Baiju Opera: Old Singing Staying Young as Ever

2020-02-20 17:16:00 Source:China Today Author:BAI YAN
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YUNNAN is located in the mountainous areas of southwest China, and its beautiful landscape is home to 26 ethnic groups, with ethic minority groups making up a third of the population. Among them, the Bai ethnic group is the third largest in the province, behind the Yi and Hani. The Bai people have their own original folk opera called Baiju.

                                   Holy Princess Bai Jie, a new historical Baiju play, wins the Golden Peacock award of the Minority Ethnic Theater Society China in 2007.

Its predecessor was the Yiyang tune, a Central Plains opera introduced into Dali (a city in western Yunnan Province) in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which was integrated with the local Bai music, song, dance and life, and then evolved into the Blowing Tune Opera. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, this folk opera, which has been sung for more than 700 years, was integrated with another Bai art form of talking and singing and folk songs to become the Baiju Opera. In 2008, Baiju was listed as a national intangible cultural heritage.


Shangguan Flower, a Baiju drama, is performed on the ancient stage of Dada Village, Yunlong County, Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture by the Baiju Opera Troupe of Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture in 1961.

Old Singing Style

The Baiju Opera is the only Chinese opera that still retains the ancient Yiyang tune system.

The Yiyang tune was formed in the late Yuan (1271-1368) and early Ming dynasties, and was one of the four major Chinese operatic tunes. Since the Jiajing period (1522-1566) of the Ming Dynasty, Yiyang tune had gradually become popular in different regions, and evolved into many new local operas, giving birth to a slew of different vocal techniques. Therefore, Yiyang tune is known as the ancestor of Chinese local operas, with the most influential vocal system in China. Tang Xianzu (1550-1616), acclaimed dramatist and litterateur, wrote, “By the Jiajing period the Yiyang tune had been extinct, having changed into the Leping tune, Huizhou tune, and Qingyang tune.” It’s really surprising therefore that the Yiyang tune, which was believed to have been lost for a long time, is preserved in the Baiju Opera in the frontier province of Yunnan.

Traditional and Rich Forms of Expression

The performance of the Baiju Opera, which integrates various artistic features, has a distinctive rhythm and rigorous rules. It not only has a set of special patterns with a strong dancing flavor, but also pays attention to martial arts. During the Qianlong period (1736-1796) of the Qing Dynasty, Yang Yongtong, a 72-year-old entertainer, was able to do movements of virtuosic skill and agility when performing the Double Monkeys Holding Seals play. In terms of performance methods, like the Peking Opera, the Baiju Opera also pays attention to the “four skills” of “singing, reciting, acting, and acrobatic fighting” and “five methods” of “hand, eye, body, gait, and techniques.” The costume and performance should first conform to the identity and personality of each character, meaning the clown should use a soft voice, while male characters should adopt a natural voice, the male characters with painted faces should use a coarse voice, and the female characters should adopt a falsetto. The actors should not only sing well, but the dance and performance must also be closely connected with music.

The first time the Baiju play Burning the Mill was performed in Kunming by Yang Huichi, an ordinary villager in Yunlong County, Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture, it won wide acclaim from experts.

Rich Literary Flavor and Beautiful Melodies

Another remarkable feature of the Baiju Opera is that its libretto encapsulates the unique poetry style of the Bai ethnic group. Each section of libretto is composed of four sentences, the first three sentences are each composed of seven words, and the last of five words. The Baiju Opera has a strong literariness, and the common clichés found in other folk operas are few. Compared with the forthright, plain and unadorned drama of other ethnic minorities, the beauty of the Baiju Opera is closely related to traditional Bai literature.

Because it has a very close relationship with the tone of the Bai language, the voice, rhyme, and tone of the Baiju Opera singing has its own unique laws, and gradually formed two major schools in the regions north and south of Dali. The northern school’s singing is high and wild; the southern school’s singing is more melodious and subdued, with a strong ethnic flavor, less influenced by classical operas. Both schools of opera pay attention to strict roles and stylized actions. There are multiple divisions of roles, and characters sing and dance in the performance, giving it a strong appeal. Because of the differences in the tone of the Bai language, the basic tone of the tunes also shows different local styles, forming the rich tunes of the Baiju Opera. As the two major tunes of the opera, the blowing tune and Daben tune can be performed separately or used in combination in a performance at the same time, which greatly expands the opera’s expressiveness.

Inheritance and Protection

Until now, the performance of the Baiju Opera is still a very important part of the local Dali culture with a sense of ceremony. During every festival, local village troupes will stage performances. The traditional Baiju troupes are well-equipped, including the head of the troupe, a suona horn player, drummer, costume designer, prop master and facial makeup artists. Before performing, they must hold a worship ceremony to the God of Drama. This ancient ceremony has been preserved to this day, especially in Yunlong County, where the Baiju Opera is popular at weddings, funerals, and festivals.

At present, there are more than 400 plays of the opera, including more than 300 traditional plays and more than 130 new plays, which have been created or adapted after the founding of the People’s Republic of China. There are primarily five categories: period drama, life drama, folklore drama, new historical drama, and modern drama.

From 2014 to 2016, Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture invested a total of RMB 5.2 million (US $745,765) to provide financial support for the restoration of classic Baiju plays, preservation of historical materials, research on art theory, observation and learning, exhibitions and performances, and encouraging and supporting young Baiju performers to learn from elder artists, so this cultural heritage can be passed on to the next generation.

In 2014, the local government established the Baiju Opera research office, the Baiju creation studio and the inheritance and performance room in the Bai Culture Institute. A Baiju base was also established at the Dali Youth Art School and Xiaguan No. 4 Primary School to encourage young people to learn the art.

Drama is a sign of the maturity of a nation’s civilization. Yunnan is a multi-ethnic province with a lot of good ethnic dramas, which is culturally valuable, and none more so than the unique Baiju Opera.  


BAI YAN is editor-in-chief of Yunnan Ethnic Culture Audio & Video Publishing House. 

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