Vivid Gems of Chinese Art - Sichuan Opera
The art of Sichuan Opera
Origin and development
Sichuan Opera is a major theatrical genre in the Sichuan area. It is not only an integral segment of the region’s culture, but also a representative art form. Sichuan Opera was formed during the Qing dynasty. During the time, the native Sichuan Opera chedengxi incorporated the singing styles of Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Anhui, Hubei, Shaanxi, and Gansu to gradually give shape to the present form of Sichuan Opera – a genre that comprises the artistic singings styles of gaoqiang, huqin, kunqiang, dengxi and tanxi.
Sichuan Opera has incorporated the quintessence of the above singing styles. One could say it has epitomised major singing styles in Chinese opera since late Ming and early Qing dynasty. The lyrics and dialogue in the repertoires of all five singing styles all use the Chengdu vernacular of Sichuan as a standard. Only a few titles have included the vernaculars of Shaanxi and Jiangsu when they were transplanted into the genre. These include The Broken Bridge of Shaanxi and Eight Dresses transplanted from the regional plays of Shaanxi; as well as A Novice Monk and a Young Nun Revoking Their Vows and Drunken Slave transplanted from Suzhou Kunqu Opera. Sichuan Opera employs a vivid and lively theatrical language-humorous, funny and packed with vibrant regional flavours, Sichuan Opera is filled with life and well received by the audience.
There are more than a hundred frequently staged productions in the repertoire of Sichuan Opera. These feature a full selection of roles and detailed categorisation. Under the five main role-families, characters are further categorised into different styles. Performers combine singing, acting, recitation and acrobatic fighting. Their performance is natural and delicate. Many artists have created signature routines of their own, such as “swift changing of face”, “spitting fire”, lifting, flicking of the flowing sleeves, technical routine of pleats, etc. These are wittily applied to convey the plot and for characterisation, which bring more intriguing elements to the play. On top of stage design, the traditional stage art of Sichuan Opera comprises four main elements, namely costumes, masks, set and props and make-up. These artistic elements extend the traditional culture of stage art of Chinese opera genres; they also give Sichuan Opera its one-of-a-kind performance style.
Gaoqiang is one of the five singing styles of Sichuan Opera. It has a rich collection of set tunes and a beautiful vocal style. Gaoqiang is regarded as the most distinctive singing style in Sichuan Opera that comes with the most intense regional flavour. Gaoqiang originates from geyangqiang of Jiangxi. The singing voice does not only feature the subtlety and melodic touch of southern regional music, but also possess the high spirit and generosity of northern music. Sung with fluidity and flexible rhythmic patterns, it is just right for bringing out narratives or for expressing emotions. It can be used in both tragic and comedic scenes.
Gaoqiang is a type of set tune music. The lyrics are written with an elegant style and are highly enjoyable as a reading text. Gaoqiang has also inherited the characteristics of geyangqiang. Bangqiang is accompanied by percussion or performed in an a cappella style. The singing is decorated with gongs and drums with a special tonality. Gaoqiang is a unique performance in which bangqiang, gongs and drums accompaniment and singing are played together.
Bangqiang is a major feature in gaoqiang music. It refers to the principal vocal leads a chorus, the other member reinforce the lines. Bangqiang is multi-functional. It can set the tone, describe the environment, render a mood, depict the sentiments of characters, present the internal monologue of a character, comment on a character as a third person, and respond to the plot development, etc. Bangqiang plays a crucial role in the overall structure and expressiveness of gaoqiang music, giving the genre its unique charm and charisma.
Originally known as kunshanqiang (“Kunshan Tune”), kunqiang is a singing style with a long history. It is also one of the five Sichuan Opera singing styles. Originated from the Kunshan area by the end of the Yuan dynasty, kunqiang was reformed by artists during Ming dynasty. The reformed singing style, namely nankun (“kunqiang of the South”), is mile, delicate and highly lyrical. The Beauty Washing Silk by the River written by Kunshan literato Liang Chenyu once propelled the development of kunqiang to its summit. Scholars flocked to compose legendary works of kunqiang.
The lyrics and dialogue of kunqiang are elegant. The delicate and elegant performance has stringent requirements in both singing and physical movements. Kunqiang is circulated widely. The regional variations of kunqiang have absorbed the local dialect and tone, making kunqiang a genre with distinctive regional colours. Some of the variations are Chuankun of Sichuan Opera, Jingkun of Peking Opera and Xiangkun of Hunan Opera, etc.
Dengxi is also called dengdiao (“Light Tune”). The singing style is built on folk songs and dances and popular melodies. It is one of the five Sichuan Opera singing styles and originated from folk music of Sichuan area over 400 years ago. In 2006, the State Council named the Liangshan dengxi of Chongqing and the Chuanbei dengxi of Sichuan collectively as dengxi. The art form was included in the first batch of National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Origin and background
Dengxi originated from plays performed to deities in the farming villages of Sichuan. At the beginning, dengxi was the entertainment of the grass roots. They performed in open areas during festivals, wedding or funeral occasions. A red lantern would be hung on a lamp role erected in the middle of the performance area. “Dengxi”, literally, means performance under the lantern. Most of the contents of dengxi reflect the life of the common people. They depict and celebrate the happiness of good harvest, wits and fun of life. The performance has a rustic, simple, funny and vivid style that fully conveys rural charm.
The singing voice of dengxi features light-hearted and brisk rhythms. It is simple but melodic, and is usually accompanied by pangtongtong, Chuan erhu, suona, etc. Percussions used include gongs and flower pot drums. Dengxi tunes mainly come with seven-character lines, but there are also longeror shorter lines. Ditties, which comprise four or six lines of lyrics, are sung with the “xiaoda” style in gaoqiang, i.e. after the actor has sung one line,the ensemble would play the next. Dengxi is fast-paced and vivid with more singing than reciting, and it comes with lots of dances making it a highlypopular art form amongst common people.
Tanxi is one of the five Sichuan Opera singing styles. It originated from qinqiang of Shaanxi and is a subcategory of the bangzi singing style system. This is why it is also called Chuan bangzi. Although tanxi originated from qinqiang, it is also influenced by the regional dialects and music of Sichuan. Tanxi forms its own unique artistic style and comes with an intense regional flavour of Sichuan.
Tanxi has preserved the features of the bangzi singing style: high-pitched and sonorous, and bangzi is used as the accompanying percussion. The primary instrument is gaiban huqin. The tones of Sichuan Opera have the “sweet-pi” and “bitter-pi” variations, which convery joyous and sad emotions, respectively which convey joyous and sad emotions, respectively. The two tones can be used separately or they can appear in the same play. They have the same structure and form, but form a sharp contrast with one another.
Huqin is also known as sixuanzi or pihuang (i.e. the general term for xipi and erhuang). It is one of the five Sichuan Opera singing styles. It earns its name because it is sung to the accompaniment of small huqin. Huqin has inherited the traditions of handiao (“Hubei Tune”) and huidiao (“Anhui Tune”) as well as certain elements from Hanzhong erhuang of Shaanxi, which gives the huqin singing style its unique Sichuan character.
The tunes of huqin can be categorised into xipi and erhuang. There is only one basic vocal style in xipi, which features fast-paced and fluent rhythms. It is bold and tender; it could be tragic or happy. Erhuang, on the other hand, comprises four basic vocal styles, namely zhengdiao erhuang, fandiao erhuang, pingban, and laodiao. Zhengdiao erhuang is the main vocal style, which is a deep and implicit type of singing.