Chinese Theatre has a long tradition, with elements tracing back to the Han dynasty. It comes in myriad forms with many different traditions through the ages. These four archetypes originally date from the Tang dynasty. Within each one, there are many variations to cover the panoply of possible characters that a drama might portray on the stage. The types are recognisable by a combination of costume, mannerisms, makeup and voice.
Sheng (生) refers to the principal male roles in Chinese theatre. Various types exist within the sheng group. The old man character (老生) has a rich baritone voice and wears a long beard. Then there's the youthful protagonist (小生). He sings in a high falsetto voice, with makeup similar to the female roles. Finally the military type (武生) requires strong physical prowess to carry off the acrobatic moves befitting a martial hero. This role is recognisable by very colourful costumes used to show armour.
The chou (丑) or clown characters are irreverent and comical. Often portrayed as stupid and with a strong line in bawdy jokes, the chou have more freedom to improvise than other roles, with localised jokes and observations forming part of their schtick. Chou are recognisable by white patches around their eyes and nose. As with other roles in Chinese Theatre, there are martial and civilian versions of the chou; the former requires strong acrobatic prowess alongside the laughs.
The Jing (淨) roles in Chinese theatre are the most visually striking. The actor wears elaborate costumes and paints their whole face in bold, striking colours - another name for the Jing (淨) role is 'flowery face' (花臉). You can often identify the chief characteristic of a Jing character from their colour: red means good; white means treacherous; blue means wildness. Jing actors need strong voices and a high degree of theatricality to carry off this dynamic and fun supporting role.
The dan (旦) are the female roles in Chinese Theatre, traditionally played by men except in all-female groups. As with other roles, there are various subdivisions. The martial dan (武旦) is highly acrobatic, as is the dao ma dan (刀馬旦). Characters such as a faithful wife or a virtuous daughter are referred to as zheng dan (正旦) or "black clothing" (青衣). Then there's the stylish and coquettish hua dan (花旦). Finally, the lao dan (老旦) represents older female characters.