The Chinese opera, or Xiqu, competes with Greek tragic-comedy and Indian Sanskrit opera as one of the three oldest dramatic art forms in the world.
When I say old, think somewhere between 712 to 756 AD old. It should be considered an art form by itself, with more than 300 types. Each one has its own characters, origins, and peculiarities.
Performers’ costumes and make-up are particularly fascinating (I’m talking to you Anna Wintour, we all know where you got your inspiration for the 2015 Met Gala). Much like today where fashion is a form of self-expression, in Chinese opera make-up is responsible for telling a story.
The mask-like make-up serves as an indicator of the characters’ values and personalities. The leading female roles, which are given the name of Dan, can be played by both female and male actors. This shows just how powerful make-up can be; it’s a more effective gender cue than the actors’ biological features.
Qingyi, one of the Dan subtypes and the most important role in the Peking Opera, use mostly white, red and black make-up. White for the skin, red for the cheeks and eyelids, and black for the outlining of the eyes. The choice of colors and strokes are used not only to portray a young elegant woman with a dignified personality but mostly to illustrate the idealized Chinese concept of feminine beauty.
Chinese opera’s use of make-up has been used for centuries and are still relevant today.
Here are five techniques that are used in Qingyi’s make-up that are immensely popular nowadays and you’ve probably seen on Youtube.
Sharp and bold eyebrows
We’re forever thankful that the 90s pencil thin eyebrow days are gone. It seems like forever ago the Chinese were already fighting for the thick eyebrow cause.
Nose and cheek contouring
You might think Kim Kardashian is a loyal Chinese opera-goer and helped spread the word about face sculpting. The Chinese have long decided on the oval face and thin nose look for the Dan. We continue to play around with highlights and shadows to enhance our favorite features.
Centuries ago the Chinese were not a fan of uneven blush application and neither are we now. They used blush to cover much more of the cheeks than what we use today and their choice of red was definitely more bold. But when it came to leaving harsh lines they were always a no-go.
We suspect Kylie Jenner is actually a 1300-year-old woman who was somehow involved in Chinese opera and that’s how her lip kit empire came to life. The Qingyi always had those permanently puckered red full lips that we envy today.
The Chinese were also admirers of almond shaped, deep eyes that are only brought to life by the perfect cat-eye look. To help give the eye this special form the Chinese outlined the lower lid just below the waterline much how we do today.
So if you are running out of YouTube tutorials, consider traveling to China to get inspiration from Chinese opera. It’s still one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the country. And a surprisingly well-kept secret for many tourists. Well… secret’s out!
The Peking opera, known as the national theater, is the quintessential art form in China. It can be found all around Beijing. Unfortunately, many of Beijing's original opera houses have been replaced with more modern-looking venues and many others have been brought down completely. No need to panic though, there are still a few traditional theaters that put on daily performances.
Where, you ask?
The Liyuan Theater is the first teahouse-style theater in Beijing. Teahouse-style? Yes. Spectators are seated in Baxian tables and served tea and snacks during the performance. The Liyuan Theater can be a good option for those looking for a smoother transition into a foreign culture as it provides English subtitles. If you’re really into make-up (oops, I mean opera) you may visit the performers’ dressing room and watch them get ready.
Another option for a traditional venue is Huguang Guild Hall. The beautiful courtyard complex made of a wooden structure is now both a theater and a museum. It was originally built in 1807 and was home to high-level officials of the Qing Dynasty. It also served as a meeting space (a.k.a guildhall, duh) for some political parties. Mental note: suggest to HR to make our conference room into a stage.
If you really want to go traditional, try to catch a Mei Lanfang classic in one of these venues. Lanfang, who died in 1961, was one of the most celebrated Chinese opera masters. His work is still widely studied and tributed today. He was best known for his Qingyi roles and is still considered one of the Four Great Dan.
Bonus secret: If you look hard enough you might stumble across a rare publicly staged performance. Go for the singing, dancing, or our favorite — costumes & make-up! My point is, just go!
Annnnnd we’ve come full circle.