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Theatre Music

The Lady and the Clown

What it takes to master Chinese opera, from two Taiwanese veterans


Published: 2 Sep 2019

Pen 2

Updated: 15 Jul 2023

Time taken : ~10mins

Peking opera stars Wei Hai-min and Chen Chin-ho share their experiences

What was learning Peking Opera like for you?

Wei: When I was around 11 years old, my father spotted a student recruitment advertisement by Hai Guang Chinese Opera School in the newspaper. The ad was quite small, but he saw it, so maybe it was my destiny to learn opera.

I took to it very naturally, but I cried a lot when I first joined the school. At home, I was the youngest of three girls, and life was more innocent. In the opera school, I had to force myself to wake up early and do all the vocal and physical exercises, and I felt a bit sorry for myself.

At one point, one of my teachers told me: "Don’t be like tofu—one touch and you start to leak water. You must learn to be strong." After that, I decided to change and there was no more crying. That very strict training process as a child is actually very important. You need to go through it to become a good performer.

Lady and Clown 01

Wei Hai-min (front row, first on left) with her schoolmates at Hai Guang Chinese Opera School.

Our schedule was the same every day, for the seven years I was in the school. We got up at 5am, and did vocal warm-ups in the field near our hostel. Then we practised what we call mat exercises, such as somersaults. After breakfast, we would learn chorus parts from certain operas. After lunch and a nap, we focused on learning how to wield different kinds of stage weapons and action choreography for fight scenes. After dinner, we had academic classes till 9pm. And then it was time for bed.

Chen: When I was nine years old, my father told me I would be transferring to a new school, Lu Guang, but he didn’t tell me it was an opera school. I just did what I was told. If you have seen movies like Painted Faces (a 1988 film based on the opera training Jackie Chan received as a child) and Farewell My Concubine, it was a bit like that. There was a lot of corporal punishment—if one student made a mistake, everyone got punished. To cheer ourselves up, we would compare our welts during bath time and the one with the most welts would become the leader for the day.

So it was quite tough. My mother was upset and wanted me to come home. But my father felt experiencing some hardship would be good for me when I grew up. So I stayed in the school for nine years

I realised that I was quite good at the acrobatic aspects of the training. I could do more and higher somersaults than anyone else, and that gave me a sense of enjoyment.

You eventually specialised in qing yi (gentle and refined female characters) and chou (comical or clownish characters) roles respectively. How did that happen?

Wei: I was chosen to specialise in qing yi roles after about one and a half years at school.

In the past, when female opera roles were played by men, the categorisation of such roles was more detailed. This was because when it comes to portraying women, male physicalities and abilities could vary quite widely. For example, the ones chosen for qing yi roles had to have good singing voices, while the ones chosen for wu dan [more acrobatic female characters] tended not to have great singing voices.

But when women started playing the female roles, the specialisations became less defined, because it’s easier for women to play different kinds of female roles. One can be acrobatically agile and be cast as a wu dan, but also possess the singing skills needed to play a qing yi. My first lead role on stage was actually a wu dan role—Mu Guiying, a female warrior. Qing yi roles take a longer time to learn, because there are a lot of singing techniques, lines and stories to acquire. So I also started learning wu dan roles because the school wanted us to start performing sooner.

Around 1975, the lead female performers at Hai Guang all left, and I was chosen to perform with my teacher, rather than just appear in the student productions. It was a lot of pressure, but that helped me to grow a lot as a performer.

Lady and Clown 02

Wei Hai-min (left) and Chen Chin-ho (right) of Taiwan's premier GuoGuang Opera Company.

Chen: The teachers at my school had spent about a year observing us before dividing us into different specialisations. I was chosen to train for both wu sheng (martial male characters) and chou roles.

There is a saying: without a chou, there is no opera. There are supporting chou roles in almost every opera. And in my class, there were eight boys and only two were specialising in chou roles—not enough for our productions. So after a year of training, I was told to focus only on chou roles.

I didn’t want to. The impression I had of chou performers then was that they were naughty, not good at singing, and didn’t have great looks. I was naughty, but I didn’t think I looked too bad, and my acrobatics were very strong. Wu sheng roles were the heroes—very imposing, attention-grabbing and popular. I felt like I was being overlooked, but my teachers insisted, so I had no choice.

After graduating, I joined the Lu Guang troupe, then became a TV stuntman for a while, before joining GuoGuang in 1985. I didn’t have any great ambitions for the future, and there wasn’t much change in my mindset. When people asked me what my profession was, I couldn't quite bring myself to say I was a chou performer.

You later became students of Peking Opera masters Mei Baojiu and Sun Zhengyang. Why did you wish to learn from them?

Wei: When I was a student in Taiwan, we didn’t really learn distinct schools of opera, it was more general. In 1982, I saw Mr Mei Baojiu (the son of opera icon Mei Lanfang) perform in Hong Kong. That was the first time he performed outside mainland China after the Cultural Revolution, and what I saw was so different from anything I had experienced before. His skills were flawless; that performance was really a revelation for me.

At that time, I had just graduated, and I was feeling quite lost. I wasn’t sure if I should continue in this profession, because Chinese Opera was quite disconnected from popular culture and from society at large. But after seeing Mr Mei perform, I realised opera could be so profound and beautiful. I started to collect research materials to help me immerse myself in the Mei style. In 1988, I met Mr Mei and he became my teacher. But it was only in 1991 that I was able to go to China and learn from him. So this dream took almost a decade to come true.

Chen: In 1986, I saw Mr Sun perform in Taiwan. It was electrifying, and I realised that this was the style I wanted to learn. His performance was very contemporary, even the way he designed the chou make-up was different.

In traditional opera, the chou’s appearance would be ugly. But Mr Sun felt that a chou character is ugly because of his heart. You cannot discern that from his external appearance, you have to express it through his actions and words. Meeting Mr Sun was a turning point for me that helped me develop a new understanding of the chou.

Lady and Clown 03

Chen Chin-ho (left) with his mentor Sun Zhengyang.

When I started learning from him, I was 28 years old. The first time, I stayed for over a month in Shanghai, and there were many things I couldn’t get right. I would cry in my room, and I thought about giving up. But I persevered. Mr Sun was very meticulous in teaching me. He said my foundation was weak, so we started from the basics, to build a new foundation. It took many years to change my habits, the way I spoke, and my performance rhythms.

He didn’t give me a word of praise for six years. The day he told me a performance of mine was not bad, I felt like I was flying.

You are now a mentor to younger performers. What advice do you often give them, for example, Wang Yung-tseng whom Chen laoshi (teacher) mentored for the clown role in Seized Alive (to be performed at Esplanade on 21 July 2023)?

Chen: This role (in Seized Alive, which showcases some of the most difficult techniques in Chinese opera) is not an easy one. Wang Yung-tseng had to bite the bullet when he came to learn from me. He is a hardworking student with a good martial arts foundation, but his moves were not graceful enough and he was not good with the dialogue.

How I taught him, aside from finessing his performance line by line, movement by movement, was to remind him to use his imagination in performance. Why does the character do this at this moment? What does he want to show to the audience? These have to be conveyed by the performer to the audience using his body and acting skills.

There is an old saying, “Men learn while they teach”. In the process I also grew in maturity. When I first started teaching, I expected my students to follow even the way I draw breath. Later I thought about it: I’ve grappled with this work for 20 years and Yung-tseng has only just begun. Now I just remind him to relax, enjoy the performance and stay focused on stage.

It’s okay to have your own way of expression, you just need to keep observing and learning, and remember that what is inside of you is more important than your martial arts skills. His performance gets better each time and it never fails to move me.

Photos courtesy of Wei Hai-min and Chen Chin-ho. Top image features the two artists in costume.

GuoGuang Opera Company presents A Show of Prowess: Peking Opera Excerpts on 21 Jul 2023 and Chun-cao's Intrusion at the Court - World's Best Comedy on 23 Jul 2023 at Esplanade Theatre.

Contributed by:

Hong Xinyi

Hong Xinyi, a freelance writer, interviewed Wei Hai-min and Chen Chin-ho and translated their replies, originally in Chinese.

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