The tradition of the Peking Opera has its roots in the late 18th Century in Beijing, when four troupes of performers of Anhui Opera, the influential precursor to the Peking Opera, came to the capital in 1790 to perform at the court of the Qianlong Emperor to celebrate his birthday. Over several decades, the genre developed as other troupes, mainly from Hubei province (but also from other areas of the country), came to perform with the Anhui troupes, combining their art forms to create the characteristic Peking Opera style. The genre is thought to have fully developed by 1845, and is a distinctive mix of dance, song, mime, acrobatics, and music.
Originally the Peking Opera was exclusively for male performers – female performers having been banned by the Qianlong Emperor in 1772. This led to female roles being initially performed by young male actors. The 1870s did, however, see the emergence of women performers often imitating male characters, albeit unofficially. The first female opera troupe came to prominence in Shanghai, and the ban on female performers was ended in 1912.
Peking Opera has earned a significant reputation in traditional Chinese cultural heritage. Such was its popularity that it has spread all over the world, particularly among Chinese communities in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and even as far afield as the USA and Japan.
Performances typically tell traditional stories and deal with folklore. To tell these often complex plot lines and stories, emphasis is largely placed on highly stylised and eccentric movements, combined with strong elements of symbolism. These are conveyed by both the movements and the fantastic and colourful costumes worn by the performers.
The culture of the Peking Opera is celebrated on four sets of modern Chinese coins issued between 1999 and 2002. They show a number of scenes from various performances, highlighting the impressive and flamboyant costumes, which are emphasised by the use of colour over the base metal of these attractively decorated coins.