CR-R-A-A-A-S-H! Heralded by a Chinese gong, a woman with a powder-white face and jet-black eyes shuffles onto a stage in minute steps. Pearly strings bounce from her headdress and long sleeves of shiny blue satin flow from her wrists.
Pausing before the audience, she lets out a note that rises in a shriek and trails off like the moan of a tomcat in a back-alley spat.
If the sound of Peking opera numbs an Occidental ear, its dance-like movements, brilliant costumes, and acrobatics will astonish even the most casual observer.
The elaborate, highly stylized drama celebrates the 200th anniversary of its official founding this year. Yet like many of China's more complex and subtle arts, its future has been threatened by political abuse and the apathy of youths.
Peking opera traces its origins to popular folk theater staged at village temples by itinerant troupes in Anhui Province. It was embraced by the imperial court in 1790, when Anhui actors performed at a birthday fete for Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong.
``The emperor liked it so much that he even ordered the eunuchs to train in Peking opera,'' says Qi Xiaoyun, an actress and director at the China Peking Opera Theater. ``He himself studied to be a drummer, the one who commands the opera.''
Under imperial sponsorship, Peking opera flourished, with Qing court records preserving several thousand distinct librettos.
Four traditional role types dominate the opera: the sheng, or male; the dan, or female; the jing, or painted face (a god, or warrior, for example); and the chou, or clown.
With a minimum of stage props, actors use highly symbolic, stylized gestures to convey action and feelings. A fling of the hand means a laugh, a snap of the fingers wealth. Nobles speak in a slow drawl and walk with heavy steps. The poor snivel and shiver.
It is the unique repertoire of melodies that sets Peking opera apart from Cantonese and other regional variants of Chinese opera. Actors sing librettos drawn from famous novels and historical legends, accompanied by lively tunes played primarily with drums, cymbals, gongs, and a scratchy, two-stringed fiddle called the jinghu.
Often featuring intensely emotional stories of wrongs avenged, the operas are full of intrigue, military exploits, love, and corruption. They bear titles such as ``A Whole Family of Martyrs,'' ``Assassinating the Tiger on the Wedding Night,'' and ``Beheading in the Place of Worship.''
After the 1949 revolution, however, Communist Party censors banned many of the tales of loyal imperial generals, concubines, and traitorous peasant rebels as the epitome of ``feudal'' thinking. Instead, Marxist directors staged new socialist operas like ``The Revolution Goes On'' and ``A Bucket of Dung,'' a long dialogue between a man and a woman over whether to donate a pail of night soil to the communal farm.
Traditional Peking opera was outlawed during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and supplanted by ``eight model operas'' masterminded by Mao Zedong's ultra-radical wife, Jiang Qing.
Even today, many operas remain ``a forbidden zone,'' or politically taboo, says Ms. Qi. She is mainland China's only female jing, or ``painted face'' singer, and is often cast as the upright magistrate Bao Zheng.
Other works are altered to make them acceptable to censors. Qi cites the opera ``Flying Tiger Mountain,'' in which a loyal general defends the Tang Dynasty from the peasant rebel leader Huang Chao. Since Mao praised Huang in his writings, opera singers today do not dare mention the peasant's name. They refer instead to an anonymous ``enemy.''
Only about 200 Peking operas are performed today on the mainland. The capital's proudest dramatic form has withered, a casualty of a regime hypersensitive to oblique attacks from the arts.
To the dismay of elderly fans who still stage impromptu performances in the city's parks, recent efforts to revive local opera have met with apathy from Chinese youths raised on disco and modern pop culture.
As audiences and box office receipts dwindle, and the Ministry of Culture scales back funding, performers say Peking opera is threatened with extinction here.
``Imperial support was vital to the development of Peking opera, and it's rather impossible for it to survive without government sponsorship,'' says Qi.