Chinese opera is a popular form of drama and musical theatre in China with roots going back to the early periods in China. It is a composite performance art that is an amalgamation of various art forms that existed in ancient China, and evolved gradually over more than a thousand years, reaching its mature form in the 13th century during the Song Dynasty. Early forms of Chinese drama are simple, but over time they incorporated various art forms, such as music, song and dance, martial arts, acrobatics, as well as literary art forms to become Chinese opera.
There are numerous regional branches of Chinese opera, including the Beijing opera, Shaoxing opera, Cantonese opera and kunqu and Lvju.
An early form of Chinese drama is the Canjun Opera (參軍戲, or Adjutant Play) which originated from the Later Zhao Dynasty (319-351). In its early form it was a simple comic drama involving only two performers, where a corrupt officer, Canjun or the adjutant, was ridiculed by a jester named Grey Hawk (蒼鶻). The characters in Canjun Opera are thought to be the forerunners of the fixed role categories of later Chinese opera, particularly of its comic chou (丑) characters.
Exaggerated paints on opera performer’s face which ancient warriors decorated themselves to scare the enemy are used in the opera; each color has a different meaning. They are used to symbolize a character’s role, fate, and illustrate the character’s emotional state and general character.
White symbolizes sinister, evil, crafty, treacherous, and suspicious. Any performer with white painted face usually takes the part of a villain of the show. The larger the white painted area, the crueler the role.
Green denotes impulsive behavior, violence, no self-restraint or self-control. Red stands for bravery or loyalty. Black denotes boldness, fierceness, impartiality, rough.
In the 21st century, Chinese opera is seldom publicly staged except in formal Chinese opera houses. It may also be presented during the lunar seventh month Chinese Ghost Festival in Asia as a form of entertainment to the spirits and audience. More than thirty famous forms of Chinese opera continue to be performed today are came from Kunqu, including Journey of the West, Romance of Three Kingdom,the Peony Pavilion, and the Peach Blossom Fan.These masks were based on the ancient face painting tradition where warriors decorated themselves to scare the enemy.
In 2001, Kunqu was recognized as Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO).