Taiwanese Opera
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.
(By William Shakespeare)
Laura Chao
Taiwanese Opera
野台歌仔戲 refers to the type of performance for festivals and
celebrations. It’s the main type seen in Taiwan nowadays. There are two
portions “扮仙戲” and “正戲” in one-day performance.
“扮仙戲” consisted of “神仙戲” (God Drama) and “人間戲” (Folk Drama).
God Dramas primarily depicted the Gods’ birthdays and Folk Dramas
were about the stories of luck in man’s world.
On the other hand, “正戲” was separated into “古路戲” (Historical Drama)
and “胡撇仔戲” (Opera). Historical Dramas staged the histories, focusing
on the conventional actions. The audiences are connoisseurs and the elders.
Opera, however, was regarded as the transliteration from “opera” by
Japanese and mostly was based on knightly stories or romances. In this kind
of performance, there were many stylish elements added, such as pop
music and fashionable costumes, which was far different from traditional
內台歌仔戲 refers to the type of performance playing indoors and asking for
admission tickets.
In this period, the Opera learned the stage skill from china and became more
splendid, taking the whole Taiwan by storm. Yet, the Japanese colonial
government launched a campaign to assimilate Taiwanese. Suppressed, The
Taiwanese Opera started to decline like other traditional arts.
1945, Taiwan regained independence from Japan. The Taiwanese Opera
showed on stage again and had a universal vogue immediately. Not only did
the plays tour the provinces but they were invited to perform in Malaysia,
Singapore, etc. at this time, there were some three hundred drama studios
dominating the golden age in Taiwan.
With the development of radio and broadcast, Taiwanese Opera was played
on the radio for the first time. Because of the traits of radio, the audience could
only focus on the music when they heard a show. Without movement, makeup
and gestures, the performance required people’s imagination and more musical
effects to tell a story. Consequently, the ability of speaking lines was essential to
a complete drama, which inspired many distinguished composers to write new
tunes and gave the talented actors new ways to express themselves.
On the other hand, people had few chances to watch the shows except for
temple fairs or celebrations. Instead, radio offered another way to enjoy The
Taiwanese Opera with convenience.
But, one of the disadvantages was that the show lacked the interaction between
the performers and the audiences.
1950, Cinematic techniques started to flourish and The Taiwanese Opera
followed suit(六才子西廂記). But it was not until 1956 (薛平貴與王寶釧)that
the Opera became a smash hit.
The difference was that the shows broke the stage restriction. On the stage, the
sets, props costumes and actions needed exaggerating to express the symbolic
meaning. And the themes of show started to vary from romance to reflection of
society. Above all, compared with movies in foreign languages, the Taiwanese
Opera speaking Taiwanese catered more to the people. Therefore, this type of
performance was once the most popular recreation.
At this time, with more and more people watching the shows, the government
usually spread political slogans through them.
1962, it was a drastic change that the Taiwanese Opera first showed on the
silver screen (【雷峰塔】【朱洪武】). For one thing, the symbolic theater to
the realistic theater, many movements were replaced the real objects. For
example, horse-riding would demand for one genuine horse instead of being
performed through props and actions. For another, tunes were abandoned.
Generally, the programs were only up to half an hour. With advertisings
taking some minutes off, drama industries gave up the tunes in lest it be
punctuated on and off. Moreover, the dramas were all pre-recorded, which
weakened the actors’ basic abilities of speaking lines and singing songs. Still,
many pieces of script derived from the time at the request of TV shows;
however, it suggested that interaction was not important any longer.
The popularity of the TV Taiwanese opera allowed people to watch the
shows at home and then accelerated the decadence of other traditional arts
as well.
1980, Taiwan went through the economic success while failed in the foreign affairs.
Higher level of living standard, freedom, democracy, the sense of cultural identity.
These were where 劇場歌仔戲 all started.
劇場歌仔戲 indicated that the performances should develop elaborately. And it
was built on this premise that the experts resorted to six priorities- profound subject,
intriguing story, splendid stage effect, words of wisdom, changeable music and
trained actors.
In terms of the story, people started to add more local culture to the show and place
the emphasis on the reflection of contemporary society. In the late 1990s, some
companies adopted the stories from western opera such as 【梨園天神】(The
Phantom of The Opera) and 【聖劍平冤】(Helmet) , etc. On the other hands, others
tried to be consistent with the currency so that people could be concerned about the
As for the music, more and more companies had the Chinese music to complement the
shortage perfectly. In this period, many composers created unprecedented tunes.
But, what really made the difference was the stage effect. With new technology,
load of moveable props and setting played a vital role in a play. And producers
would try to combine the stage effect with the theme of the dramas, which
successfully struck the chord with people.
 In the traditional Taiwanese Opera, role is a specific symbol
which is expressed through the performers’ interpretation. Namely,
the performers have to be equipped with the ability to take on
the role’s character.
 In a complete drama, role is divided into four parts: The Male
Leads, The Female Leads, The Supporting Role, and The Clown.
生 The Sheng
The Sheng refers to the male characters, including the old, the young, the
armed and the kid.
The old wear the beard when playing. They portray the wise and able old
men such as the judge and reputable men of the local.
The young are often the intellectual, behaving
elegant and chic. One of the gimmick is that the
Sheng sing high-pitched and low-pitched
alternatively. The young also can be divided into
types. For example, the fan Sheng largely play
the roles in romance such as the dandy. Or the
Sheng with pheasant tail on their head are the
combination of the young and the armed.
 The young
the armed
the old
旦 The Dan
The Dan refers to the female characters, including the
young, the married, the cute, the old and the armed.
Generally speaking, the young are the heroine who
behave mannered and will have love affair with the young
Sheng. On the contrary, the married are also the heroine in
the drama, though, they have miserable stories. Their
images are virtuous and tragic.
The cute are the usually the friends or the maids around
the young Dan. As a whole, they are innocent and vibrant.
So their costume always have colorful pattern.
The old are considered amiable and friendly, but they are
not as active as the young or the cute. So costumes are
plain and dark. Also, they have cracked and thickly.
The young
The cute
The armed
The old
淨 The Ching or Supporting Roles
There was no Ching in the
traditional Taiwanese Opera. With
the steady development of the
performances, local dramas started
to acquire the stunts of the Chinese
Opera. Then Ching staged in the
show gradually.
Ching has a conspicuous difference
from other characters. Their faces
would be painted colorfully in
order to represent the characters’
individuality and personality. Also,
Ching usually has a bright
丑 The Ch’ou or Comic Characters
Ch’ou are aimed at entertaining
the audience. They portray the
ordinary people like fisherman,
porter or beggar. But they have
one thing in common- they are all
optimistic and diplomatic.
Ch’ou make up and act
exaggeratedly to amuse people.
Females always have a mole on
their chin and behave liberally such
as the hostess of inn.
 The Taiwanese Opera is another formation of tradition arts.
Every trivial movement would be performed through
beautification, which helped to develop the son-singing speaking
lines and dancing action.
 Actions are vivid and diversified with the stories and plots. Except
for the basic ones such as doing embroidery, opening a door or
certain gestures, most actions would ask actors for creativities. In
other words, actions complete with innovation, assimilation and
evolution were sometimes accomplished little by little and passed
down from generation to generation.。
The Sheng
Sweeping Hair
Sheng play the action in anguish
The Bat Jump
Sheng play the action in the tension or when fleeing from danger.
Dizzy Spell
Sheng play the action when hearing the bad news.
The Washing Stand
Sheng play the action when they are to be executed or confronted with
extreme threat.
Jumping from a Platform
the armed sheng play the action when reviewing troops or before going to war.
Pulling a Mountain
It will be used when a sheng first shows off on the stage.
A complete set of the horse includes mounting a horse, riding a horse and
dismounting a horse. In addition, washing the horse is really exquisite but hard
to come by on the contrary.
The Dan
Crossing the Threshold
It’s one of the most specialized action of the Dan. It makes fuss about the subtle
changes of the steps.
Small, Quick Steps
The Dan play the action to reveal their pique, which seems childlike.
The Ginger Sprout Hand
It refers to the gestures in the Chinese opera. (orchid fingers)
Opening a Door
Slide the bolt with right hands, open the right door then left door follows.
Rolling up a Bead Curtain
It’s the specialty of the cute Dan.
Doing Embroidery
When ding embroidery, Dan have to keep the eyes on the string with body
leaning to the right side slightly.
Swinging the Hair
When Shehg and Dan are faced with the danger and forced to be separated,
they will look the both ways and sweep the hair together.
 The music of the Taiwanese Opera was divided into
accompanist and actors’ singings.
 The music was influenced by immigration and foreign cultures
alternatively, appearing various and abundant.
 The music, like any other traditional dramas, was composed of
“文場” and “武場”. These days, musical instruments have
ranged from Chinese music and western music in order to make
it better. Furthermore, more and more performances adopt the
pop music to cater to the people
 “武場” is responsible for percussion, seated at the stage right. It has the
task to create the atmosphere and control the tempo of a piece of
 The musical instruments of the“武場” are all percussion so it cannot make
the step but rhythm. “武場”is crucial to the Taiwanese Opera, showing
off the unique culture.
 It has The Clappers, Cymbal, drum and gong, just to name a few.
 The Clappers
Clappers are made up of the hollowed
woods, making the sounds “kou kou”. It goes
well with gongs and drums.
 Wooden Blocks
wooden blocks 搖板是由兩塊木塊所組成,
 The little Drum
Little drums (or Bah Guo) command
the tempo entirely in the “武場”.
 Tone Guo
Covered with the cowhide, it makes
“thong thong.” seldom does it play
in line-speaking for it being loud.
 Khok-a
It used to ne substitute for the woodblock. It
is similar to the clappers.
 The Gongs
There are two kinds of gongs, “武鑼”and
“文鑼”. IT IS 1.2 meters in length, making
the powerful ”kong kong”.
 Cymbal
It takes two to beat each other
and makes “chiang chiang”. It is
often complementary to the gongs.
 “文場” is mainly served as the accompanist with singing. In
addition, it helps to fill the blank with scene changing. And it
sounds smooth in contrast with the“武場”.
 The musical instruments of the “文場”are inclusive of The K'o-tsai
hsuan, The Moon-shaped Lute, The Ta-tungh suan and the flute,
which are called “four wind”. These days, in order to add more
colors to the musical expression, it has saxophone or electric
 The K'o-tsai hsuan
As the musical instrument peculiar to Taiwan, it is
essential to the Taiwanese Opera. Made up of the
ripe coconuts, it sounds resonant and clear.
 The Moon-shaped Lute
Beggars had used to beg for food with it in the
early Taiwan. But it was named after its moon-like
shape. It can play like mandolin.
 The Three-stringed Lute
Covered with snake skin, it has three
strings on it for tuning at will.
 Ho sian
Ho sian (or erhu fiddle) is sort of extraordinary
musical instrument with a hexagonal resonance box.
It sounds like human voice and it goes with “都馬調.”
 The Conical Oboe
The Conical Oboe sounds very bright and sonorous.
It usually plays at serious and solemn scene or it can
go with “牌子”.
 Vertical Flute
Vertical flute is good at the interpretation
of sob and whimper. It sounds touching when
playing solo at the grieved scenes.
 The Ta-tung sian
It sounds deep and suppressed so it is
indispensable in the “哭調”.
 The Ya-mu Flute
It has a reed at the front and is made
up of bamboo. Cracked and bleak, it sounds
like saxophone.
 Tunes play a vital role in the Taiwanese
Opera. What’s more, every musical instrument
has its unique sound, which means that the tune
is changeable in the show. Moreover, every tune
caters to different scene so the manipulation
would be based on characters’ emotion and stories
flexibly. Generally speaking, tunes will be played
under several circumstances- narration, joyful scenes,
mournful scenes, lonely scenes, furious scenes.
 “七字仔調” is named by its structure, four lines a poem, seven words a
line. It is not only embedded with Taiwanese traditional cultures but
plays oftentimes. Dominating a whole piece of drama, it is one of
indispensable element in the Taiwanese Opera. To blend with the
dramas, it usually varies from tempo to rhythm. For example, narration
with moderato , sadness, despair and yearning with lento ,
and ecstasy, restlessness and rage with allegro. As for the rhythm, it
changes with the actors’ extemporization.
 “七字仔調” is mainly accompanied with The K'o-tsai hsuan, The Ta-tungh
suan and the flute.
 Mr. “邵江海” mixed the”七字調” with the”雜唸調”, composing another
tunes called”都馬調”.
哭調 、串仔
“哭調” derived from the colonial history when Taiwanese had been oppressed
for a long time and come up with the miserable music. Under the tragic
circumstances, it would especially last from one tune to another endlessly as the
token of melancholy brewing and spreading in the air. It is mainly accompanied
by The Ta-tungh suan and Vertical Flute. Also, the development of the melody
marks the regional characteristic, such as “宜蘭哭” , “艋舺哭”, “台南哭”.
“串仔” is the background music and playing the “串仔” is called “落串”. It plays
when actors either perform a long set of action or have a tedious narration. To
fill out the blank, it also plays to set off the atmosphere. The often-used tunes
are 「車鼓弄」 ,「寄生草」 , 「水底魚」 .
 “牌子” derived from the Chinese northern music. It is used to go with
actions between guests and hosts, in the court or when characters flee
from danger. With sonorous conical oboe, the story appeared tense
and tight. Besides, actors usually cut off the line-speaking and narration,
accounting for the plots through actions with the aid of “牌子”. The
often-used tunes are “風入松”
, “三通”,
 “牌子” like “串仔”, has regular melody ant it can be played from time
to time, depending on the plays. What truly separates is that “牌子”
has very one to fit into each certain scene; however, “串仔” is not so
particular about when to use.
Stage construction
The structure of a stage consists of front stage,
backstage and 文武場區.
There are one table and two chairs in the front stage.
On the right of stage is the entrance called “出將”, on
the left is the exit “入相”.
And backstage is where actors make up or props and
costume are placed.
文武場區 refers to where accompanists play the music.
In general, the 文場 is on the left and the 武場 is on the
The built-in stages are usually sponsored by followers of
temples and communities. The temporary stages,
however, lacking sponsorship, are often set up on the
sidewalk or open ground. It can be vast or small,
depending on its convenience. Made up of canvas, rigid
frame and piles of bamboo, it is sparsely furnished such
as the primitive performance “落地掃” in early Taiwan.
 As for the equipment, the early companies were at
large not great enough to possess two sets so they
could not afford to change the setting within every
 A set of equipment include
the setting, lighting, audio
and suitcase.
 Legend has it that general 田都 was an abandoned baby who survived
with crab foaming in the field. Decades later, he grew up to be work as
civil servant but then was sent to battlefield and trapped into an isolated
city. One night, thunder roaring and rain pouring, he was suddenly stricken
by the nature power. General 田都 demanded soldiers beat the drums
and gongs to imitate the sound of thunderstorm and set up the puppet
figure over the city wall. Enemies mistook it for the black magic, retreating
at once. General 田都 took advantage of the situation and led his team to
win a complete triumph.
 “西秦王爺” had used to be a musician in the royalty and was close to
the emperor in the Tang Dynasty. At that time, an armed rebellion broke
out and there was a traitor who tried to lobby and bride him. But“西秦
王爺” remained unmoved. Before long, the rebellion was put down. In
order to commend his loyalty, the emperor granted him with the name
 People said there was a workshop making rehearsal with staff
evaporating each night for some reasons. The head of company was so
annoyed that he resorted to“西秦王爺.” That night, he made a dream in
which a serpent fought with a monster and the serpent swallowed it up.
Since then, staff never disappeared. The head of company believed it
had been blessing from“西秦王爺”. In memory of him, people are
accustomed to avoid speaking of “snake” directly.
You can’t say
pork lung. Because “lung” sounds like “drama” in Taiwanese, If saying pork
lung, one means pig drama. It seems that every actor is pig.
the actors’ real name directly because ghost would know he or she is human
rather than the “鍾馗”, who reigns the ghost.
dog when worshiping “西秦王爺”. Allegedly, it dawned on him how to sing
songs correctly when he heard dogs growling. So, to show respect thank to
dogs, “dog” should be replaced by “fur.”
You can’t eat
the pork tongue. Pigs are big so their tongues are big, which refers to
a feast, because the greasy food would have influence on the throat, which
leads to a failed performance.
the crabs which raised up the “田都元帥”
You can’t
whistle, because whistling is like calling a dog. By coincidence, the dog is the
“patronus” of the generals. Calling the generals by whistling is disrespectful.
keep dogs. Dogs’ barks are often associated with argument, so the dogs in the
workshop would frictions between actors.
play with props especially for the doll,
served as baby in the drama. The doll (lucky
charm) is solemn before the shows. Playing with it might bring about the disasters or
something ominous. Besides, lending out the doll is considered forbidden lest the luck
be lent out as well.
sit on the suitcase especially for females. It is said that sitting, lying or even kicking
the suitcase would dismiss the whole company or hinder from the performances.
have flowers in the stage, because “flower” sounds like “mess” in Taiwanese. But it
has been accepted these days with flower-presenting prevailing.
kick the drums or beat the drums at will, because the sound means the start of a
drama. In addition, to show the respect to drummer, their chairs should not be sat by
anyone else.
 林茂賢, 2006,歌仔戲表演型態研究,前衛出版
 楊馥菱,2002,台灣歌仔戲史,晨星出版
 http://www.twopera.net/
 http://tw.youtube.com/watch?v=Jouk240ZrXE

Taiwanese Opera