History of Headgear in Peking Opera
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