Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Chinese Opera {With book & craft recommendations)

Cantonese Opera (Source)
Chinese opera, a classical art in China's traditional culture, is a sight to behold. Along with singing, acting, and music, the performance includes mime, dance, martial arts and feats of acrobatics - all done in elaborate costumes and make up. 

You can watch a clip of Chinese opera featuring sword fighting, martial arts and acrobatics here.

Photo Credit: Grufnik
Chinese opera has been around for nearly a thousand years. For hundreds of years, it was the most popular form of entertainment. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, opera actors were considered superstars. 

Photo Credit: Frank Chan
Within Chinese opera, there are hundreds of regional differences, Beijing Opera being the most recognized. The opera plots are mostly drawn from Chinese history, mythology and folklore. In fact, Beijing Opera alone includes over 1,200 works. 

Lady White Snake: A Tale From Chinese Opera  retold by Aaron Shepard. (Affiliate link)This book is an illustrated telling of the Legend of the White Snake, one of the most often performed stories in Chinese opera. Written in English and Chinese, reading this book was a great way to get a feel for the type of story performed in the operas with the elements of mythology and battle. The illustrations in this book accurately portray the costumes, miming and stances you would see at a performance. We watched a bit of this clip of the White Snake opera, though the girls preferred the book. The book also includes 3 pages of endnotes about Chinese operas and another page explaining aspects of Chinese culture depicted in the story.

One of the hallmarks of Sichuan Opera is rapid face changing: the performer turns around, waves their arms across their face, and looks like they have completely changed their makeup. The girls watched the video below by Jairo Medina a few times, astounded by the mask changing (especially during the first 25 seconds and the last 40 seconds).

Since there are so many skills to master, becoming a Chinese opera performer takes years of training, beginning from an early age, at specialized schools. Up until relatively recently, training was brutal and grueling. Typically, an actor is trained especially for one role type, playing that type for the entirety of his or her career. 
Opera featuring the Monkey King, a particularly popular subject
Photo Credit: Greg Demichillie
There are four main roles in Chinese opera: the Sheng (male role); Dan (female role); Chou (clown/comic relief); Fa Mein (painted face). Traditionally, female roles were played by men, and though these days female roles are usually played by women, they continue to copy the voice and movement styles the men used. 

Note the white and red masks
Photo Credit: Thomas
The Fa Mein roles - the "painted faces" - are male characters with mask like face painting that indicate the nature of the character. Because of these bold colors, immediately upon entering the stage, the audience knows the basis of these characters' personalities. 

Masks depicting various characters in Chinese opera
Photo Credit: Kirk Siang
The various colors represent the following characteristics:

Red: loyalty, courage, devotion
Blue: audaciousness, bravery, stubbornness
Yellow: treachery, slyness,
Purple: respect, nobleness, sense of justice
Green: chivalry
White: scheming, evil
Black: loyalty integrity
Silver and Gold: reserved for the gods

Paint a Chinese Opera Mask

We have a plaster mask kit we dusted off and put to good use to make Chinese opera masks. We perused this website - it includes 272 examples of Chinese opera face painting (!), and explanations of the different colors, roles, and characters. (Note, on occasion some of the changing advertisements at the bottom of the site were, to my mind, inappropriate for kids. I zoomed in on the page so we couldn't see them without scrolling down.) 

With their chosen examples as inspiration, they used a pencil to draw the patterns, then painted with acrylic paint. The girls were quite proud of their masks, that turned out gorgeous and ready to hang. 

If you'd like to make plaster masks, you can buy Plastic Facial Form Mask (affiliate link)

Other online tutorials:

First Palette offers a tutorial to make a paper Chinese opera mask (left), and includes blank and ready to color printable templates.

VideoJug has a video tutorial on making a more elaborate Chinese mask with paper plates

I was pleasantly surprised at the degree to which the girls appreciated learning about Chinese opera. They really enjoyed watching the clips, imagining the stories, and were especially taken with the costumes. They were completely absorbed painting their Chinese opera masks.

If you'd like to learn more about Chinese opera, the Peking Opera Festival webpage has lots of great information and colorful images, including its history, details about the music and instruments used, and descriptions of the different roles and their respective elaborate costumes.

You can find more cultural and historical activities at the following linkups:
You can find more creative and kid friendly activities at the following linkups:


  1. This is awesome, Marie! The masks are very beautifully painted!

    I've been thinking about studying the Chinese Opera with Tiger, and all the detailed information you have here are excellent! Thank you so much for all the links and sharing your resources.

  2. Thanks Hwee, I definitely recommend the Peking Opera Festival website - fantastic resource. I hope Tiger enjoys the study!

  3. Tell the girls they did a wonderful job. Marie, you are building up such precious memories for your girls. They are so blessed to have you as their mummy!

    1. Thanks Claire :) I love seeing them absorbed in a creative project.

  4. I would love to have one of those masks...I wonder if I can get my boys to make some...:)


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