Beijing opera (jingju) is described by some as the apogee of traditional Chinese culture and, at least according to one modest Chinese connoisseur, is "perhaps the most refined form of opera in the world." Many who have actually seen a performance might beg to differ with these claims, but few other Chinese artistic traditions can match it for sophistication and pure stylized spectacle.
The Beijing tradition is young as Chinese opera styles go. Its origins are most commonly traced to 1790, when four opera troupes from Anhui Province arrived in Beijing to perform for the Qing court and decided to stay, eventually absorbing elements of a popular opera tradition from Hubei Province. Initially performed exclusively for the royal family, the new blended style eventually trickled out to the public and was well received as a more accessible alternative to the elegant but stuffy operas dominant at the time.
How it could have ever been considered accessible is mystifying to most foreign audiences. The typical performance is loud and long, with archaic dialogue sung on a screeching pentatonic scale, accompanied by a cacophony of gongs, cymbals, drums, clappers, and strings. This leaves most first-timers exhausted, but the exquisite costumes and martial arts-inspired movements ultimately make it worthwhile. Probably the opera's most distinctive feature is its elaborate system of face paints, with each color representing a character's disposition: red for loyalty, blue for bravery, black for honesty, and white for cruelty.
Communist authorities outlawed the "feudalistic" classics after 1949 and replaced them with the Eight Model Plays -- a series of propaganda-style operas based on 20th-century events that focus heavily on class struggle. Many of these are still performed and are worth viewing if only to watch reactions from audience members, some of whom have seen these plays dozens of times and loudly express their disgust when a mistake is made. But the older stories, allowed again after Mao's death, are more visually stunning. Among the most popular are Farewell My Concubine, made famous through Chen Kaige's film of the same name, and Havoc in Heaven, which follows the mischievous Monkey King character from the Chinese literary classic Journey to the West.
Several theaters now offer shortened programs more amenable to the foreign attention span, usually with English subtitles or plot summaries. Most people on tours are taken to the cinema-style Liyuan Theater (Liyuan Juchang) inside the Qian Men Hotel (nightly performances at 7:30pm; tel. 010/6301-6688; ¥200-¥580) or to one of several other modern venues. These are affordable but supremely boring. Your time and money are much better spent at one of the traditional theaters reviewed.
China's acrobats are justifiably famous, and probably just a little bit insane. This was the only traditional Chinese art form to receive Mao's explicit approval (back flips, apparently, don't count as counterrevolution). While not culturally stimulating, the combination of plate spinning, hoop jumping, bodily contortion, and seemingly suicidal balancing acts make for slack-jawed entertainment of the highest order. Shanghai is the traditional home of acrobatics and has its best troupes, but the capital has done a fair job of transplanting the tradition.
The city's best acrobatics (zaji) venue is the Wansheng Juchang on the north side of Bei Wei Lu just off Qian Men Dajie (west side of the Temple of Heaven); performances are by the famous Beijing Acrobatics Troupe (tel. 010/6303-7449; nightly shows at 5:30 and 7:15pm; ¥180). The acrobats at the Chaoyang Theatre (Chaoyang Juchang; Dong San Huan Bei Lu 36, south of Tuanjie Hu Park; tel. 010/6507-2421; nightly shows at 7:15pm; ¥180-¥680) are clumsier but the theater is more conveniently located, a short taxi ride from the main bar district. Metro: Hujialou.
Puppet shows (mu'ou xi) have been performed in China since the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220). The art form has diversified somewhat over the past 2 millenniums, coming to include everything from the traditional hand puppets to string and shadow varieties. Plotlines are simple, but the manipulations are deft and the craftsmanship is exquisite. Most performances, including weekend matinees, are held at the China Puppet Art Theater (Zhongguo Mu'ou Juyuan), in Anhua Xi Li near the North Third Ring Road (tel. 010/6424-3698); tickets cost ¥90 to ¥380.
Beijing hosts a growing number of international music and theater events every year, and its own increasingly respectable outfits -- including the Beijing Symphony Orchestra -- give frequent performances. Among the most popular venues for this sort of thing is the National Centre for Performing Arts (also known as "The Egg"), the modern egg-shaped glass structure next the Great Hall of the People (Xi Chang'an Jie 2; tel. 010/6655-0000), the Forbidden City Concert Hall inside Zhongshan Park (tel. 010/6559-8285), and the Beijing Concert Hall (Beijing Yinyue Ting; tel. 010/6605-5812), at Bei Xinhua Jie in Liubukou (Xuanwu). The Poly Theater (Baoli Dasha Guoji Juyuan; tel. 010/6506-5343), in the Poly Plaza complex on the East Third Ring Road (northeast exit of Dong Si Shi Tiao metro station), also hosts many large-scale performances, including the occasional revolutionary ballet. For information on additional venues and the shows they're hosting, check one of the expatriate magazines or ticket sellers Piao (Dongzhong Jie 32, 7/F; tel. 010/6417-0018; www.piao.com) or Ticketmaster (North Gate of Worker's Stadium; tel. 400/707-9999; www.ticketmaster.cn).
Traditional teahouse entertainment disappeared from Beijing after 1949, but some semblance survives in a number of modern teahouses that have grown up with the tourism industry. Snippets of Beijing opera, cross-talk (stand-up) comedy, acrobatics, traditional music, singing, and dancing flow across the stage as you sip tea and nibble on snacks. If you don't have time to see these kinds of performances individually, the teahouse is an adequate solution. If you're looking for a quiet place to enjoy a cup of jasmine and maybe do some reading, look to one of the real teahouses reviewed.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.