The oldest and most important theatrical tradition in China is the Peking Opera. Its roots go back to religious pantomime dances performed as early as 3000 B.C.E. By the Han dynasty (207 B.C.E. –220 C.E. ) the religious elements of the dance had disappeared, and the performances included dancers, singers, acrobats, and storytellers. The art form was refined after 1790 into the present Peking Opera, which combines various theatrical forms, from tragedy to comedy, ballet to acrobatics. One of the most important components of the storytelling in the Peking Opera is the tradition of painting the actors' faces to tell key parts of the story. In the Peking Opera, painted faces and elaborate costumes are crucial parts of the overall performance.

In the Peking Opera, different actors play specific roles and the meaning of those roles is conveyed by specific colors and patterns of face painting and costume. A mostly red face, for example, stands for courage and loyalty. White represents brutality and cruelty, yellow represents fearfulness, and gold indicates godliness. Other colors also have specific meanings when they are the primary color. Pattern is also extremely important. The specific combination of color and pattern is especially important in pantomime, where the actors use no words.

Both the actors and the makeup artists involved in the Peking Opera take their positions very seriously. Actors begin studying for their parts in the opera when they are still children, and they must master a complex language of body movements and gestures if they are to obtain the best roles. Makeup artists are similarly trained in a school known as "the garden of the eternal spring." The Peking Opera still exists today, with the best known company being the Peking Opera of Beijing, which has toured the world.

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