Xiaogan is one of the birthplaces of Huangxiao Flower Drum Opera (Chu Opera). From 1796 to 1820 (during the Jiaqing period of the Qing Dynasty), Yan Shifang, Gong-sheng (senior licentiate in feudal China) from Xiaogan, adapted the zaju (poetic drama) Tian Sun Jin based on the story of Dong Yong and the seventh Fairy, which was very popular at that time. Shen Xiangzu, Ju-ren (a successful candidate in the imperial examinations at the provincial level) from Xiaogan, praised the play highly in his poem Poems on Town (Yizhong Zayong): “If you do not believe in fairies crossing the river at night, you will find anecdotes. A drama Tian Sun Jin is comparable to drama praising white snow in sunny spring.” Around 1830 (tenth year of Daoguang period of the Qing Dynasty), many troupes of Qing Opera, Huang Huangxiao Flower Drum Opera, Tan Opera (Han Opera) and Dongliu Opera appeared in the countryside of Xiaogan.
Qing Opera, also known as Hubei Gaoqiang (high pitch, a kind of rhyme scheme of Chinese opera). Around 1830, the “Double Mixed Troupe” (mixed performance of Qing Opera and Tan Opera) appeared in the area of Zengjiachong, Xiaogan, which took place on both sides of the boundary river between Huangpi and Xiaogan. During the reign of Guangxu in the Qing Dynasty, Qing Opera developed to Chenjiawan and Hujia Xiaozhai in the northeast of Xiaogan. There were more than 20 members in “Tongxing Troupe” for in Qing Opera in Hujia Xiaozhai, who were merged by “Tianfutai” and “Tianfutai” (two different troupes, but same spelling in Chinese) of Huanggang and Qing Opera Troupe of Hujia Xiaozhai, so they were called “Triple Mixed Troupe” and later renamed “Tongxing Troupe”. The Qing Opera Troupe had a large number of actors and strict rules. For example, in the performance of “dead” characters, the actor in any other play at the same place could not be introduced to play a role. There were also three signs on the opposite side of the stage: “The King of Tang conferred the throne of Lao Lang in the stormy wind and fire”, “The God and Goddess of Baiyunzhai and the Emperor of Lujiuguang City Protect the Kingdom”, “The Prince of the Snake Moth, the Phoenix King and the Emperor Wu”. This opera is relatively primitive and gradually faded.
Chu Opera, formerly Huangxiao Flower Drum Opera, was renamed Chu Opera in 1926. In the mid-Qing Dynasty, two tea farmers in Ziyun Mountain and Longping Mountain of Huangmei County disguised themselves as clown and female role respectively and performed on stilts. Such performance form spread to Huangpi and Xiaogan. Influenced by the popular Qing Opera at that time, the folk artists from Huangpi and Xiaogan gave performance on the ground without stilts, forming a drama with gong tune for performing stories. About the mid-Daoguang period in the Qing Dynasty, Huangxiao Flower Drum Opera with Huangpi Tune and Xiaogan Melody was formed, but it was only “three small” local opera with main characters of young man role (Xiaosheng), female role (Xiaodan) and clown (Xiaochou). A troupe was composed of 3 to 5 actors who played the drum and percussion and also acted as vocal accompaniment (no string accompaniment). Later, “Guang-yi”, that is, stage costume and make-up, was popular, but the clothes were simple, mostly new dress borrowed from the brides, and make-up was achieved by white powder and rouge. Green yarn was wrapped on the head of female role, which was also the origin of the name “wrapped head” of female role. Around 1851 (the first year of Xianfeng), Xiaogan’s Huangxiao Flower Drum Opera Troupe began to perform in the vicinity of Tudang Lake, a waterfront wharf on the outskirts of Hankou City. In 1923, Huangxiao Flower Drum Opera Troupe developed to perform outside the concession, and began to change the vocal accompaniment to the accompaniment of Huqin, carrying out the common systematic tune reform. On September 10, 1926, the Hankou Drama Circle organized the Hubei Drama Academy. After discussion by the Drama Circle, Huangxiao Flower Drum Opera was officially named “Chu Opera”. In 1927, with the help of Li Zhilong, Chu Opera entered the public performance of “world of blood and flowers”. Later, Xiaogan Chu Opera Troupe toured Shanghai, Henan, Sichuan, Hunan, Guangxi, Guizhou and other provinces and cities.
Huangxiao Flower Drum Opera has a strong expressive force, which can not only tell short stories of life, but also talk and sing long books, with rich local characteristics and popular with the masses. Speaking and singing in dialect with rhyme, lively and interesting, and singing with “dragged tune” can not only express lingering feelings, but also become a mockery proverb. At the climax, it can also be generous and tragic, with strong appeal. There are always attractive “punchline” in talking and singing. The performance is also unique. The performer has a small drum in front, a cloud-shaped iron plate in his left hand and a drum stick in his right hand. After blending in the roles, the performers vividly bring the characters to life by turning from male to female, from old to young, from civil to military, from loyalty to treachery.
Huangxiao Flower Drum Opera has a long history and occupies an important position in urban and rural cultural life in central Hubei. Now, the Hubei Drum, which is popular in Wuhan and other big cities, is improved and evolved on the basis of Huangxiao Flower Drum Opera that still retains the language and singing characteristics of Huangxiao Flower Drum Opera.