Peking Opera Costumes: A Display of History, Culture and Fine Craftsmanship

ByJiao Feng December 27, 2022


Costumes of Peking Opera play a pivotal role in helping viewers understand and appreciate the opera as a whole. Known in Chinese as "xingtou" (costumes of actors and actresses) or "juzhuang" (Peking Opera costumes), these general terms describe the clothing worn by various characters in Peking Opera. With exquisite embroideries, exaggerated patterns and bright colors, the costumes give the audience a sense of luxury and beauty. The costumes not only show the distinctive characteristics of each actor in the opera, but also enhance the visual effect of the art form.

Costumes of Luxury 

Peking Opera has been called the quintessence of Chinese culture because it embodies the essence of Chinese opera culture. From the music and dance of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), performing arts in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), then to the Southern Opera during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and the Kunqu Opera in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1616-1911) dynasties, all provided the needed elements for the birth and formation of Peking Opera. The formation of the art form is a process of absorbing various elements of other arts. 

The costumes of Peking Opera absorbed the characteristics of clothing styles from the Song, Yuan (1206-1368), and Qing dynasties. Based on the various styles of clothing, modifications were made to the costumes to meet the needs of the singing and dancing movements of actors and actresses. 

The making of Peking Opera costumes is a complex art, which has integrated various cultural and artistic elements, such as costume design, fine arts, embroidery and mythology. It also combines various techniques, such as modeling, printing, embroidery and sewing. In 2006, the craft of making Peking Opera costumes was included in the national intangible cultural heritage list.


Each traditional costume of Peking Opera has its own unique patterns, most of which are embroidered with silk threads of various colors. The art of embroidery is the most important aspect of craftsmanship used in making Peking Opera costumes. Embroidering Peking Opera costumes is time consuming. For example, it takes about two months to embroider an ordinary Peking Opera garment. It takes many years of hard work to become an outstanding embroiderer, as he/she has to learn the skills needed to move the needle and use colors. 

If we say that half the brilliance of a wonderful theatrical performance is the result of the performance and singing skills of the actors and actresses, then the delicate and colorful costumes make up the other half of the world created on the stage.


Distinct Features of Each Costume

An ancient Chinese proverb says, "The insider knows the ropes, while the outsider just comes along for the ride." Although the designs of Peking Opera costumes do not change with season or dynasties, the exquisite costumes of specific characters reveal the characters' identities and/or statuses. 

Ancient Chinese society was stratified by social classes, and dressing was one of the areas that defined them. As seen in the costumes of Peking Opera, the class and position of each role are different.


The "mang robe" or court robe (literally meaning python robe) is the formal robe worn by emperors and generals on formal occasions. Python is an animal that is similar to a dragon, and since the dragon robe can only be worn by an emperor in real life, the python robe is an altered version of that robe design. The court robes are made of thick silk. Men's robes are embroidered with various forms of pythons, while women's robes display stunning patterns of phoenixes. Wearing the python robe in a calm and sedate manner gives the person wearing it a dignified bearing. Python robes are made in many colors, including yellow, red, white, black, green, purple, blue, pink and olive green. Different colors suit different characters. For example, the yellow court robe is worn by emperors, the red court robe is worn by the relatives of royalty or important officials, and the light olive court robe is worn by some elderly people.

The palace dress, which is the daily attire worn by women of nobility, are embroidered with dozens of ribbons, several layers of silk, together with white sleeves. The elegant dance of an actress (in the dress) is a feast for the eyes.


The official robe is the formal robe worn by civil officers. It is similar in style with the court robe and is outfitted with a jade belt wrapped around the waist. Where the official robe differs from the court robe is that it is not decorated with so much ornate embroidery. The robe only has embroidered patterns on the front and back areas. Clothes worn by officers are not made in yellow. They come in red, purple, blue, and black colors. Red, which is both eye-catching and festive, is usually worn by those who pass the Imperial Examination with high scores and/or are requested to be the sons-in-law of the emperors. The purple official robe is worn by officers of higher ranks, the blue official robe is worn by officers of lower ranks, and the lowest ranking officials usually wear black robes, which include officers in charge of watching the city gates and managing prisons.

The Bay Tourist Area in Shanghai is home to a very distinct exhibition hall called Bao Wanrong's Museum of Peking Opera Costumes. Its founder Bao Wanrong (1928-2017) was a Peking Opera performing artist as well as a Peking Opera costume design collector. Bao was fond of Peking Opera since childhood, and at the age of 15, he became a formal student of the famous Peking Opera master Xun Huisheng (1900-1968). Later Bao learned at the feet of the Peking Opera divas Huang Guiqiu (1906-1978) and Wang Yaoqing (1881-1954), learning more than 100 classic repertoires. As time went on, Bao gradually formed his own artistic style.


Beginning in the 1970s, Bao began collecting, sewing and studying Peking Opera costumes. He made many improvements and innovations to the costumes. Among the collection of costumes at the museum, there is a gold embroidered court robe Bao valued the most. He worked with a master dressmaker and spent three years to finish it. The robe consumed tens of thousands of gold threads. Today, it is the "treasure of the museum."

Bao Wanrong's Museum of Peking Opera Costumes displays several hundreds of costumes, including those worn by various Peking Opera roles — the sheng (males), dan (females), jing (painted-face males), mo and chou (clowns). Some costumes, designed by Bao, were worn by famous Peking Opera masters in his day, like Mei Lanfang (1894-1961) and Xun.


The magnificent costumes of Peking Opera not only exhibit to the world Chinese classical beauty, but they are also endued with traditional Chinese culture. Throughout the long process which made Peking Opera what it is today, the costumes have gradually become an inseparable element of the performing art. The perfection of the costumes has made an important contribution to the art of Peking Opera.  


Photos Supplied by VCG

(Source: China Today/Women of China English Monthly October 2022 issue)


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