This was a cool opportunity. Tianjin’s drama school, which trains kids to eventually become Beijing Opera (京剧) performers and TV/film actors, let a group from our language school come and observe their Beijing Opera classes in action.
(I suggest you let this video load while you read, since it’s a few minutes long.)
The kids were elementary to high school aged, and the older ones study around 12 hours a day (I didn’t hear about the younger ones), beginning with exercise at 6:30am (the acrobatics required by some of these roles is no joke). They live on the campus and their studies include regular schooling. By the time they’re done, they will have learned around 15 different roles from various operas. These kids will hopefully find jobs with opera troupes in various cities, once they graduate from a two-year college program.
The student at right is practicing the role of a female general, which looked physically demanding with all the jumps and twirls and spear-spinning and exacting technical expectations of her teacher, who would often step in to adjust the angle of her hand or arm or posture. When in full costume her face paint would indicate that her character is a fierce and capable warrior.
Click the photos for a bigger view. The classrooms were a little dim for taking photos and video, but you can still get a little bit of feel for it.
These boys are playing generals. In ancient China the flags on their backs served as armour protecting them from behind.
Only the highest ranking people, like generals, would get to wear the platform shoes.
This girl is playing a woman wrongly accused of killing her husband (hence the chains). The girls in front of the mirror are practicing dealing with their extra long sleeves, which served to hide civilized women’s hands and keep them from appearing too “开放” (open, loose) in public:
The female actors have to move as if their feet are bound, and generally carry themselves as ancient cultured women were expected. These beginner students are learning the basics:
At one point this nice grandma of a teacher suddenly in mid-verse pointed at one girl whose posture wasn’t quite right and said, “肚子!” (tummy!).
These boys were practicing navigating their beards while performing what looked like a long, painful dance routine, where they were required to hold difficult poses for long periods of time, jump, and switch feet in mid-leap without tripping on the beard. In this pose, the student had to slowly bend his right knee down and then up again:
A civilized warrior would be able to fight without getting his beard too messed up; a well-kept beard displayed one’s civilized nature.
These girls were practicing a singing part that required very little movement, but the teacher required that every movement, down to each finger, be placed exactly so:
The boy on the right is playing the Beijing Opera equivalent of a clown. When in costume his face would be painted in a way indicating his role as the comic relief, and his stick would be a long pipe:
On our way out we passed the high school girls’ dorm. There were a couple of blond toddlers in our group (some students brought their kids) and they became magnets for an adoring mob of female students. In China, you can’t get much cuter than little blond white kids.