Beijing opera (京戏; jīng xì) is the most celebrated of China’s 350 or so regional operatic styles – a unique combination of song, dance, acrobatics and mime. Highly stylized, to the outsider the performances can often seem obscure and wearying, as they are punctuated by a succession of crashing gongs and piercing, discordant songs. But it’s worth seeing once, especially if you can acquaint yourself with the story beforehand. Most of the plots are based on historical or mythological themes – two of the most famous sagas, which any Chinese will explain to you, are The White Snake and The Water Margin – and full of moral lessons. Offering an interesting, if controversial, variation on the traditions are those operas that deal with contemporary themes – such as the struggle of women to marry as they choose. The colours used on stage, from the costumes to the make up on the players’ faces, are highly symbolic: red signifies loyalty; yellow, fierceness; blue, cruelty; and white, evil.

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