The term “tea-picking opera” only refers to Hakka theatrical performance. This is because most Hakka people live in hilly areas and many of them have work related to tea growing and tea-picking. Their cultural characteristics enabled them to develop special relations with tea. (Fulaos and the aborigines also grow tea but only the Hakkas have integrated tea into their music culture.) In theatrical form and its stages of development, the tea-picking drama can be divided into two types: the small-scale three-role tea-picking opera and the grand opera with many characters and more complicated storylines referred to as the “modified drama.”
The three-role tea-picking opera is known as the story of tea-farmer Zhang Sanlang performed by one clown and two female roles. The plot and the singing are fixed. The story is separated into several episodes acted out on outdoor stages in front of a temple, on a private grain-sunning yard or an open space at a tea factory using dialogs, singing and simple complementary dance movements. The style and content of performance were very popular among earlier Hakka immigrants from China. Judging from the storyline and pertaining legends, the three-role tea-picking opera was either brought over by Hakka forebears from China or developed in Taiwan during the trailblazing era during mid to late Qing. For the Hakkas in Taiwan, it is a rather precious traditional theatrical and cultural asset.
The grand opera is a newer type of drama that took shape around 1921 under the influence of the social background at the time and other dramas. As it was an upgrade from the small-scale opera under the tide of improvement for local theater in Taiwan, it is often referred to as the “modified theater” or “modified opera” in documentation, whereas the common folks normally call it the “modified theater,” “Grand Hakka opera” or “grand tea-picking opera.” Since the single-titled three-role tea-picking opera could no longer satisfy the demand for entertainment and needs at temple activities, the actors and actresses started to learn and pick up Hakka mountain songs and the music, stories and performing styles of other dramas. At religious events back then, luantan and siping operas were the main force of outdoor performances and they naturally became the subject of imitation. Additionally, the exchange between performers from different schools of theater over time led to the variety performance with a large number of actors and actresses and the concern for certain stage acting contents such as the music, movement, costuming, props and makeup, etc. This was called the modified grand opera as opposed to the traditional three-role tea-picking opera. However, as it had been developed from the tea-picking drama, despite that the number of characters had well exceeded three and the story had nothing to do with tea picking, it was still called tea-picking drama.
Although the grand Hakka opera also retained the traditional “nine tones and eighteen tunes” and the comic performance by the clown, it appears different at a glance. This can be attributed to its development process and the changes it had gone through. The soft drama at the beginning were gradually adapted to accommodate the need for modification, from “Old-time Tea-picking”, “New-time Tea-picking” to “old tone steady beat,” and eventually to “steady beat” which became the mainstream singing style in grand operas and was therefore called “modified tune,” used only in grand operas. The maturity of the steady beat embodied the scale and system of the banqiang form in the “modified drama” and the Hakka tea-picking opera was then upgradeable to be in the realm of grand operas to perform more stories, encompass both soft and action dramas and compete with other types of theater. Aside from the adoption of “nine tones and eighteen tunes”, the grand opera also assimilated the folk tunes from other dramas to nurture its growth. The process was similar to what the Taiwanese opera went through. After continuing innovation and evolvement to become more refined and professional, it has even entered the National Theater, bringing Hakka drama culture into the national palace of arts to present a brand new artistic appearance.