The exact origins of Henan Opera are hard to trace, as stories of its conception differ, however it is generally agreed that Henan Opera originated around the end of Ming Dynasty and the beginning of Qing Dynasty. In the beginning, it was mainly songs performed without actors wearing makeup. These songs were popular among common people of the time, and as a result the art form developed rapidly.
Henan Opera is divided into different musical styles. Four of the styles are the Xiangfu (around Kaifeng), the Yudong (around Shangqiu), the Yuxi (around Luoyang), and the Shahe (around Luohe). The two main styles are the Yudong and Yuxi. The Yudong style is used to express a comedy, while the Yuxi style expresses a tragedy. Instruments such as the banhu, erhu, sanxian, pipa, dizi, sheng, and suona, typically provide musical accompaniment to Henan Opera.
Henan Opera is known for being very passionate and good at staging big shows, but also being very natural and reflecting ordinary people's life, albeit with dramatic conflicts in the stories.
Before 1927 there were no actresses in Henan Opera; only men were allowed to perform. After actresses began performing, 5 schools of acting developed, based on the popularity of 5 actresses, including Chang Xiangyu, Chen Suzhen, Ma Jinfeng, Yan Lipin, and Cui Lantian. Chang's style is passionate and ardent, Chen's is light and fresh, Ma's is vigorous and bright, Cui's is deep and reserved, and Yan's is smooth and delicate.
There are more than 1,000 traditional stories in the Henan Opera repertoire, most of which come from historical stories, although others depict tales of marriage, love, and morality. Two famous examples are the stories of Mu Guiying and Hua Mulan, the latter being made famous in the West by the Disney film Mulan. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, many modern operas appeared that tried to depict the reality of daily life, which enhanced Henan Opera.
Although Henan Opera is popular within China, it is less well known than Beijing Opera outside of China. Beijing Opera and Henan Opera have some similarities, but there are also many points that distinguish the two. For one, Beijing Opera appeared earlier than Henan Opera. A second important point is that due to the relative simplicity of the stories performed in Henan Opera, it is usually more popular among rural people, while Beijing Opera is popular among urban people. To truly enjoy Beijing Opera it is good to have some academic knowledge, since the language used in Beijing Opera is often difficult for ordinary Chinese people to understand. The language of Henan Opera is a bit simpler. In addition, clothing and makeup are different between the two styles. Henan Opera uses simple costumes and makeup, while Beijing Opera uses a style that is more exaggerated and dramatic. Differences can also be seen in set decoration, action, and the role of the story.
Although Henan Opera is still loved by common people, it faces increasing problems that affect its development, such as smaller and smaller audiences, and competition from more modern forms of entertainment, making it very hard for many troupes to survive. Despite these challenges, it continues to be a respected cultural tradition, with some children even learning the style at an early age.
This article is part of a series produced by students at Henan University of Traditional Chinese Medicine.