-known operas performed today, such as "The Purple Hairpin" and "Rejuvenation of the Red Plum Flower", originated in the Yuan Dynasty, with the lyrics and scripts in Cantonese. Until the 20th century all the female roles were performed by males.

Beginning in the 1950s massive waves of immigrants fled Shanghai to destinations like North PointWordie, Jason. [2002] (2002) Streets: Exploring Hong Kong Island. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. ISBN 962-2095631] . Their arrival boosted the Cantonese opera fanbase significantly.


Cantonese opera has much in common with other Chinese theatre genres. Commentators often take pride in the idea that all Chinese theatre styles are but minor variations on a pan-Chinese music-theater tradition, and that the basic features or principles are consistent from one local performance form to another. Thus, music, singing, martial arts, acrobatics and acting all feature. Most of the plots are based on Chinese history and famous Chinese classics and myths. The culture and philosophies of the Chinese people can be seen in the plays. Virtues like loyalty, moral, love, patriotism and faithfulness are often reflected by the operas.

Some particular features of Cantonese opera are:
# Chihng sik sin: formulaic, formalized
# Heui yih sing: abstraction of reality, distancing from reality
# Sin mihng sing: clear-cut, distinct, unambiguous, well-defined
# Jung hahp ngaih seuht yihngsik: a composite or synthetic art form
# Sei gung ng faat (四功五法, "pinyin": sì gōng wǔ fǎ; "jyutping": sei3 gung1 ng5 faat3) : the four skills and the five methods, a simple codification of the basic skills and techniques of acting and singing.

The "four skills" and "five methods" are a simple codification of the areas of special training for theatre performers, and also stand as something of a metaphor for the most well-rounded and thoroughly trained performers. The "four skills" apply to the whole spectrum of vocal and dramatic training: singing, acting and movement, delivery of the "speech-types" and martial and "gymnastic skills," while the five methods are categories of techniques associated with specific body parts: hands, eyes, body, hair, feet or walking techniques.


Other than being simply a form of entertainment, it can carry messages or lessons, which was particularly important before widespread formal education. The government often used theatre to promote the idea of "be loyal to the emperor and love the kingdom" (忠君愛國). Because of this, the theatre was often examined by the government. If the underlying message was not considered beneficial, the theatre would be banned.

As time progresses, fewer and fewer performance houses are also left to preserve the art, an example is Hong Kong's Sunbeam Theatre,which remains one of the last facility dedicated to the Cantonese genre.

Types of play

There are two types of Cantonese opera plays: "Mou" (武, "martial arts") and "Man" (文, "highly educated", esp. in poetry and culture) . "Mou" plays emphasize war, the characters usually being generals or warriors. These works contain action scenes and involve a lot of weaponry and armour. "Man" plays tend to be gentler and more elegant. Scholars are the main characters in these plays. Water sleeves (see Frequently Used Terms) are used extensively in "man" plays to produce movements reflecting the elegance and tenderness of the characters; all female characters wear them. In "man" plays, characters put a lot of effort into creating distinctive facial expressions and gestures to express their underlying emotions.

Musical instruments

Cantonese instrumental music was called "ching yam" prior to the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949. Cantonese instrumental tunes have been used in Cantonese opera, either as incidental instrumental music or as fixed tunes to which new texts were composed, since the 1930s.

The use of instruments in Cantonese opera is influenced by both western and eastern cultures. The reason for this is that Canton was one of the earliest places in China to establish trade relationships with the western civilizations. In addition, Hong Kong was under heavy western influence when it was a British colony. These factors contributed to the observed western elements in Cantonese opera.

For instance, the use of erhu (two string bowed fiddle), saxophones, guitars and the congas have demonstrated how diversified the musical instruments in Cantonese operas are.

The musical instruments are mainly divided into melodic and percussive types.

Traditional musical instruments used in Cantonese opera include wind, strings and percussion. The winds and strings encompass gaohu, erhu, yehu, yangqin, pipa and dizi, while the percussion comprises many different drums and cymbals. The percussion controls the overall rhythm and pace of the music, while the gaohu leads the orchestra.

The instrumental ensemble of Cantonese opera is comprised of two sections: the melody section and the percussion section. The percussion section has its own vast body of musical materials, generally called "loh gu dim" or simply "loh gu". These 'percussion patterns' serve a variety of specific functions.

To see the pictures and listen to the sounds of the instruments, visit [] and [] .


multi-listen item
filename=Canto Opera Hong Kong - Bak Sheut Sin and Yam Kim Fai.ogg
title=Recognize mutually (認相)
description=There are actually two female singers with Bak Sheut Sin and Yam Kim Fai in this sample. Yam Kim Fai is using her trademark indistinguishable male voice behind the Cantonese opera disguise. Only traditional Chinese instruments are used.
Cantonese opera pieces are classified either as "theatrical" or "singing stage" (歌壇). The theatrical style of music is further classified into western music (西樂) and Chinese music (中樂). While the "singing stage" style is always Western music, the theatrical style can be Chinese or western music. The "four great male vocals" (四大平喉) were notable exponents of the "single stage" style in the early 20th century.

The western music in Cantonese opera is accompanied by strings, woodwinds, brass plus electrified instruments. Lyrics are written to fit the play's melodies, although one song can contain multiple melodies, performers being able to add their own elements. Whether a song is well performed depends on the performers' own emotional involvement and ability.


There are six set roles:

# man4 mou5 saang1 (文武生, transliteration: civilized martial man; the clean-shaven scholar-warrior)
# siu2 saang1 (小生, transliteration: 'young gentleman'; young scholar)
# faa1 daan3 (花旦, transliteration: 'flower' of the ball; young belle)
# yi6 faa1 (二花旦, transliteration: 'second flower'; supporting female)
# cau2 saang1 (丑生, clown)
# mou5 saang1 (武生, bearded male warrior)


Costumes correspond to the theme of the play and indicate the character of each role.

As mentioned above, each type of play is associated with particular costumes. The water sleeves of "Mun" plays can be attached to the waist or the sides of the breast areas. Costumes can be single or double breasted.

Costumes also indicate the status of the character. Lower-status characters, such as females, wear less elaborate dress, which those of higher rank have more decorative costumes.


Applying makeup for Cantonese opera is a long and specialised process. One of the most common styles is the "white and red face": an application of white foundation, with red around the eyes and on the cheeks. The eyebrows are sometimes elongated. Lipstick is usually bright red.

Actors are given temporary facelifts by holding the skin up with a ribbon on the back of the head. This lifts the corners of the eyes, producing an authoritative look.

Each role has its own style of make-up: the clown has a large white spot in the middle of his face, for example. A sick character has a thin red line pointing upwards in between his eyebrows. Aggressive and frustrated character roles often have a "ying hong jee" (an arrow shape fading into the forehead) in between the eyebrows.

Strong male characters wear "hoi1 min4" (開面; "open face") makeup. Each character's makeup has its own distinct characteristics, with symbolic patterns and coloration.

Hairstyle, hats and helmets

Hats and helmets signify social status, age and capability: scholars and officials wear black hats with wings on either side; generals wear helmets with pheasant feathers; soldiers wear ordinary hats, and kings wear crowns. Queens or princesses have jewelled helmets. If a hat or helmet is removed, this indicates the character is exhausted, frustrated, or ready to surrender.

Hairstyles can express a character's emotions: warriors express their sadness at losing a battle by swinging their ponytails. For the female roles, buns indicated a maiden, while a married woman has a Dai tow.

Frequently used terms

*Pheasant feathers/Antennae:These are attached to the helmet in 武 plays, and are used to express the character's skills and expressions. They are worn by both male and female characters.
*Water Sleeves:These are used for expressive effect by both males and females in 文 plays.
*Hand Movements:Hand and finger movements reflect the music as well as the action of the play. Females hold their hands in the elegant "lotus" form.
*Round Table/Walking:A basic feature of Cantonese opera, the walking movement is one of the most difficult to master. Females take very small steps and lift the body to give a detached feel. Male actors take larger steps, which implies traveling great distances.
*Go Hur:These are black boots with high white soles worn by males, which can impede walking.
*Gwou Wai:This is a movement in which two performers move in a cross-over fashion to opposite sides of the stage.
*Tuir Mok:In this movement, two performers walk in a circle facing each other and then go back to their original positions.
*Lai saan and Wun Sou:These are the basic movements of the hands and arms.
*Jurt Bo/Choot Bo:This is a gliding effect used in walking.
*Siu Tiu:Most common in 武 plays, the actor stamps before walking.
*Fay Tuir:A crescent kick.
*Hair-flinging/"Headbanging":A circular swinging of the ponytail, expressing sadness and frustration.
*Chestbuckle/ Flower:A flower-shaped decoration worn on the chest. A red flower on the male signifies that he is engaged.
*Horsewhip:Performers swing a whip and walk to imitate riding a horse.
*Sifu:Literally, "master", this is a term for experienced performers and teachers.

Major artists

Major Cantonese opera artists include:

Development in Hong Kong

To intensify education in Cantonese opera, the Cantonese Artists Association of Hong Kong started to run an evening part-time certificate course in Cantonese opera training with assistance from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts in 1998. In 1999, the Association and the Academy further conducted a two-year daytime diploma programme in performing arts in Cantonese opera in order to train professional actors and actresses. Aiming at further raising the students' level, the Association and the Academy have launched an advanced course in Cantonese opera in the next academic year.

In recent years, the Hong Kong Arts Development Council has given grants to Love and Faith Cantonese opera Laboratory to conduct Cantonese opera classes for children and youths. The Leisure and Cultural Services Department has also funded the International Association of Theatre Critics (Hong Kong Branch) to implement the "Cultural Envoy Scheme for Cantonese Opera" for promoting traditional Chinese productions in the community.

peech types

Commentators draw an essential distinction between sung and spoken text, although the boundary is a troublesome one. Speech-types are of a wide variety: one is nearly identical to standard conversational Cantonese, while another is a very smooth and refined delivery of a passage of poetry; some have one form or another of instrumental accompaniment while others have none; and some serve fairly specific functions, while others are more widely adaptable to variety of dramatic needs.


ee also

* Cantopop
* Huangmei Opera
* Beijing Opera
* Music of China
* Music of Hong Kong
* Culture of Hong Kong
* Hong Kong Heritage Museum
* List of Cantonese-related topics
* Chinese Artist Association of Hong Kong

External links

* [ Bay Area Cantonese Opera]
* [ More Cantonese Opera Artists]
* [ Can You Hear Me?: The Female Voice and Cantonese Opera in the San Francisco Bay Area] The Scholar and Feminist Online

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