His­tory of Head­gear in Pek­ing Opera

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Zhu Jiant­ing Edited by Justin Davis Pho­tos by Joe Mcnally (U. S.), Yuan Bo

A his­tor­i­cal trea­sure of tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture, head­gear used in tra­di­tional Chi­nese op­eras is re­lated to char­ac­ter def­i­ni­tion, plot devel­op­ment and ex­press­ing emo­tion. It is one of the most im­por­tant as­pects of tra­di­tional Chi­nese op­eras.

The essence of opera lies in its el­e­gance. When the cur­tain is drawn, a fas­ci­nat­ing world is re­vealed like a pro­found Chi­nese paint­ing show­cas­ing red palace lanterns, oc­tag­o­nal gauze lanterns, land­scapes, birds, flow­ers, hand­held fans, or­na­ments, gar­dens, palaces and var­i­ous an­cient weapons.

Eu­pho­nious, tra­di­tional Chi­nese mu­sic is per­formed, and the stage is filled with clas­sic scenes of chirp­ing birds, danc­ing sleeves, deft ac­tions, deep sor­row, sweet smiles. Pek­ing Opera is a charm­ing, eastern art that takes au­di­ences on an in­tox­i­cat­ing jour­ney through an­cient China’s im­pe­rial cul­ture.

Pek­ing Opera was con­tin­u­ously per­formed from the late Qing Dy­nasty (1644– 1911) pe­riod to the 1930s. The bril­liant, daz­zling cos­tumes and per­for­mances usu­ally linger in the minds of au­di­ence members long af­ter a show is over.

A his­tor­i­cal trea­sure of tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture, head­gear used in Chi­nese op­eras is re­lated to char­ac­ter def­i­ni­tion, plot devel­op­ment and ex­press­ing emo­tion. It is one of the most im­por­tant as­pects of tra­di­tional Chi­nese op­eras. As the say­ing goes, “One would rather wear bro­ken head­gear than the wrong one.” The shapes and pat­terns of the head­gear work in con­junc­tion with the rest of a cos­tume to

in­di­cate the class, iden­tity and other char­ac­ter­is­tics of a char­ac­ter.

Cre­at­ing head­gear is an ar­du­ous craft. His­tor­i­cally, this trade was mostly passed down through cer­tain fam­i­lies. “Good cos­tumes come from the south, while good head­gear is cre­ated in the north” is a say­ing that can be heard in Chi­nese opera cir­cles. Tra­di­tional head­gear fab­ri­ca­tion tech­niques are still be­ing passed on in Bei­jing and Tian­jin, which are his­tor­i­cally opera par­adises in north­ern China.

The Long His­tory of Head­gear

Ev­ery ex­quis­ite cos­tume, piece of head­gear, prop and dec­o­ra­tion comes from the hard work of many crafts­peo­ple that au­di­ence members may not be think­ing about while en­joy­ing an opera. Em­broi­dered robes, aprons, pants, capes, cloaks, coats, bags, ties, shoes and hel­mets are care­fully cre­ated and even­tu­ally placed in var­i­ous cases for use by the cast and crew of a pro­duc­tion.

In tra­di­tional Chi­nese opera, there are spe­cial cos­tumes and props for ev­ery char­ac­ter. The back­stage area will have many dress­ing ta­bles and cases full of cos­tumes, head­gear, flags, bags, weapons and so on. A case for head­gear may have hel­mets, hats, ar­ti­fi­cial whiskers and top­knots. Head­gear spread and de­vel­oped along with tra­di­tional Chi­nese opera it­self and was given dozens of names. Some troupes have two head­gear cases. One is for war­rior roles and mostly con­tains hel­mets, hats and crowns, and the other is for scholar roles and mostly con­tains scarves and spe­cial hats for monks and eu­nuchs.

The head­gear for each role in an opera comes from ex­pec­ta­tions that per­form­ers and au­di­ences have de­vel­oped for gen­er­a­tions. Sev­er­al­cen­tury- old opera cos­tume tra­di­tions are fol­lowed. Head­gear is of­ten adorned with pearls, flow­ers, balls, rib­bons and feath­ers. Pieces are usu­ally con­sis­tent with cor­re­spond­ing cos­tumes.

Head­gear fab­ri­ca­tion is an in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage craft with a long his­tory. Ac­cord­ing to records, head­gear fab­ri­ca­tion ex­isted as far back as the Han Dy­nasty (202 BC–AD 220). In his book Jiao Fang Ji (“Notes on Im­pe­rial Mu­sic Depart­ment”), Cui Lingqin of the Tang Dy­nasty (AD 618–907) de­scribed flo­ral crowns, pearl crowns and other head­gear as well as opera cos­tumes and re­lated in­for­ma­tion. Hong­tong County’s Guang­sheng Tem­ple in Shanxi Prov­ince con­tains a mu­ral that de­picts a scene of a poetic drama staged in 1324 that fea­tures gauze hats, war­riors’ hel­mets, scarves for schol­ars and monks’ hats. Kun­qiang Opera grad­u­ally ma­tured in Suzhou and Kun­shan in Jiangsu Prov­ince dur­ing the Ming Dy­nasty (1368–1644). Head­gear fab­ri­ca­tion be­gan to flour­ish in Suzhou at the time as well.

Head­gear cre­ation emerged in Bei­jing dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty with the es­tab­lish­ment of Pek­ing Opera. When Em­peror Guangxu (1875–1908) reigned, a total of 16 head­gear stores opened in Suzhou such as Shenyuan­tai, Zhou­jinji, Han­shunx­ing, Tian­bao­tai and Huanghengc­hang. Bei­jing had more than 10 shops that spe­cialised in head­gear cre­ation until the 1940s, such as Ruix­ing, Guang­shengx­ing, Jin­hua, Ji­uchun and Zhong­shan. Head­gear pro­duc­tion can still be found in places like Head­gear Li, a renowned fam­ily shop in Bei­jing.

Four Gen­er­a­tions High­light Head­gear His­tory

Li Ji­zong is known as the “master of head­gear” in the­atre cir­cles and es­pe­cially in Bei­jing’s opera cir­cles. As a fourth- gen­er­a­tion in­her­i­tor of Pek­ing Opera head­gear fab­ri­ca­tion tech­niques, Li started an ap­pren­tice­ship when he was young and has been en­gaged in this work for about 60 years. The great pop­u­lar­ity of this fam­ily and their work with Pek­ing Opera stars in the com­pet­i­tive head­gear mar­ket goes back to pa­tri­arch Li Zhao­long and his high­qual­ity cre­ations.

In the 1920s, Li Zhao­long left his home­town of Dingx­ing, He­bei with his fam­ily to go to Bei­jing to learn how to make head­gear from a pres­ti­gious master who made head­gear for troupes that per­formed at the For­bid­den City. When he fin­ished this ap­pren­tice­ship, Li opened a shop called Ruix­in­g­long. Twenty years later, Li’s three sons Hongchang, Zhaolin and Youhua in­her­ited this craft from their fa­ther and opened an­other store in Zhushikou in the Qian­men area and named it Hual­in­chang. The name comes from com­bin­ing parts of their names. The

fam­ily busi­ness took root in Bei­jing and has been passed on for gen­er­a­tions.

In early 1956, 16-year- old Li Ji­zong and the Hual­in­chang Head­gear Mill were in­cor­po­rated into the Bei­jing Head­gear and Opera Prop­er­ties Pro­duc­tion Co­op­er­a­tive which was made up of man­u­fac­tur­ers that cre­ated 13 cat­e­gories of opera cos­tumes and para­pher­na­lia and more than 300 ar­ti­sans. The co­op­er­a­tive also man­u­fac­tured other items used in opera such as boots, tar­gets, ar­ti­fi­cial whiskers, masks and tas­sels. Nearly all of the cre­ators of opera props and cos­tumes in Bei­jing and even all of China were part of the co­op­er­a­tive at the time.

Li Ji­zong hoped to learn from some of these mas­ters. Op­por­tu­ni­ties soon pre­sented them­selves. In the sec­ond year of the co­op­er­a­tive, a task force con­sist­ing of a dozen vet­eran ar­ti­sans was founded to serve opera stars. Li ap­plied to join the group and im­pressed the vet­eran ar­ti­sans with his dili­gence and hard work. The vet­er­ans of­ten ex­plained par­tic­u­lar tech­niques to Li and en­cour­aged him. They said: “Re­mem­ber these, and pass on the skills. We are too old to con­tinue with this work.”

Li Ji­zong learned skills like pol­ish­ing, jack­et­ing, cut­ting, past­ing and link­ing. He was able to make both head­gear and other ar­ti­cles like feather adorn­ments, silk patches and tas­sels. He gained a com­pre­hen­sive com­mand of the cre­ation of var­i­ous items and made quick progress, which made him stand out from other members of the co­op­er­a­tive, who gen­er­ally con­cen­trated on par­tic­u­lar tasks.

Li be­gan to de­velop a good rep­u­ta­tion in Bei­jing’s opera cir­cles. Nu­mer­ous stars be­gan to re­quest that he make cus­tom head­gear for them. Zhang Xue­jin, the renowned per­for­mance artist of Jingju The­ater Com­pany of Bei­jing and in­her­i­tor of the Ma School’s El­derly Char­ac­ter; Zhang Huod­ing, a pro­fes­sor at the Na­tional Academy of Chi­nese The­atre Arts and in­her­i­tor of the Cheng School of Pek­ing Opera; and famous older- gen­er­a­tion opera stars like Ma Lian­liang, Tan Fuy­ing and Qiu Shen­grong are some ex­am­ples.

Li Ji­zong has spent his life pur­su­ing tech­ni­cal and artis­tic per­fec­tion. Head­gear man­u­fac­tur­ers have to con­sider the re­quire­ments of the per­form­ers also. A per­former has to be sat­is­fied with their head­gear, top­knots and cos­tumes to be able to stage a good per­for­mance for the au­di­ence. Li of­ten watches opera per­for­mances to get ideas about im­prove­ments and ad­just­ments he can make.

The tech­niques that the Head­gear Li shop em­ploys have been passed down for more than a cen­tury. All of the members of the four- gen­er­a­tion fam­ily are en­gaged in head­gear fab­ri­ca­tion. Li Ji­zong breaks the con­ven­tional fam­ily­based ap­pren­tice­ship re­stric­tion as well and teaches young­sters who are in­ter­ested in the busi­ness him­self.

Xu Fam­ily’s Head­gear Crowned in Tian­jin

Xu Zhen­bang lives in south­ern Tian­jin and is a third- gen­er­a­tion in­her­i­tor of his fam­ily’s head­gear cre­ation tech­niques.

Per­sis­tence is valu­able when learn­ing how to cre­ate head­gear. Through­out the past cen­tury, Xu Fam­ily’s Head­gear grew from an un­known brand in busy down­town Tian­jin to a head­gear man­u­fac­turer that is renowned in all of north­ern China. This is the re­sult of the hard work of three gen­er­a­tions of the Xu fam­ily.

Xu Xinyi was a peas­ant from Raoyang in He­bei Prov­ince and left to go to Bei­jing when he was 14 years old to make a liv­ing dur­ing the pe­riod in which Guangxu was the em­peror of the Qing Dy­nasty (1875–1908). He be­came an ap­pren­tice at the Yong­maosheng Head­gear Mill, a man­u­fac­turer of opera cos­tumes, weapons and other items for the im­pe­rial troupes. Af­ter fin­ish­ing his ap­pren­tice­ship, Xu pur­sued a ca­reer in Baod­ing in He­bei Prov­ince. He then went to Tian­jin in 1926 and opened Xu’s Xin­d­e­qing Head­gear Mill on Qinghe Street to man­u­fac­ture and sell var­i­ous head­gear and other items.

In the ini­tial years of the 20th cen­tury, Tin­jian’s South­ern Dis­trict was the most pros­per­ous art hub in north­ern China. Ar­ti­sans swarmed to

the busy, free and flour­ish­ing zone that sprang up as a re­sult of var­i­ous per­for­mances in tea­houses, cham­bers and clubs in the area. Xu Yixin was one of them. He sold his head­gear di­rectly to troupes and the­atres. It was highly praised due to its ex­quis­ite and ex­cel­lent work­man­ship. Famous mar­tial role ac­tors Li Lant­ing, Li Wanchun, Ye Shengzhang and Yin­dazi, as well as many opera fans, val­ued Xu’s prod­ucts. He de­vel­oped a good rep­u­ta­tion and mar­ket foun­da­tion in Tian­jin.

Xu Xinyi had six sons who learned from him from child­hood and even­tu­ally took over the fam­ily busi­ness. Xu Zhen­bang was a third- gen­er­a­tion in­her­i­tor of the fam­ily crafts­man­ship and be­gan to learn the tech­niques from his fa­ther Xu Baot­ing at the age of 18.

Crowns, hel­mets, scarves, hats and other types of head­gear that are used are re­lated to the iden­ti­ties, ages and per­son­al­i­ties of the opera char­ac­ters. Pek­ing Opera has the most rigid re­quire­ments and com­pli­cated tech­ni­cal de­mands for head­gear. Tra­di­tional Pek­ing Opera head­gear fea­tures more than 300 pat­terns, in­clud­ing 100 pop­u­lar ones, and strin­gent stan­dards. Male head­gear nor­mally fea­tures dragon, bat, cloud and wave dec­o­ra­tions. An im­pe­rial crown, for ex­am­ple, has a round front and a round rear. A pre­mier’s hat is square in front and round in the rear. Fe­male head­gear mostly fea­tures flower, but­ter­fly and phoenix dec­o­ra­tions. It of­ten takes Xu Zhen­bang a week to make an or­di­nary piece of head­gear and 20 days to fin­ish a com­pli­cated item such as a phoenix crown, which is made up of nu­mer­ous tas­sels, beads, daz­zling gems em­bed­ded into the beads and other dec­o­ra­tions. It is quite dif­fi­cult to com­bine all of them to­gether to form a com­plete prod­uct.

Xu Fam­ily’s Head­gear has been favoured by opera per­form­ers for a long time be­cause of the re­fined ma­te­ri­als that are used and the tra­di­tional work­man­ship that the com­pany uses. The Xu fam­ily con­tin­ues to make head­gear man­u­ally and fas­tid­i­ously and ob­serve tra­di­tional man­u­fac­tur­ing rules. Ev­ery process, such as pat­tern­ing, carv­ing, twist­ing, gauze- cov­er­ing, jack­et­ing, paint­ing, pow­der­ing, gold and sil­ver foil­ing, past­ing and fin­ish­ing, is part of the tra­di­tional crafts.

Carv­ing refers to carv­ing the pat­terns needed for the head­gear on a piece of pa­per­board. Twist­ing refers to twist­ing iron wire to con­form to the pat­terns that were carved and weld­ing it on the ob­jects. Jack­et­ing means putting wire into the jacket at the edge of head­gear. Some head­gear for male roles needs to be cov­ered with a layer of fer­ric ox­ide- coated gauze for pro­tec­tion and to pro­mote dura­bil­ity. Pow­der­ing adds depth to pat­terns. Gold and sil­ver foil­ing adds shine to a piece of head­gear and in­di­cates no­ble iden­tity. Past­ing means at­tach­ing azure patches for dec­o­ra­tion. Fin­ish­ing the head­gear in­volves ad­ding var­i­ous or­na­ments. Xu Zhen­bang con­tin­ues to use his fam­ily’s head­gear fab­ri­ca­tion tech­niques to­day. Talk­ing about the tech­niques is like enu­mer­at­ing his fam­ily valu­ables.

The at­ti­tude of ar­ti­sans plays a de­ci­sive role in main­tain­ing the ro­bust vi­tal­ity of a tra­di­tional tech­nique. Head­gear fab­ri­ca­tion re­quires much pa­tience and a lot of hard work. Machine-made head­gear can now be mass-pro­duced also. Celebrity per­form­ers and au­di­ence members both pre­fer tra­di­tional, hand­made head­gear, how­ever. Xu Zhen­bang of­ten works over­time to keep up with de­mand. He in­sists on main­tain­ing his fam­ily’s tra­di­tion and mak­ing the head­gear bet­ter and bet­ter.

Xu’s 10-square-me­tre stu­dio is filled with hard­board, half-a- cen­tu­ry­old carv­ing im­ple­ments, en­grav­ing knives, awls and other items. The tiny stu­dio rep­re­sents three gen­er­a­tions of head­gear fab­ri­ca­tion over the course of a cen­tury.

De­spite the pas­sage of time, flossy balls on hel­mets, azure patches and pearls on phoenix crowns and the sweet sound of opera stars are en­dur­ing el­e­ments in China’s per­for­mance cir­cles and are known through­out the world. Tra­di­tional head­gear fab­ri­ca­tion tech­niques are still be­ing em­ployed.

China has made ef­forts to re­store and pro­tect tra­di­tional cul­ture. Pek­ing Opera and Kunqu Opera have been in­scribed on the list of UN­ESCO World In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage items. Head­gear crafts­man­ship is also a pro­tected in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage item. The ar­ti­sans who cre­ate head­gear are in the lime­light again thanks to their ex­tra­or­di­nary crafts­man­ship and cre­ativ­ity.

Mak­ing a head­gear com­po­nent

Help­ing an ac­tor to put on his head­gear

A gor­geously dec­o­rated piece of head­gear

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