Amazing Performance Costumes
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.
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