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Chinese Peking Opera and It's similarities with Indian Kutiyatam

Picture Credit: GBTIMES, Jul 2, 2012

Tracing Back In Time

Peking Opera can be traced during the reign of Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC), but it reached it's peak during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), that had stimulated a cultural and artistic renaissance during their reign, also known as the Golden Age. Peking Opera's origin is often referred to India and Central Asia. Specifically from Kerela,"Kollam, one of the oldest settlements is the fourth largest city in Kerala. Thangassery and Neendakara ports triggered the development activities in the region and led to the growth of settlements around these ports and thus Kollam developed as an important commercial centre in the southern part of Kerala., Kollam evolved as a major trade centre of spices and an important port in the Malabar Coast. Sangam literature, classical, Chinese, Arab and local literary works mentions this site as a thriving port harbor with a huge trade network."

It was initially presented as Court Rituals and in various Ceremonies at the Royal Courts, but since 1828 they were permitted to perform in Public.

General Themes

Early themes of Peking Operas were associated with hunting, harvesting and the ancient gods, as they evolved the themes reflected filial pity,ethical codes, social issues, wars between kingdoms.

Opera - Tayaoniang or The Dancing and Singing wife that originated in the Northern and Southern Dynasties and popular in the Tang Dynasty during the 6th century A.D. The theme revolves around domestic violence. Husband is a dunkard who beats his poor wife and is finally punished for hi misbehaviour.

Image Courtesy: Tayaoniang -

Characters of Peking Opera

Sheng (Male)

The male protagonist of the opera, a gentleman. Sheng is subdivided is differnt types Xiaosheng - the young man, Wusheng - A martial character that needs combat skills, Laosheng - An Older Man.

Dan (Female)

The Female protagonist of the opera. Dan is subdivided is differnt types Daomadan - A young female warrior, Wudan - A martial character that needs combat skills, Laodan - An Old Woman, Qingyi - A virtuous and elite woman, Huadan - A vicious and unmarried woman. Veteran Performer Mei Lanfang added the sixth, Huashan - A combination of Huadan and Quingyi.

Jing (Rough Men)

A forceful character, can also be interpreted as the antagonist.

Chou (Clowns)

A male clown character, generally plays secondary or minor roles. Chou is subdivided in Wen that include sailors and merchants and Wu that include minor military characters.

Song and Music

"Cultural Foundation that has been passed on orally by chinese ancestors"- H.Sue Guo

A Song and Music forms the essential part of Peking Operas. There is a Repertoire of 1400 works based on chinese history and folklore. Songs are usually sung in Mandarin Chinese.

Jinghu, a small chinese bowed string instrument that is high pitched, is an important musical instrument in peking opera. Xipi and Erhuang are the important styles of music followed even today.

Symbolism of Colours in Masks

Red face paint indicates devotion, bravery and uprightness

Black indicates either a rough and bold character, or an impartial and selfless personality

Blue represents someone who is steadfast in principle, fierce and astute

Green face is impulsive and violent and acts with stubbornness and a lack of self-restraint

Yellow face is a sign of fierceness, ambition and cool-headedness

White face paint suggests treacherousness, suspiciousness, and craftiness

Gold and silver colors usually indicate gods or spirits

Similarities with Indian Kutiyatam

Kutiyatam in Short

Kutiyattam (also Kootiattam, Kootiyattam, Koodiyattam) is an old form of theatre, which until recently has been performed solely in the temple theatres, kootampalas of Kerala, an Indian state with an exceptionally strong Sanskrit tradition. Kutiyattam(lit. “acting and dancing together”) is traditionally performed by men of the Chakiar caste, and the music is played by men of the Nambiar caste, while the women of the Nambiar families, Nangiars, play the female roles.


Based on the Research by Vithiyapathy Purushothaman

A very prominent similarity are the face masks of these two art forms, the lines and meaning of the traditional drama coincide with the meanings and methods of mask making. The major similarities of the face mask, the artist prepare their face mask in both the opera. The artists create the face mask in an average of 3-4 hours in both the opera. The admiration is that they paint their faces on their own based on the characters of the play.

Interestingly, Dramatists of both Kutiyattam and Chinese Opera had passed their traditional clothing to their junior artists whom they prepare for next generation. Performances can be performed for 40 days in Kutiyattam and it is also the same factor in Chinese Opera.

Peking Opera Today In China

" Art must serve the interests of workers, peasants and soldiers and must conform to proletarian ideology"

In 1966 there was a Cultural Revolution, that took place nationally. All traditional operas were transformed under the purview of Jiang Qing, wife of MaoZedong that enforced communist ideologies in operas, which are known as Model or Revolutionary Operas. These operas expressed the views of Mao. The legend of the Red Latern, Shajiabang, Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, Raid on the White Tiger Regiment and On the Docks are some the Revolutionary Operas.

The Legend of the Red Lattern

The Red Detachment of Women

"After the Chinese Communist Party, on the surface it still resembles Traditional Chinese Opera but in actuality it has lost it's traditional essence. It propagates disastrous political ideologies and has become superficial, hollow. It became a revolution, struggle and violence."

- Yi Cao, Former, Head Judge, International Classical Dance Competition

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