Jingju is not a local theatre in Beijing.It was a highly developed urban theatre that appeared in the capital in the early 19th century. From the 1910s onwards it became popular in most areas in the country due to its successful and sophisticated marketing system. According to the 2016 document of “Prominent State and Provincial Level Jingju Theatre Companies” issued by the Ministry of Culture, only the following provinces are not listed: Anhui, Guangdong, Hainan, Jiangxi, Henan, Qinghai, Xinjiang and Tibet. Yet there are still jingju companies in some cities in these regions.
Jingju’s formation was based on the pre-existent theatrical genres of kun, bangzi, jingqiang (alteration of the older yiyangqiang), 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; 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).