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Drama Kings

Drama Kings: Players and Publics in the Re-creation of Peking Opera, 1870-1937

Joshua Goldstein
Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Pages: 382
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  • Book Info
    Drama Kings
    Book Description:

    In this colorful and detailed history, Joshua Goldstein describes the formation of the Peking opera in late Qing and its subsequent rise and re-creation as the epitome of the Chinese national culture in Republican era China. Providing a fascinating look into the lives of some of the opera's key actors, he explores their methods for earning a living; their status in an ever-changing society; the methods by which theaters functioned; the nature and content of performances; audience make-up; and the larger relationship between Peking opera and Chinese nationalism. Propelled by a synergy of the commercial and the political patronage from the Qing court in Beijing to modern theaters in Shanghai and Tianjin, Peking opera rose to national prominence. The genre's star actors, particularly male cross-dressing performers led by the exquisite Mei Lanfang and the "Four Great Female Impersonators" became media celebrities, models of modern fashion and world travel. Ironically, as it became increasingly entrenched in modern commercial networks, Peking opera was increasingly framed in post-May fourth discourses as profoundly traditional.Drama Kingsdemonstrates that the process of reforming and marketing Peking opera as a national genre was integrally involved with process of colonial modernity, shifting gender roles, the rise of capitalist visual culture, and new technologies of public discipline that became increasingly prevalent in urban China in the Republican era.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93279-1
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    In July 2001 China Central Television launched its eleventh national channel, CCTV 11, dedicated to broadcasting traditional Chinese opera and music to all of China’s thirty-four provinces and autonomous regions. Though its programmers boast more than two hundred kinds of Chinese musical drama in their broadcasting repertoire, the genre that dominates CCTV 11’s fourteen hours of daily air time is Peking opera: daily programming usually includes more than an hour of Peking opera singing and music lessons and a broadcast of a full-length performance. Also, in the prime-time lunch and dinner hours, the voices of Peking opera’s greatest stars of...


    • CHAPTER 1 Late Qing Institutions of Peking Opera
      (pp. 17-54)

      Cheng Changgeng’s first performances on the Beijing stage in the early 1830s were disastrous. Alternately ignored and heckled by audiences, the proud younglaoshengperformer vanished from the stage for three years, during which he practiced assiduously.¹ When next Cheng opened his mouth onstage, at a prestigious private “competition” to perform one of the most challenging roles in thelaoshengrepertoire—that of Wu Yuan in the playEscape from Zhao Pass (Wen Zhaoguan)—Cheng unleashed the most powerful and influential voice of his generation, a voice which, it was said, could “soar through the clouds and split rocks, its...

    • CHAPTER 2 From Teahouse to Playhouse
      (pp. 55-88)

      The Qing court had a love-hate relationship with popular drama. While several Qing rulers were extravagant patrons of popular opera, the state was far from sanguine about drama’s social effects and viewed public theaters with great suspicion. Theaters, in the eyes of the authorities, were notorious hangouts for ruffians, slackers, gamblers, and insurgents. In addition to waging campaigns to censor and weed out “seditious passages” from popular dramas, emperors throughout the Qing dynasty issued dozens of edicts regulating the construction, location, and clientele of commercial theaters.¹ In rural areas, especially in times of unrest, local authorities often canceled scheduled performances...

    • CHAPTER 3 The Experimental Stage, 1895–1920
      (pp. 89-133)

      The Xia brothers’ New Stage marked a turning point in theater management, construction, and set design. In the 1910s they put on more than fifty “reformed new dramas”(gailiang xin xi)to audiences over a thousand strong. Such a prolonged burst of new plays was remarkable, but in terms of dramaturgical innovations—enacting contemporary plots in contemporary costumes, injecting stories with revolutionary diatribes, fiddling with musical arrangements, using real swords and spears in military plays—the New Stage marked the blossoming of trends that had been budding for well over a decade.¹ In Beijing in 1905, Tan Xinpei had collaborated...

    • CHAPTER 4 May Fourth Realism and Qi Rushan’s Theory of National Drama
      (pp. 134-172)

      The turn againstwenmingxi, shizhuangxi,and the other “hybrid” versions of Peking opera that occurred in the May Fourth era (1915–25) seems at odds with the espoused goals of many of the reformist literary movements and social trends of the day. These “reformed” and “hybrid” dramas used predominantly vernacular language and stimulated an expansion of the urban audience through blending novel performing methods, new scripts, and social critiques with already popular and established dramatic forms. In 1913, when Ouyang Yuqian and the Social Education Troupe performed the new playDiary of a Family’s Grievances (Jiating enyuan ji)in Changsha,...


    • CHAPTER 5 Landscape and Figure, Nation and Character
      (pp. 175-208)

      Peking opera was not the only genre in the race for the title ofguoju, national drama. In 1925, the halls of the drama department at the Beijing Arts Academy and the pages of Beijing’sMorning Newsechoed with the declaration that a National Drama Movement (Guoju Yundong) had begun. Including Yu Shangyuan, Zhao Taimou, Wen Yiduo, and several other promising young writers, the movement sought to build a new Chinese national drama, which they described as “drama by Chinese, of Chinese, and for Chinese.” Inspired by folk and national culture movements like the Irish literary renaissance, the National Drama...

    • CHAPTER 6 The Limits of Reform
      (pp. 209-236)

      Chinese cities in the 1920s and 1930s were awash with proclamations of reform. It seemed that the aim of every government plan, the wish in every citizen’s heart, the ineffable by-product of every pack of domestic cigarettes and virility-boosting tablets, was the improvement of the greater good. Part of the public appeal of reform was its anticommercialism. The irony that reformist idealism was often transparently employed as an advertising stratagem was lost on no one, but the insipid parroting of the ideal did not make real reform any less urgent or desired. In fact, it was precisely because most reforms...

    • CHAPTER 7 The Gendering of National Culture, Or, The Only Good Woman Is a Man
      (pp. 237-263)

      On 8 March 1935, International Women’s Day, China’s most beloved movie actress, Ruan Lingyu, committed suicide. Her funeral procession literally stopped Shanghai traffic in its tracks, drawing more than a hundred thousand fans into the street. Such a massive spontaneous outpouring leaves little doubt that by the 1930s, in Shanghai at the very least, film as a media industry had the power to generate all the effects of a modern spectacle.

      The story of Ruan Lingyu’s suicide was uncanny. She had recently starred in a film calledNew Woman (Xin nuxing), based on the life of the actress and author...

    • CHAPTER 8 Nationalization through Iconification
      (pp. 264-290)

      In 1918, when Mei Lanfang was first named King of Actors(lingjie dawang), the appellation, which had so perfectly suited thelaoshengTan Xinpei, seemed an awkward fit; few critics accepted the new king, and detractors scoffed at the inappropriateness of the title. By the time the above accolade, like a succinct argument in poetic form, was written, the title was firmly in his grasp. Yet the fact that an argument still needed to be made implies that the issues remained vexing. Whence did cultural legitimacy arise in a China that was no longer an empire? What institutions could be...

  8. Epilogue
    (pp. 291-296)

    “And then, in July 1937, the Japanese launched their all-out invasion on China, and so my story ends.” We historians tend to be attracted to finding decisive moments to close our narratives. Periodization literally runs down our textual spines (“1870–1937” in my case) and conveniently bookends our work. This book ends in 1937 because the Japanese invasion marks an important shift in the contexts in which Peking opera was performed and reformed. The coastal and eastern cities that were the main centers of Peking opera were invaded and then held under puppet rule. Some stars retired from the stage...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 297-334)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 335-354)
  11. Index
    (pp. 355-371)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 372-372)