Amaz­ing Per­for­mance Cos­tumes

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Zhang Hong­peng Edited by Scott Bray Pho­tos by Zhao Meng

In tra­di­tional Chi­nese op­eras, cos­tumes play an im­por­tant role as they help man­i­fest char­ac­ters’ per­son­al­i­ties, tem­per­a­ments and so­cial sta­tuses. As such, cos­tume pro­duc­tion boasts a long his­tory and has been rated as a na­tional-level in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage item.

In Peking Opera, the char­ac­ter­is­tic fa­cial make-up and per­for­mance cos­tumes and their im­pres­sive de­signs re­flect per­son­al­i­ties, tem­per­a­ments and so­cial sta­tuses. As a pop­u­lar Chi­nese song re­lates, dis­tinct fa­cial make-up is used with cer­tain no­table char­ac­ters, such as a blue face for Dou Er­dun (1683–1717, leg­endary heroic outlaw), and red, white and black for the mil­i­tary com­man­ders Guan Yu (?– AD 220), Cao Cao (c. AD 155–220) and Zhang Fei (?–AD 221), made fa­mous from the his­tor­i­cal novel Ro­mance of the Three King­doms. Along­side the un­mis­tak­able fa­cial paint­ing, ac­tors also wear dis­tinct cos­tumes re­lated to the char­ac­ter dur­ing per­for­mances.

The types of cos­tumes, mo­tifs and colours an ac­tor wears are strictly reg­u­lated ac­cord­ing to the char­ac­ter and his or her tem­per­a­ment. Thanks to the care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion of how a cos­tume fits each char­ac­ter's per­son­al­ity and sta­tus, the colour­ful cos­tumes of Peking Opera not only im­press their au­di­ences, they also high­light the fea­tures of each char­ac­ter.

Cos­tumes and Ac­ces­sories

Bei­jing Play Equip­ment Fac­tory, a pres­ti­gious per­for­mance cos­tume man­u­fac­turer in Bei­jing, is lo­cated at 32 Xi­caoshi Street, Dongcheng

Dis­trict, where cos­tume mak­ers and shops have been gath­er­ing since the late Qing Dy­nasty (1644–1911). In 1956, 17 of some of the big­ger cos­tume, shoe and prop pro­duc­ers and shops were re­struc­tured and merged into the Bei­jing Em­broi­dered Cos­tumes Fac­tory (present- day Bei­jing Play Equip­ment Fac­tory).

The fac­tory has an ex­cel­lent rep­u­ta­tion in Peking Opera cir­cles. In 1983, while China Cen­tral Tele­vi­sion (CCTV) pre­pared to film the TV se­ries adap­ta­tion of A Dream of Red Man­sions, it of­fered the fac­tory a busi­ness op­por­tu­nity to pro­duce the char­ac­ter's cos­tumes. Af­ter­wards, it made cos­tumes and stage props for the en­tire cast of Jour­ney to the West (1986 TV se­ries). Just be­fore the turn of the cen­tury the fac­tory also pro­duced cos­tumes for the ac­tors and ac­tresses of the TV se­ries Grand Man­sion Gate.

Through this and other projects the Bei­jing Play Equip­ment Fac­tory has es­tab­lished long-term co­op­er­a­tive re­la­tions with the Na­tional Peking Opera Com­pany, Jingju Theater Com­pany of Bei­jing, Bei­jing Pingju Opera Theatre and Bei­jing Quju Opera Theatre, and be­come a trusted name among well­known ac­tors and ac­tresses.

Sun Ying, deputy man­ager and chief ar­ti­san of Bei­jing Play Equip­ment Fac­tory, has worked with the fac­tory for more than 40 years, with the short ex­cep­tion of her univer­sity years from 1982 to 1985, since she first joined at age 19. To­day she is a rep­re­sen­ta­tive suc­ces­sor of their cos­tume craft, which has been rated as a na­tional-level in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage item.

Ac­cord­ing to Sun, there are five cat­e­gories of cos­tumes in Peking Opera: mang, pei, kao, zhe and yi. Each type is de­signed for dif­fer­ent types of char­ac­ters and dif­fer­ent scenes. For ex­am­ple, mang cos­tumes are for em­per­ors and high-rank­ing of­fi­cials, pei for the ev­ery­day wear of of­fi­cials and their fam­ily mem­bers, and kao for mil­i­tary of­fi­cers. Silk, ex­pen­sive and grace­ful, is the fab­ric of choice for mang and kao while satin is suit­able for pei and zhe due to its smooth tex­ture and wrin­kle-re­sis­tant na­ture. All char­ac­ters on the stage wear cos­tumes de­signed ac­cord­ing to their role and age. That is to say, the same role (such as em­peror or of­fi­cial) will of­ten wear the same type of cos­tumes re­gard­less of the era por­trayed. For in­stance, em­per­ors and high-rank­ing of­fi­cials from the Tang (AD 618–907) and Song (AD 960–1279) all wear mang cos­tumes. How­ever, a char­ac­ter's age, gen­der, sta­tus and eth­nic­ity is high­lighted through unique cos­tume de­sign.

There are many schools to Peking Opera, each named af­ter and rep­re­sented by a mas­ter ac­tor. Like­wise, each school has its typ­i­cal cos­tumes. For in­stance, the Mei School, named af­ter Peking Opera artist Mei Lan­fang (1894– 1961), fol­lows Mei Lan­fang's dress­ing style. Within Peking Opera, there are few faux pas more se­ri­ous than wear­ing the wrong cos­tume.

China has many tra­di­tional op­eras, each dis­tin­guished by its mu­sic and act­ing style—but the im­por­tance of a char­ac­ter's cos­tume is a com­mon thread. Even smaller and less pros­per­ous the­atres in the past could be ex­pected to have sev­eral cos­tumes, while more fa­mous the­atres owned a ver­i­ta­ble trea­sure trove. Tra­di­tional Chi­nese op­eras cre­ate pic­turesque scenes on the stage us­ing set­tings, light­ing and, of course, their dis­tinct cos­tumes and ac­ces­sories.


Chi­nese cos­tume pro­duc­tion boasts a long his­tory and has been an im­por­tant el­e­ment for tra­di­tional artistry in China. All cos­tumes are de­signed af­ter the cloth­ing styles of the Ming and Qing dy­nas­ties, with added artis­tic flair. With the ap­pro­pri­ate com­bi­na­tion of fab­rics and colours, these cos­tumes help cre­ate and am­plify the ap­pear­ances of their re­spec­tive char­ac­ters.

Based on tra­di­tional Chi­nese hi­er­ar­chy, cos­tumes are cat­e­gorised ac­cord­ing to shape, colour and mo­tif to por­tray a char­ac­ter's so­cial sta­tus. For in­stance, em­per­ors dress in dragon robes, re­tired of­fi­cials and the wealthy in dou­ble breasted em­broi­dered pei, schol­ars, in­tel­lec­tu­als and literati in Con­fu­cian scholar robes, while ped­dlers and young ser­vants wear short gar­ments.

Cos­tumes use colours to re­flect tem­per­a­ments and so­cial strata. In cos­tumes, colours are sep­a­rated into the “up­per five” ( yel­low, red, green, white and black) and “lower five” ( pur­ple, blue, pink, light green and brown). These colours must fol­low the an­cient dress code to iden­tify the sta­tus and fea­tures of the wearer. For in­stance, yel­low sym­bol­ises dig­nity,

red hon­esty, black ro­bust­ness, white solem­nity and green tenac­ity. As a re­sult, yel­low is a priv­i­leged colour for em­per­ors and the high­est deities in tra­di­tional op­eras. For in­stance, four­clawed dragon robes usu­ally come in the up­per five colours, but the yel­low dragon robe it­self can be only worn by em­per­ors, while high- rank­ing of­fi­cials are dressed in robes of other colours. For ex­am­ple, red dragon robes are worn by zhuangyuan ( the scholar achiev­ing the high­est score in the Chi­nese im­pe­rial ex­am­i­na­tions), white and green by up­right of­fi­cials and black by rig­or­ous and just of­fi­cials like Bao Zheng (AD 999– 1062).

Mo­tifs fur­ther sig­nify sta­tus and iden­tity. Where the dragon robe of an em­peror is em­broi­dered with im­ages of five-clawed dragons, an of­fi­cial's robe car­ries four-clawed dragons. In Peking Opera, the front and back of an of­fi­cial robe has a patch, upon which beasts are em­broi­dered for the robes of mil­i­tary of­fi­cers, while birds rest on those of civil­ian of­fi­cials. Dif­fer­ent ranks of of­fi­cials are fur­ther iden­ti­fied by dif­fer­ent kinds of birds, such as cranes, pheas­ants, pea­cocks and swal­lows. There are a wide range of cos­tume mo­tifs, such as dragons, phoenixes, beasts, fish, in­sects, flow­ers, clouds and rip­ples of wa­ter.

Through these vis­ual cues, the au­di­ence can quickly iden­tify the sta­tus, per­son­al­ity and back­ground of a char­ac­ter. As Sun Ying re­lates, “A set of cos­tumes can be used in many dif­fer­ent plays. It's a tra­di­tion both the au­di­ence and ac­tors un­der­stand. Be­cause of this, an au­di­ence can eas­ily recog­nise the iden­ti­ties and per­son­al­i­ties of char­ac­ters sim­ply from their cos­tume.”

Al­though cos­tumes un­der­score to some de­gree the sta­tus of their wear­ers, they are not changed ac­cord­ing to the sea­sons on stage. As a re­sult, an au­di­ence may see the same cos­tumes used by char­ac­ters dur­ing dif­fer­ent sea­sons.

Com­pli­cated Crafts­man­ship

Thanks to their im­por­tant roles in tra­di­tional Chi­nese opera, cos­tumes have been an in­te­gral part of China's opera cul­ture.

Pro­duc­ing a cos­tume is a com­pli­cated pro­ce­dure. The craft in­cludes such stages as de­sign, ma­te­rial prepa­ra­tion, em­broi­der­ing, cut­ting, tai­lor­ing and em­bel­lish­ing. As each stage is a process re­quir­ing sev­eral steps it­self, there are few left who have mas­tered the craft to­day. A sin­gle cos­tume is usu­ally made by sev­eral crafts­men, who each take charge of one or sev­eral steps in its cre­ation.

In­side the Bei­jing Play Equip­ment Fac­tory, the pro­ce­dure of mak­ing a cos­tume split into many parts. Work­ers here are in­volved in iron­ing, em­broi­der­ing, cut­ting or tai­lor­ing. Ev­ery worker spe­cialises in a skill.

Sun en­gages in de­sign, the first step in cos­tume pro­duc­tion. Her spe­cialty is the de­sign of mo­tifs for a cos­tume. Mo­tif de­sign­ers re­quire ex­cel­lent draw­ing skills and must know how to em­broi­der in or­der to cre­ate mo­tifs suit­able for

em­broi­dery. The first step in cre­at­ing a mo­tif is to draw de­sign sketches. These sketches are based on a char­ac­ter's age, gen­der, sta­tus and fa­cial make-up. The reg­u­la­tions on cos­tume de­sign date back sev­eral hun­dred years, al­though some have been al­tered due to changes in con­tem­po­rary aes­thet­ics.

Af­ter the de­sign is com­plete, work­ers start em­broi­der­ing ac­cord­ing to the de­sign plan. Em­broi­dery plays an im­por­tant role in the pro­ce­dure of mak­ing a cos­tume. In the four-clawed dragon robes alone, dragons must be em­broi­dered in dif­fer­ent shapes us­ing dif­fer­ent thread types and colours to cre­ate life­like im­ages.

It is widely ac­cepted that em­broi­dery takes the lion's share of cos­tume pro­duc­tion. These cos­tumes, which are em­broi­dered with colour­ful and or­derly mo­tifs, are of an un­de­ni­ably high qual­ity. To no small ex­tent, a cos­tume's aes­thetic and artis­tic value re­lies on the em­broi­dery it­self.

The tra­di­tional cos­tume of Bei­jing is made with an em­broi­der­ing skill called jingxiu, which in­volves a com­pli­cated pro­ce­dure. Jingxiu, also known as gongt­ingxiu (“im­pe­rial em­broi­dery”), is a col­lec­tive name for all types of em­broi­dery in Bei­jing. As jingxiu was used to em­broi­der fab­rics for the im­pe­rial fam­i­lies of past dy­nas­ties, out­stand­ing skill and up­scale fab­ric was of the ut­most im­por­tance. The craft still fo­cuses on em­broi­der­ing skills and qual­ity fab­ric which has re­tained jingxiu's su­pe­ri­or­ity to its coun­ter­parts when it comes to tech­nique and qual­ity.

The first step in jingxiu is to ex­tract mo­tifs from the de­sign plan. Af­ter cov­er­ing the de­sign plan with trac­ing pa­per, two pins are used to fix the two pieces of pa­per and an em­broi­dery nee­dle is used to punc­ture along lines of the mo­tif on the de­sign plan. Once a time-con­sum­ing process done by hand, to­day ma­chines are used to punch out dots along the de­sign plan, dra­mat­i­cally in­creas­ing ef­fi­ciency.

The trac­ing pa­per, with its pin­holes fol­low­ing con­tour lines of the de­sign plan, is then placed on the se­lected fab­ric. A white pow­der is then brushed on the pa­per, shap­ing the dot­ted out­line of the mo­tifs on the fab­ric it­self. Em­broi­der­ers then work based on those pat­terns. It is a crit­i­cal step in cos­tume cre­ation, and many em­broi­dery tech­niques ex­ist. The jingxiu cat­e­gory of em­broi­dery alone fea­tures a wide ar­ray of tech­niques to make var­i­ous pat­terns. Through em­broi­dery, cos­tumes help shape a char­ac­ter's fea­tures and tem­per­a­ment.


Once the em­broi­der­ing is com­plete, em­broi­dered fab­rics are pre­pared, cut and sewn to­gether to make cos­tumes. When work­ing with silk, as it is soft and prone to wrin­kling, the fab­ric must be ap­pro­pri­ately pre­pared be­fore the first cut.

Em­broi­dered fab­rics are re­versed and flat­tened on a ta­ble, ap­ply­ing a paste from left to right. Once the paste is evenly ap­plied, the fab­ric is sprayed with wa­ter prior to do­ing needle­work, which helps flat­ten the fab­ric. The work is then lined up and pre­pared for cut­ting. One must take care not to dam­age the em­broi­dery and fol­low the ap­pro­pri­ate shapes and sizes when cut­ting the fab­ric. The parts are then sewn to­gether to pro­duce the cos­tume. Once com­pleted, work­ers then add ac­ces­sories such as tas­sels and but­tons.

Even split among sev­eral crafts­men, it usu­ally takes more than 10 days, even up to sev­eral months, to com­plete a hand­made cos­tume. Nat­u­rally, tra­di­tional opera cos­tumes are cut from a dif­fer­ent cloth than mod­ern ready-made per­for­mance gar­ments, given that such cos­tumes must be tai­lored to the height and size of an ac­tor. As a re­sult, most tra­di­tional cos­tumes are cus­tomised ac­cord­ing to spe­cific needs.

Good cos­tumes can help ac­tors and ac­tresses bet­ter em­body their char­ac­ters and wow an au­di­ence. These cos­tumes also al­low an au­di­ence to im­me­di­ately pick up on a char­ac­ter's sta­tus and his­tor­i­cal back­ground.

That be­ing said, tra­di­tional cos­tume pro­duc­tion is fac­ing a de­cline. While Bei­jing Play Equip­ment Fac­tory is play­ing a dom­i­nant role in the cre­ation of these tra­di­tional gar­ments, there still lies the is­sue of con­tin­u­ing that tra­di­tion. “If our fac­tory can run well, the artistry of mak­ing cos­tumes will be able to con­tinue, and be pro­tected through pro­duc­tion,” Sun Ying tells us, ex­press­ing both her hope for the fac­tory and a fear for the fu­ture of her craft.

Ap­ply­ing paste on the fab­ric to flat­ten it

Ma­chine em­broi­dery has been adopted to raise ef­fi­ciency. Cut­ting is one of fi­nal pro­cesses in cos­tume pro­duc­tion.

Flow­ers em­broi­dered on a cos­tume

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