As one of the world's largest countries with a long history stretching back millenia, China is home to a wide variety of performing arts. This article aims to give a sampling of some of them.
China has its own unique tradition of opera (戏曲 xìqǔ), whose style differs between regions. The following styles have a national following, and tend to be regarded as representative styles of Chinese opera internationally:
- Beijing opera (京剧 jīngjù) — also known as Peking opera, the most popular style of opera nationally, which as the name suggests, originated in Beijing and is sung in Mandarin. Particularly known for the elaborate face paints of the performers in major roles, which can be used to identify the character in question, and whose colours represent different character traits.
- Yue opera (越剧 yuèjù) — the second most popular style of opera nationally which originated in Shengzhou near Shaoxing, and is sung mostly in the Shengzhou dialect of Wu Chinese, but with influences from Mandarin. Also often known as Shaoxing opera. It is especially popular in Shanghai, Zhejiang and Jiangsu, and its popularity even eclipses that of the native Shanghai opera in the former.
- Kunqu (昆曲 kūnqǔ) — a style of Chinese opera that originated in Kunshan but is now performed nationwide, and regarded by many to be the most refined form of Chinese opera. In modern times, Beijing and Suzhou are considered to be the main centres of this style of opera. It can be divided into at least two distinct styles: northern style kunqu (北曲 běiqǔ) and southern style kunqu (南曲 nánqǔ). The former is mainly performed in Mandarin, while the latter is mainly performed in the Suzhou dialect of Wu Chinese.
- Huangmei opera (黄梅戏 huángméixì) — considered to be a form of Chinese folk opera, originating in Huangmei, Hubei, and tracing its origin to the songs sung by women as they were picking tea. In line with its folksy image, it features less elaborate costumes than other genres. Usually sung in Mandarin.
There are also various regional styles of opera, usually sung in the local dialects, though these tend to be popular only within their respective regions. Some of these have also spread to overseas Chinese communities, particularly in Southeast Asia, and can be seen during traditional Chinese festivals. That said, the top performers of these genres are still largely concentrated in China.
- Henan opera (豫剧 yùjù) — as the name suggests, the local operatic style of Henan province, and sung in Mandarin. Besides Henan, it is also popular in several other northern provinces. The most popular regional operatic style in China.
- Cantonese opera (粤剧 yuèjù) — as the name suggests, is the local operatic style of the Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong, and is sung in Cantonese. It is particularly known for incorporating elaborate martial arts performances. While there are professional troupes based in Hong Kong and throughout the Cantonese-speaking parts of mainland China, Foshan is said to be city of origin of this art form.
- Teochew opera (潮剧 cháojù) — the local operatic style of the Chaoshan region of Guangdong, sung in Teochew, with professional troupes based throughout the region. Also prominent in areas with large overseas Teochew communities such as Bangkok and Johor Bahru.
- Taiwanese opera (歌仔戏 gēzǎixì) — a style of opera sung in the Minnan dialect, originating from the city of Yilan in Taiwan, but also popular and long-established in the South Fujian region of mainland China, with professional troupes throughout Taiwan and the Minnan-speaking regions parts of mainland China.
- Gaojia opera (高甲戏 gāojiǎxì) — a style of opera originating in the city of Quanzhou, sung in the Minnan dialect, featuring acrobatic performances of martial arts fight scenes, and also known for its clown roles. Professional troupes can be found throughout the Minnan-speaking parts of mainland China.
- Liyuan opera (梨园戏 líyuánxì) — a style of opera originating in the city of Quanzhou, sung in the Minnan dialect, regarded as one of the oldest operatic forms in the south of China.
- Hainanese opera (琼剧 qióngjù) — the local operatic style of Hainan, usually sung in the Qionghai dialect of Hainanese.
- Hakka opera (汉剧 hànjù) — the operatic style of the Hakka people, popular in the Hakka-speaking parts of Guangdong, Fujian and Jiangxi. Unlike other regional styles, it is traditionally sung in Mandarin and not the local Hakka dialect.
- Min opera (闽剧 mǐnjù) — the local operatic style of Fuzhou, sung in the Fuzhou dialect.
- Leizhou opera (雷剧 léijù) — the local operatic style of Leizhou, sung in the local Leizhou dialect, and known for incorporating acrobatic performances.
Within China, the state-run free-to-air CCTV-11 is dedicated to broadcasting Chinese opera of various different national and regional styles , though subtitles are only in Chinese. CCTV-11 also has a YouTube channel where some of their broadcasts can be watched internationally. Different regions of China also have their own local television stations that sometimes broadcast Chinese opera performances.
China is also home to a long tradition of puppetry, with Fujian province being best known for it. Various styles of puppetry can be found in China, including shadow puppetry (皮影戏 píyǐngxì), string puppetry (提线木偶戏 tíxiàn mù'ǒu xì) and glove puppetry (布袋戏 bùdàixì).
China also has a long tradition of instrumental music. While musical ensembles have been around in China for millennia, the modern Chinese orchestra (中乐团 zhōngyuètuán) only dates back to the early 20th century, having been inspired by the Western symphony orchestra, albeit using traditional Chinese instruments instead. You can catch a Chinese orchestra performance not only in China, but also in places with large overseas Chinese communities like Singapore and Malaysia.
One instrument that holds a highly revered place in Chinese culture is the guqin (古琴 gǔqín) or just qin (琴 qín), and knowing how to play the guqin was one of the four arts expected of the traditional Chinese scholar-gentleman. Today, there is a large repertoire of pieces for guqin soloists that you can listen to. Another instrument related to the guqin is the guzheng (古箏 gǔzhēng), which is descended from a now-extinct ancient Chinese instrument called the se (瑟 sè), and also has a large repertoire of pieces for soloists. The guzheng would eventually spread to Korea, where it evolved into the gayageum, and to Japan, where it evolved into the koto, which is today regarded as Japan's national instrument. The erhu (二胡 èrhú), a two-stringed bowed instrument, and the pipa (琵琶 pípá), a plucked string instrument that has a much wider dynamic range than the soft guzheng, are other major solo instruments, and professional players are often quite virtuosic. The Chinese bamboo flute is called the dizi (笛子 dízi). Like the erhu and pipa, it is used soloistically and in ensembles. Dizi, like recorders, come in various sizes from little sopranino ones to big bass ones.
China also has a long history of making percussion instruments, including various drums (鼓 gǔ), gongs (锣 luó), bells (钟 zhōng) and cymbals (钹 bó). Many parts of China also have long histories of percussion ensembles incorporating several of these instruments.
You can see beautiful examples of ancient Chinese instruments in museums such as one in the Forbidden City, and modern instruments are for sale in every Chinese city and may be found in some shops in the Chinese diaspora.
Xiangsheng (相声 xiàngshēng) is a uniquely Chinese form of comedy. In its simplest form, it involves two performers having a dialogue in Mandarin with a strong Beijing accent. More elaborate forms can include singing, rapping and even musical accompaniment.
Besides traditional forms of theatre, China is also home to more modern styles of theatre, with Beijing generally being well-regarded among younger Chinese for its drama plays (话剧 huà jù). However, as they are primarily aimed at the domestic market, performances are usually in Mandarin with no English surtitles.
China also has a thriving pop music scene, with musical talent shows bring extremely popular on Chinese television. While Hong Kong and Taiwan were the main centres of Chinese pop culture from the 1950s to the 2000s, this has changed dramatically since the 2010s, with many top Hong Kong and Taiwanese singers now basing themselves in the mainland where they can earn a lot more money than back home. While the vast majority of pop music is in Mandarin, Minnan and Cantonese pop music is also well-established due to the influence of Taiwan and Hong Kong respectively. Chinese pop singers from other regions are now also producing songs in their respective local dialects as homage to their roots. Moreover, ethnic minority singers from China are also increasingly producing songs in their respective ethnic languages.