The Orphan of Zhao (Beijing Jingju Theatre);赵氏孤儿(北京京剧院)

The Orphan of Zhao (Zhaoshi guer)

Genre: jingju

Produced by Beijing Jingju Company/ Beijing Jingju Theatre, premiered in 1959

Performers: Zhu Qiang, Liu Zheng, Wei Jijun, Li Yangming

About the genre:

Jingju is not a local theatre in Beijing. Actually it was a highly developed urban theatre that appeared in the capital in the early 19th century. It was based on the pre-existent theatrical genres of kun, bangzi, jingqiang (alteration of the older yiyangqiang), huidiao, handiao and others. Most of first generation of jingju actors were from kun, hui and han theatrical genres. They selected and utilized the styles with which they were familiar and boldly innovated the repertoire and performing conventions of these pre-existent forms.

One greatest innovation was the language that jingju was to use. At that time, different troupes from different areas often presented their local genres with very different dialects on the same stage, and that caused great problems for audiences in Beijing. Thus the first challenge for jingju was to create its own artificial language, which would be understood easily by every member of the audience, ranging from locals to those who had come to the capital for business or for refuge, from peddlers to merchants, the gentry class, the literati and even the Manchu court. The creation of heightened speech, or yunbai (literally meaning rhymed speech), and colloquial speech, or jingbai (mainly using the Beijing local dialect) marked the completion of the new genre. The rhymed speech is normally used by high-class characters and scholars, while the colloquial speech by working class and comic roles.

Surpassing its “regional ancestors”, jingju, a newly created genre in the early 19th century of mixed blood, was not only stronger than any of the pre-existent genres, but also looked and sounded familiar in many different areas. This explains why it spread quickly and widely in China since the early 20th century.

Jingju is a complex theatrical amalgamation. Every aspect of the genre — singing, speaking, dance-acting, combat, costuming and make-up — has to follow certain modes, patterns or rules. Central to the system is the categorization of role types (see Xiqu); each role type is codified by specific requirements for voice, singing, gesture, body movements, dance, make-up and costume. There are four role types: sheng (male), dan (female), jing (painted face) and chou (comic role); each has its own sub-categories. Traditional repertoires are all created around specific role types.

Jingju’s aria is mainly composed in two model systems: erhuang from the hui theatre and xipi from the handiao. Different modes are organized according to metrical types. Every metered metrical type provides a pattern of an accented beat and unaccented beat(s). The lyrical structure of jingju aria is in couplets, and therefore the musical construction consists of opening and closing lines. Each line of the libretto contains either seven or ten syllables. Jingju also uses “melodic models”, taken from pre-existent genres such as kun, hui and others.

The traditional repertoire, according to the performing techniques, are generally divided into two types: civilian (focusing on singing) and military (focusing on acrobatics and martial arts).


The Orphan of Zhao is a play based on historical records. The orphan was born circa 583 BC during the Spring-Autumn Period – a time when imperial power was being eroded by the growth of numerous aristocratic-family-states. Appalled by the chaos and bloodshed, philosophers such as Confucius (551-479 BC) acted as advisors to rulers on how to control their states and people.

Historical records present contradictory accounts of the story. Most versions of different theatrical genres and films we see now are based on the extant full-length tragedy Wrongs Avenged by the Orphan of Zhao by Ji Junxiang, written in the Yuan dynasty when China was ruled by the Mongols (1279-1368 AD).

The basic story is as follows: schemed by the evil courtier Tu’an Gu, the Zhao clan were all killed except for the Princess who was the Jin Ruler’s sister and was pregnant. After the baby was born, he was smuggled out by a doctor called Cheng Ying. Having realized that the baby boy had escaped, Tu’an Gu gave the order to kill all the newly born boys in the country. Finally, Cheng Ying decided to give up his own child for the Zhao orphan. Meanwhile Cheng Ying and his friend, a retired minister Gongsun Chujiu made a plan. Cheng would report to Tu’an about Gongsun who had the Zhao orphan in his house. Actually the real Zhao orphan was hidden in the deep mountain while Cheng’s own baby son was with Gongsun. Tu’an killed both Gongsun and the child. In order to reward Cheng Ying as a loyal reporter, Tu’an took both Cheng Ying and his son (but actually Zhao’s offspring) to his house and Tu’an made himself the foster father of the boy.16 years later, Cheng Ying revealed the true story to the young man. The orphan of Zhao took the revenge on Tu’an, for his parents, grandparents, his clan and for Cheng Ying. In order to rescue this orphan many people died.

This is an archetypal Chinese story of loyalty, honesty, sacrifice, friendship, evil, revenge, bravery, and justice.

This clip is taken from the jingju production, which was premiered in 1959 by Ma Lianliang, one of the Four Sheng Masters, and the current actor Zhu Qiang (as Cheng Ying) is one of his third-generation disciples. Through acting Cheng Ying, Zhu studied Master Ma’s singing, speaking and acting skills thoroughly from his teacher Zhang Xuejin who had learned the role from Ma Lianliang himself. This process exemplified how the tradition of jingju, as well as that of other older genres, was carried forward generation after generation. Meanwhile, each generation adds more to the repertoire and in this way, the tradition has been innovated constantly.

Traditionally jingju productions perform highlights of scenes taken from the Yuan play, and it was Ma Lianliang who made the first full-length version of the play on the modern stage. The 1959 jingju production was a beautiful artistic piece; Ma’s unique skills of voice and movements created an exquisite character of Cheng Ying, yet, at the same time, it was also a product of the ideology of the time. The Jin ruler was described as lustful, cruel and incompetent; the spirit of fighting against evil was further stressed. The role of the maid to the orphan’s mother was given prominence as she represented the poor.

The clip is a trailer of the production that the Research Association of Ma Lianliang Performing Art made for the Leeds international symposium Performing China on the Global Stage, held in March 2013.

Images and the video are courtesy of Research Association of Ma Lianliang Performing Art.











京剧是一个相当复杂的集大成的戏剧形式,其唱、做、念、打以及服装、化妆和道具都必须遵守一定的程式。 “程式”的中心部位是行当,每一个行当都有发声、歌唱、身段、形体、舞蹈、化妆和服装的一定之规。生、旦、净、丑为其基本行当,又各有细密的分工。 骨子老戏环绕行当而创造、形成的。

京剧的音乐基本属于板腔体,以徽调的二黄和汉调的西皮为主。 两者皆有不同的板式,板(强拍击板)眼(次强拍或弱拍)清楚、分明,唱词为上下句组成,唱词往往是七字或者十字句。京剧也使用一些来自昆腔、徽腔和其他剧种的曲牌。












Audience Type
The Orphan of Zhao (Beijing Jingju Theatre);赵氏孤儿(北京京剧院): , 1959


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