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Last updated : Nov 2009
Beijing Culture Guide
Beijing Culture Guide - TravelPuppy.com

Many Chinese art forms date back hundreds of years, however most strain to survive following the 1949 Communist revolution. Artists were organised into associations, meaning that the Party controlled every aspect, both administrative and creative. Travelling theatre, music and dance groups were created to deliver the Party's message to the population together with teams of projectionists screening reels of ideological films. Plays written prior to the 1950s, films with human interest and the Beijing Opera were quelled and their creators persecuted until the end of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. Presently, many pre-Cultural Revolution art forms are performed on a regular basis, as well as modern versions, which celebrate current, ancient, and ethnic differences.

As is expected from a capital city, Beijing is the leader of China's cultural revival, and many teahouses have just recently reappeared in the capital that present a variety of Beijing Opera, acrobatics and martial arts and serve delicious tea and cakes.

Western influences have espoused to change traditional Chinese art forms into contemporary pieces and the theatrical scene is quickly changing. A recent advancement has been a fashion for Chinese versions of Western plays, such as (most recently) Whose Wife is it Anyway, or local dramatists trying foreign styles, such as Absurdist theatre, or imitating influential playwrights, such as Samuel Beckett. Also, Western music and dance is now performed, and also, international acts often visit the city. The Beijing Concert Hall offers both Chinese and Western music, whereas the Zhengyici Theatre presents primarily Chinese productions.

Also well worth seeing is traditional Chinese acrobatics, which have existed in China for over two thousand years and include anything from gymnastics and animal tricks to juggling and magic. The style could be vaudeville, but performances are truly amazing, with awe-inspiring feats.

Tickets for various events can be purchased from Webtix (tel: (10) 6592-8449 or 6594-9460).


The Beijing Concert Hall, 1 Bei Xinhua Jie (tel: (10) 6605-5812), just off Xi Chang’an Jie, is devoted to classical music, with regularly scheduled concerts by Beijing’s resident orchestra, as well as visiting orchestras from all over China and overseas.

Beijing Opera
is still quite popular and the best place to see it is Zhengyici Theatre, located at 220 Qian Men Xi He Yan Jie (tel: (10) 6303-3104), an easy walk from Heping Men subway station. Constructed in the 17th century, the theatre was originally a Ming Dynasty temple prior to being converted by some of the founding artists of the Beijing Opera company. Evening performances are presented place at 1930 at the Liyuan Theatre in the Jianguo Hotel, 175 Yongan Road.


Spoken drama has only been a part of Chinese theatres during this century. The People’s Art Theatre in Beijing became its primary home and, prior to the Cultural Revolution, presented European plays that had a clear social message. The past ten years has seen a total turnabout, with the People’s Art Theatre, reformed in 1979, establishing its reputation with a presentation of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. They along with other companies perform at the Beijing People’s Art Theatre, (in the Capital Theatre), 22 Wangfujing Dajie (tel: (10) 6513-5801).

Theatre will receive a significant boost in Beijing in 2003 when China’s first National Theatre is scheduled to open at Xi Chang’an Jie, just west of the Great Hall of the People.


Traditional theatre, such as story-telling with musical accompaniment, magic shows and acrobatics, is staged daily at the Lao She Chaguan, 2nd Floor, Da Wancha Building, 3 Qian Men Xi Jie (tel: (10) 6303- 6830), and at the Tianqiao Happy Teahouse, 113 Tianqiao Nandajie (tel: (10) 6303-9013).


The most famous venue is the Wan Sheng Theatre, Bei Wei Lu, just west of the Tianqiao Happy Teahouse (tel: (10) 6303-7449). Nightly shows are also presented at the Chaoyang Theatre, 36 Dong San Huan Bei Lu (tel: (10) 6507 2421), and Universal Theater, 10 Dongzhimennan Dajie (tel: (10) 6502 3984). Performances at all venues begin at 1915.


Many movie theatres in Beijing are devoted to satisfying a seemingly insatiable appetite for kung fu movies, although there is plenty of occasion to enjoy the serious and fairly controversial movies emerging from a new breed of younger film-makers. Foreign films are primarily dubbed and carefully censored by the authorities prior to being released to the public. A well known, central cinema is the Capital Cinema, 46 Xi Chang’an Jie (tel: (10) 6605-5510). The Sun Dong An Cinema City, 138 Wangfujing Dajie (tel: (10) 6528-1988), shows major American films.

Beijing’s appeal for movie directors as a sweeping, cinematic panorama was most exquisitely demonstrated by Bernardo Bertolucci in his famous 1987 epic, The Last Emperor. Set in an old Beijing bathhouse, which is in danger by developers who want to convert it into a shopping complex, Zhang Yang’s 1999 film, Shower, depicts the tension between tradition and the dictates of commerce in modern Beijing. Farewell My Concubine (1993) is an amazing epic spanning 50 years of modern Chinese history including the Cultural Revolution and depicts the relationship between two friends coming of age in the world of Beijing Opera. It was an international success for the director Chen Kaige. A very funny film set in modern-day Beijing is Sorry Baby (1999) directed by Feng Xiao Gang, a story about a feud between a rich businessman and his driver.

Cultural Events

The Chinese New Year, ( late January or early February), is the most important holiday of the year. The anticipation and build up to the festival is as frantic as Christmas is in the West, with parties, the exchanging of presents, and houses and streets decorated with lights. Most Chinese celebrate the beginning of the New Year with their families.

The Mid-Autumn Festival takes place in September or early October and is celebrated by displaying lanterns in many different shapes, such as animals, and by eating the traditional moon cakes made of ground lotus, sesame and egg.

Literary Notes

 There is a funny joke in the most recent novel by the Chinese-American writer, Amy TanThe Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001). A Chinese character from the book gives the following dismissive appraisal to a Westerner who is captivated by Beijing’s Forbidden City: ‘In those day, so many thing forbidden, can’t see. Now everyone pay money see forbidden thing. You say this forbidden that forbidden, charge extra.’ This says it all about current Chinese attitude towards Beijing where reverence towards the city because its history and tradition is geared very much to the effort of earning money.

 Many highly acclaimed contemporary works of fiction that explore China’s turbulent history and the effect of the Cultural Revolution have become international bestsellers, most notably Half of Man is Woman (1985), an autobiographical depiction of life in a labour camp by Zhang Xiangliang. Lauded as the Chinese Milan Kundera, Xianliang was born in Nanjing in 1936 and educated in Beijing.

 Additional celebrated novels include Wild Swans (1991) by Jung Chan and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989).

 Lu Xun (1881-1936) is well known as the father of modern Chinese literature. His story, A Madman’s Diary (1918), is noted as the first story written in modern, colloquial Chinese – particularly in the language spoken by the masses instead of the classic literary language. Lu Xun embellished the early Communist movement and continues to be regarded as a hero by the authorities. The small house he lived in from 1912 to 1926 in beijing can still be seen near a museum (open Tues-Sun 09:00-15:30) devoted to his life and work at a hutong just off Fucheng Men Dajie, close to Fucheng Men subway station.

 However, for a modern Beijing-based writer who marks a change from the serious tradition of social and political responsibility embraced by the Communist Party, there is Wang Shuo. Dubbed the ‘Chinese Jack Kerouac’ for his mockery of almost every facet of Chinese life, delivered in a savvy Beijing slang, his novel Please Don’t Call Me Human (1989) is probably the finest introduction to his work for foreign readers. Written following the Tiananmen massacre, the book wickedly lampoons the state security machine and its need to mold the individual into serving the interests of the nation.

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