The Sheng (生) is the major male role in Peking opera. There are several subtypes of the role Sheng. A dignified older role is called the laosheng. They wear sensible clothing and have a gentle and cultivated manner. There are also types of laosheng roles, for example the hongsheng, a red-faced older male. The only two hongsheng roles are Guan Gong, the Chinese god of sworn brotherhood, loyalty and righteousness, and Zhao Kuang-yin, the first Song Dynasty emperor. Young male roles are recognized as xiaosheng. Xiaosheng features a high, shrill voice with occasional breaks when they are singing, which represents the voice changing period of adolescence. Depending on the character’s social status, the costume of the xiaosheng may be either luxury or simple. Off-stage, xiaosheng actors are often involved with beautiful women by virtue of the handsome and young image they project. The wusheng is a martial character for roles involving combat. They are highly trained in acrobatics, and have a natural voice when singing. Troupes will always have a laosheng actor. A xiaosheng actor may also be added to play roles fitting to his age. In addition to these main Sheng, the troupe will also have a secondary laosheng.
The Dan (旦) refers to any female role in Peking opera. Dan roles were originally divided into five subtypes. Old women were played by laodan, martial women were wudan, young female warriors were daomadan, virtuous and elite women were qingyi, and vivacious and unmarried women were huadan. One of Mei Lanfang’s most important contributions to Peking opera was in pioneering a sixth type of role, the huashan. This role type combines the status of the qingyiwith the sensuality of the huadan. A troupe will have a young Dan to play main roles, as well as an older Dan for secondary parts. Four examples of famous Dans are Mei Lanfang, Cheng Yanqiu, Shang Xiaoyun, and Xun Huisheng. In the early years of Peking opera, all Dan roles were played by men. Wei Changsheng, a male Dan performer in the Qing court, developed the cai qiao, or “false foot” technique, to simulate the bound feet of women and the characteristic gait that resulted from the practice. The ban on female performers also led to a controversial form of brothel, known as the xianggong tangzi, in which men paid to have sex with young boys dressed as females. Ironically, the performing skills taught to the youths employed in these brothels led many of them to become professional Danlater in life.
The Jing (净) is a painted face male role. Depending on the repertoire of the particular troupe, he will play either primary or secondary roles. This type of role will entail a forceful character, so a Jing must have a strong voice and be able to exaggerate gestures. Peking opera boasts 15 basic facial patterns, but there are over 1000 specific variations. Each design is unique to a specific character. The patterns and coloring are thought to be derived from traditional Chinese color symbolism and divination on the lines of a person’s face, which is said to reveal personality. Easily recognizable examples of coloring include red, which denotes uprightness and loyalty, white, which represents evil or crafty characters, and black, which is given to characters of soundness and integrity. Three main types of Jing roles are often seen. These include tongchui, roles that heavily involve singing, jiazi, roles with less emphasis on singing and more on physical performance, and wujing, martial and acrobatic roles.
The Chou (丑) is a male clown role. The Chou usually plays secondary roles in a troupe. Indeed, most studies of Peking opera classify the Chou as a minor role. The name of the role is a homophone of the Mandarin Chinese word chou, meaning “ugly”. This reflects the traditional belief that the clown’s combination of ugliness and laughter could drive away evil spirits. Chou roles can be divided into Wen Chou, civilian roles such as merchants and jailers, and Wu Chou, minor military roles. The Wu Chou is one of the most demanding in Peking opera, because of its combination of comic acting, acrobatics, and a strong voice. Chou characters are generally amusing and likable, if a bit foolish. Their costumes range from simple for characters of lower status to elaborate, perhaps overly so, for high status characters. Chou characters wear special face paint, called xiaohualian, that differs from that of Jing characters. The defining characteristic of this type of face paint is a small patch of white chalk around the nose. This can represent either a mean and secretive nature or a quick wit.
Beneath the whimsical persona of the Chou, a serious connection to the form of Peking opera exists. The Chou is the character most connected to theguban, the drums and clapper commonly used for musically accompaniment during performances. The Chou actor often uses the guban in solo performance, especially when performing Shu Ban, light-hearted verses spoken for comedic effect. The clown is also connected to the small gong and cymbals, percussion instruments that symbolize the lower classes and the raucous atmosphere inspired by the role. Although Chou characters do not sing frequently, their arias feature large amounts of improvisation. This is considered a license of the role, and the orchestra will accompany the Chouactor even as he bursts into an unscripted folk song. However, due to the standardization of Peking opera and political pressure from government authorities, Chou improvisation has lessened in recent years. The Chou has a vocal timbre that is distinct from other characters, as the character will often speak in the common Beijing dialect, as opposed to the more formal dialects of other characters.