Music Peking Opera (Beijing Opera, jingju)
Stella Zhizhi Li
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 March 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0257


Peking Opera (jingju 京剧), a major genre of classical Chinese theater (xiqu 戏曲), emerged in the late 18th and early 19th centuries during the Qing dynasty. As a blend of various Southern Chinese theatrical traditions, Peking Opera inherits and stylizes many representative musical features of Chinese xiqu in its melodies, rhythms, and vocal techniques. During the early 20th century in the Republic of China, Peking Opera thrived as virtuoso artists performed nationwide and toured internationally. After the establishment of the PRC in 1949, the government implemented drama reform that aimed at bringing Peking Opera into better line with Communist ideology. With the start of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), Peking Opera was reinvented as Model Opera (yangbanxi样板戏). At the same time in Taiwan, the genre was renamed by the KMT military government as “National Opera (guoju國劇)” in response to defeat and expulsion by the Communist Party. Contemporary performance and composition of Peking Opera remain innovative while still reviving traditional forms. Scholarship on Peking Opera conducted in Mainland China sometimes diverges in methodology from that conducted abroad due to the different academic and social environments. Local Chinese scholarship tends to focus on archival work and theories related to musical practice, while the Western counterpart is predominantly concerned with critical and structural analysis. This article selects works and resources that would benefit scholars proficient in the Chinese language who are interested in researching, teaching, and/or publishing in English academic settings. Notice that writings after the international standardization of the pinyin system (1979) may adapt the pinyin transliteration, “Beijing Opera.” Meanwhile, the more conventional “Peking Opera” continues to exist in various contexts, as many European languages outside English still refer to the name of city in its traditional transliteration.

General Overviews

A great number of general studies have been produced in both Chinese and English aimed at a diverse readership. Works listed here represent more recent scholarship. For an accessible introduction to the subject, see Xu and Chen 2003. Mackerras and Hai’s article in Oxford Bibliographies Online (Traditional Chinese Drama (Xiqu 戏曲) Performance Art) offers an informative starting point for musical research. Guy’s article in Grove Music Online (Beijing Opera) and Pian 2002 are very useful sources introducing the musical aspects of Peking Opera. Beijingshi yishu yanjiusuo and Shanghai yishu yanjiusuo 2005 contains an authoritative and thorough overview of Peking Opera designed for scholarly reference. Wichmann 1994 is a provocative source proposing methodologies for English-speaking scholars to study the subject.

  • Beijingshi yishu yanjiusuo 北京市艺术研究所 and Shanghai yishu yanjiusuo 上海艺术研究所. Zhongguo jingju shi (中国京剧史). Beijing: Zhongguo xiju chubanshe, 2005.

    A three-volume chronological overview of the development of Peking Opera from c. 1790. Encompasses a variety of subjects including historical context, musical analysis, artists’ biographies, and social studies, with selected reprints and transcriptions of archival materials.

  • Guy, Nancy. “Beijing Opera.” In Grove Music Online.

    Introduces the history and the music of Beijing Opera. The chronological overview describes the historical emergence and transformation of Beijing Opera through the late 18th century to the end of the 20th century. The introduction to the music explains the basic tune families, the aria types, and the orchestra of Beijing Opera.

  • Mackerras, Colin, and Zhen Hai. “Traditional Chinese Drama (Xiqu 戏曲) Performance Art.” In Oxford Bibliographies in Chinese Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    The section “Jingju” provides selected works on Peking Opera suitable for both preliminary and in-depth research. Includes many earlier English-language texts that are foundational to the current-day studies of Peking Opera conducted outside the Chinese context.

  • Pian, Rulan Chao. “Peking Opera: Jingju.” In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. Vol. 7, East Asia: China, Japan, and Korea. Edited by Robert C. Provine, Yosihiko Tokumaru, and Lawrence J. Witzleben, 281–287. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

    A concise introduction that emphasizes the musical aspects of Peking Opera. Touches on themes including elements of performance, musical structure, text setting, the organization of the orchestra, styles of speech, and the genre’s influence on public music culture.

  • Wichmann, Elizabeth. “Xiqu Research and Translation with the Artists in Mind.” Asian Theatre Journal 11.1 (1994): 97–103.

    DOI: 10.2307/1124385

    One of the very few English writings concerned with methodologies of studying Peking Opera, and Chinese drama in general, this short essay includes several particular aspects that Wichmann suggests for English-language scholars to contribute to the contemporary studies of xiqu research, including Peking Opera.

  • Xu, Chengbei, and Gengtao Chen, trans. Peking Opera. Beijing: China Intercontinental Press, 2003.

    An engaging introduction with colorful illustrations. Demonstrates the history, music, performance, libretto, stagecraft, and biographies of prominent artists.

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