Visual performance elements
Peking-opera performers utilize four main skills. The first two are song and speech. The third is dance-acting. This includes pure dance, pantomime, and all other types of dance. The final skill is combat, which includes both acrobatics and fighting with all manner of weaponry. Performers should use all the four skills effortlessly and keep the performance a fine art.
Aesthetic aims and principles of movement
Peking opera follows other traditional Chinese arts in emphasizing meaning, rather than accuracy. The highest aim of performers is to put beauty into every motion. Indeed, performers are strictly criticized for lacking beauty during training. Additionally, performers are taught to create a synthesis between the different aspects of Peking opera. The four skills of Peking opera are not separate, but rather should be combined in a single performance. One skill may take precedence at certain moments during a play, but this does not mean that other actions should cease. Much attention is paid to tradition in the art form, and gestures, settings, music, and character types are determined by long held convention. This includes conventions of movement, which are used to signal particular actions to the audience. For example, walking in a large circle always symbolizes traveling a long distance, and a character straightening his or her costume and headdress symbolizes that an important character is about to speak. Some conventions, such as the pantomimic opening and closing of doors and mounting and descending of stairs, are more readily apparent.
Many performances deal with behaviors that occur in daily life. However, in accordance with the overriding principle of beauty, such behaviors are stylized to be presented on stage. Peking opera does not aim to accurately represent reality. Experts of the art form contrast the principles of Peking opera with the principle of Mo, mimes or imitation, that is found in western dramas. Peking opera should be suggestive, not imitative. The literal aspects of scenes are removed or stylized to better represent intangible emotions and characters. The most common stylization method in Peking opera is roundness. Every motion and pose is carefully manipulated to avoid sharp angles and straight lines. A character looking upon an object above them will sweep their eyes in a circular motion from low to high before landing on the object. Similarly, a character will sweep their hand in an arc from left to right in order to indicate an object on the right. This avoidance of sharp angles extends to three dimensional movement as well; reversals of orientation often take the form of a smooth, S-shaped curve. All of these general principles of aesthetics are present within other performance elements as well.
Staging and costumes
Peking opera stages have traditionally been square platforms. The action on stage is usually visible from at least three sides. The stage is divided into two parts by an embroidered curtain called a shoujiu. Musicians are visible to the audience on the front part of the stage. Traditional Peking opera stages were built above the line of sight of the viewers, but some modern stages have been constructed with higher audience seating. Viewers are always seated south of the stage. Therefore, north is the most important direction in Peking opera, and performers will immediately move to “center north” upon entering the stage. All characters enter from the east and exit from the west. In line with the highly symbolic nature of Peking opera, the form utilizes very few props. This reflects seven centuries of Chinese performance tradition. The presence of large objects is frequently indicated through conventions. The stage will almost always have a table and at least one chair, which can be turned through convention into such diverse objects as a city wall, a mountain, or a bed. Peripheral objects will often be used to signify the presence of a larger, main object. For example, a whip is used to indicate a horse and an oar symbolizes a boat.
The length and internal structure of Peking-opera plays is highly variable. Prior to 1949, zhezixi, short plays or plays made up of short scenes from longer plays, were often performed. These plays usually center on one simple situation or feature a selection of scenes designed to include all four of the main Peking opera skills and showcase the virtuosity of the performers. This format has become less prevalent in recent times, but plays of one act are still performed. These short works, as well as individual scenes within longer works, are marked by an emotional progression from the beginning of the play to the end. For example, the concubine in the one act play The Favorite Concubine Becomes Intoxicated begins in a state of joy, and then moves to anger and jealousy, drunken playfulness, and finally to a feeling of defeat and resignation. A full-length play usually has from six to fifteen or more scenes. The overall story in these longer works is told through contrasting scenes. Plays will alternate between civil and martial scenes, or scenes involve protagonists and antagonists. There are several major scenes within the work that follow the pattern of emotional progression. It is these scenes that are usually excerpted for later zhezixi productions. Some of the most complex plays may even have an emotional progression from scene to scene.
Due to the scarcity of props in Peking opera, costumes take on added importance. Costumes function first to distinguish the rank of the character being played. Emperors and their families wear yellow robes, and high ranking officials wear purple. The robe worn by these two classes is called a mang, or python robe. It is a costume suitable for the high rank of the character, featuring brilliant colors and rich embroidery, often in the design of a dragon. Persons of high rank or virtue wear red, lower ranking officials wear blue, young characters wear white, the old wear white, brown, or olive, and all other men wear black. On formal occasions, lower officials may wear the kuan yi, a simple gown with patches of embroidery on both the front and back. All other characters, and officials on informal occasions, wear the chezi, a basic gown with varying levels of embroidery and no jade girdle to denote rank. All three types of gowns have water sleeves, long flowing sleeves that can be flicked and waved like water, attached to facilitate emotive gestures. Tertiary characters of no rank wear simple clothing without embroidery. Hats are intended to blend in with the rest of the costume and will usually have a matching level of embroidery. Shoes may be high or low soled, the former being worn by characters of high rank, and the latter by characters of low rank or acrobatic characters.