Making Sense of Teochew Opera - the Young Shoulders that bore a 500-year-old Tradition

Teochew opera is said to have over 1200 traditional plays that fall into two broad categories - those adapted from the 12th century nanxi 南戲 (southern drama) from Southeast China as well as chuanqi 傳奇 (classical Chinese short stories written in the Tang dynasty [618–907] ), and others derived popular local lores including romance tales and ghost stories. While the former was socially important in transmitting knowledge of classical Chinese literature and history to the illiterate masses, it was the latter that often drew the largest crowds. The most dramatic episodes however were the ones played out behind the scenes that were summed up by this Qing Qianlong era (1736 to 1796) saying:

“Parents uneducated in morals  lacking in karma, sell their children to act in shows. The sounds of music ring aloud, the tears drip one by one.”


Tan Lueng Eng 陳鑾英, a star actress in the 1940s


The traditions of Teochew opera were formed during the Ming dynasty (1368 -1644) when Confucian values defined society. The social-worth of a person was attached to his occupation – educated scholars being the most respected, followed by peasants, artisans and craftsmen, and finally merchants and traders (although in reality their wealth ensued they were no less influential as the scholars); and women were prohibited from participating in public life. As a result the life of an opera artist was taken up only by males from the poorest of poor. Many were barely in their teens for their unchanged voices were not only compatible with the high pitch sounds of Teochew string music, but made them suitable to perform the roles of female characters.

As Teochew opera grew in popularity, an established system emerged into the recruitment and grooming of these adolescent-actors known as hee-kia 戲仔. The majority were brought before the troupe masters to become apprentice at around the age of ten, for which the usually impoverished parents would receive a lump sum of money. A contract sealed the arrangement that was set at about eight years - ending by the time the child’s voice broke, and included clauses making the parents responsible for return him should he run away, and indemnifying the troupe from blame or reproach should anything untoward happen to the child. In this way the youth of many men (and later also women) euphemistically called the "spring period" 春期 was sold to the troupes.

Meeting the demands of the Chinese opera theatre – to possess the physical strength, dexterity, composure and self-confidence to act, sing, dance and perform acrobatics, is beyond the limits of many grown-ups, much less someone barely out of childhood. However for these adolescent-actors there was no luxury of forgetting their lines or tripping up, for the consequences they faced were not just the boos and hisses of unforgiving crowds, but in the days of rote learning and corporal punishments, also the cane of the trainers. Doled out even when no mistake was committed but the troupe was outperformed by a rival group, these beatings always targeted the whole class of hee-kia and not just an individual offender.

In every day the hee-kia lived under constant watch and no personal freedom was allowed. They did everything collectively and went everywhere together, including to the toilet. Not unlike prisoners they were uniformly dressed in blue and wore a single earring on their right ear as a mark. In order to slow down their physical maturation (and delay the breaking of their voice), the troupe masters deliberately kept them underfed and limited them to two proper baths a year! Abuses were frequent, but the boys had to suffer in silence. For the slightest breach of discipline or an attempt to escape would invite physical torture, of methods best left undescribed. Those who died as a result of poor health or pain, their bodies would be buried in the quiet or thrown into the river.

Owing to the infusion of influences from other Chinese literary and music traditions, as well as the modern society, Teochew opera leapt into levels of performance in the 1920s and 1930s. With the acceptance of audiences, female performers, gradually included since the late 19th century, were also given starring roles. However the exploitation of adolescent-actors persisted as the financial backers of the opera troupes were the same decision-makers in society, including high-ranking government officials and businessmen.


Adolescent-actors in the 1933 show "Capture of the Centipede Spirit"《搜蜈蚣精》


As a result the distinguishing voices from this dark past of Teochew opera, characterised by singing in a narrow vocal range and barely noticeable differentiation between male and female characters, were forever captured in the first Teochew opera records produced before the Second World War.

An excerpt from the classic 黛玉葬花 ("Daiyu Burying the Fallen Flowers") can be heard from here:

After more than 200 years, the system of bondage finally crumbled in 1951 when the Communist Party that had swept to power in China abolished the prevalent practice of child-selling in the country. The momentum was set to free countless adolescent-actors as their employment in troupes overseas also came under scrutiny by governments elsewhere, such as Singapore and Malaya. But far from falling into a crisis, the change injected a new lease of life into the Teochew opera performing circle. Liberated from fear and intimidation, the former adolescent actors whose young shoulders once bore the 500-year-old tradition, were now to become its vanguard in a golden era. This however is another tale to be told.


Full version version of 黛玉葬花 ("Daiyu Burying the Fallen Flowers") and other classical Teochew opera soundtracks can be downloaded free here. More tracks will be added in coming weeks.

You may also be interested in reading Making Sense of Teochew Opera - origin, history & performance 160 years ago

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