The use of certain roles and characters is a basic concept in Chinese theatre, and actors are trained to perform specific types of roles throughout their careers. All characters and roles fit into predetermined categories. Each category has a specific style of singing, movement and costume. Subdivisions within each category may vary between the operatic forms of various regions; All, however, can be all classified as one of four main role types: Sheng, Dan, Jing and Chou.
Sheng is the general term for male roles. It can be further divided into subtypes such as Xiao Sheng (the young man's role), Lao Sheng (the old man's role), Wu Sheng (the warrior's or martial arts specialist's role) and many other variations. In addition, each subtype has its own subcategories, only a few of which have been discussed in relation to the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC) disc collection.
Dan is the general term for female roles. It can be further classified into subtypes such as Hua Dan (the young maiden's role), Lao Dan (the old woman's role), Wu Dan (the warrior woman's role), Daoma Dan (the elegant warrior woman's role), Qing Yi (the graceful young maiden's role), Guimen Dan (the high-born woman's role), and many other variations. In addition, each subtype has its own subcategories, only a few of which have been discussed in relation to the CMC disc collection.
Jing is the general term for roles involving heavily painted faces, and is limited to male characters. Not all characters with painted faces automatically fall into this category. The colour and design of the face paint represents the identity and personality of the character, and can range from one predominant colour to more complicated designs.
Chou is the general term for clown roles. It can be further classified into subtypes such as Nan Chou (the male clown's role), Nu Chou (the female clown's role), and Wu Dan (the warrior woman's role). Clowns normally improvise and often make reference to local current events.
The following types of roles are found in this collection:
Er Hua Mian: a male character with a forthright, irascible and gruff temperament. This is a special subtype falling between the main Jing and Chou male roles, and is specific to Cantonese opera.
Gong Jiao: a gentle, elderly and dignified male character. This is a subtype of the Sheng male role, and is specific to Cantonese opera. It is usually characterized by minimal make-up, a long beard, and an expressive singing style.
Hua Dan: a young, unmarried female character. This is one of the subtypes of the Dan female role. It is one of the most important roles for women, and is characterized by graceful steps, delicate movements, and a high-pitched voice.
Nan Chou: a male clown character, usually involving secondary roles in a Cantonese opera troupe. It can be either a clown or a mean-spirited character. Makeup is very specific, with a distinct white patch around the nose.
Nan Hou: a general reference to male actors in Cantonese opera.
Nu Chou: a female clown character, usually involving secondary roles in a Cantonese opera troupe. Makeup is usually a plaster-like headache remedy attached to the side of the performer's head.
Nu Ling: a general reference to female performers in Cantonese opera. In earlier times, there were no female actresses in Chinese theatre, so female roles were taken by men. They mimicked women's singing and gestures, and many were popular and highly successful among theatregoers.
Wu Sheng: a martial character involved in combat. This is one of the subtypes of the Sheng male role, and has two primary subgroups of its own. One of these is the "armoured warrior" subgroup, in which actors usually wear splendid armour and engage their stage opponents with long spears. Posture, movement and costume are all elegant. The second primary subtype is the "close-combat martial artist" subgroup, which wears simple clothing and performs acrobatics. They often fight in hand-to-hand combat scenes without armour.
Xiao Sheng: an adolescent male character. This is another subtype of the Sheng male role. Performers within this subtype generally sing and speak in a high-pitched voice, representing more youthful characters. Makeup is usually similar to makeup for the female Hua dan role, which is generally white with red cheeks. Characters such as young scholars and princes usually fall into this subtype.
Xiao Wu: a young and skillful martial character involved in combat. This is one of the subtypes of the Sheng male role. It is a subtype of Wu Sheng, and belongs to the close-combat martial artist group.
Zheng Dan: a vivacious and unmarried female character. This is one of the subtypes of the Dan female role. Movement and gestures are graceful and delicate. This category usually includes characters such as wealthy ladies and high-spirited, well-educated women.
Zong Sheng: a dignified and high-ranking male character. This is one of the subtypes of the Sheng male role. This role generally expresses the virtues of loyalty and rectitude. Characters such as emperors, loyal officials and responsible gentlemen usually fall into this category.