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The Soul of Beijing Opera

The Soul of Beijing Opera: Theatrical Creativity and Continuity in the Changing World

Li Ruru
With a Foreword by Eugenio Barba
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    The Soul of Beijing Opera
    Book Description:

    Any traditional theatre has to engage the changing world to avoid becoming a living fossil. How has Beijing opera - a highly stylized theatre with breath-taking acrobatics and martial arts, fabulous costumes and striking makeup - survived into the new millennium while coping with a century of great upheavals and competition from new entertainment forms? Li Ruru's The Soul of Beijing Opera answers that question, looking at the evolution of singing and performance styles, make-up and costume, audience demands, as well as stage and street presentation modes amid tumultuous social and political changes. Li's study follows a number of major artists' careers in mainland China and Taiwan, drawing on extensive primary print sources as well as personal interviews with performers and their cultural peers. One chapter focuses on the illustrious career of Li's own mother and how she adapted to changes in Communist ideology. In addition, she explores how performers as social beings have responded to conflicts between tradition and modernity, and between convention and innovation. Through performers' negotiation and compromises, Beijing opera has undergone constant re-examination of its inner artistic logic and adjusted to the demands of the external world.

    eISBN: 978-988-220-580-2
    Subjects: Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures and Plates
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Foreword Two Pairs of Eyes
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Eugenio Barba

    Is classical Chinese theatre really so distant from that of the West? Are the differences that distinguish us really as significant as they seem? Is what we have in common really common to both of us? Are we speaking of the same things when we speak of the same things, and speaking of different things when we speak of different things?

    Reading the script of Li Ruru’s book, The Soul of Beijing Opera: Theatrical Creativity and Continuity in the Changing World, I felt as if I were two people, as if two different pairs of eyes were looking at the...

  5. Author’s Words
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. Prologue Eyes on Jingju
    (pp. 1-12)

    Jingju, which literally means “Beijing drama”, is the Chinese word for the theatrical genre known in the West as “Peking/Beijing Opera”. I adopt the term jingju in this volume because, when we appreciate how the word was formed, it offers an authentic Chinese sense that a foreign rendition cannot convey. Just as the English language has accepted the Japanese and kabuki, I trust it will acknowledge jingju.

    What is jingju? Essentially, it is a total theatre which emphasizes stylization over realism. The Chinese terms for jingju’s four basic skills¹ are translated by Elizabeth Wichmann as “singing, speaking, dance-acting, and...

  7. 1 Jingju: Formation, Growth and the First Reform
    (pp. 13-54)

    Unlike its counterpart in the West, indigenous Chinese drama never separated itself from the song and dance that were the origins of virtually every theatre in the world. “The Chinese classical play is in effect a synthesis of speech, music and dance, which are interrelated and each dependent on the other” (Scott 1959, 1). Hence the word for music/sung-verse (qiang or qu) was almost synonymous with theatre, since the two were integral parts of the same thing according to the Chinese concept. In 1785, before the development of jingju, a commentator divided the existing music/theatre into two categories: the “elegant...

  8. 2 Training a Total Performer: Four Skills and Five Canons
    (pp. 55-82)

    Jingju performers learn their essential skills in movement and voice through long and arduous training programmes starting in their childhood. Before discussing the methods in detail, some comments by foreign observers of jingju may highlight the particular requirements of the genre which the training is designed to fulfil.

    At a reception in Moscow in 1935 for Mei Lanfang, the celebrated male performer of the female role, Bertolt Brecht witnessed a jingju demonstration given by Mei in formal Western evening dress:

    But with what art he does this! He only needs a minimum of illusion . . . What Western actor...

  9. 3 Cheng Yanqiu Masculinity and Femininity
    (pp. 83-120)

    Dan is the female role. According to the Origin compiled around the 1750s when plays were normally staged in daylight, the reason the Chinese theatre adopted the word dan, meaning “daytime”, to refer to the female role was because the male performer had to start his make-up at dawn (Huang Fanchuo 1982, 9:1). Generally speaking, of the main subtypes of the dan role (see appendix 2), qingyi (blue gown) is the female singing role, while for the huadan (literally flowery female role, playing vivacious girls), singing is less important than speaking and dance-acting.

    Male performers of female roles in jingju...

  10. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  11. 4 Li Yuru The Jingju Tradition and Communist Ideology
    (pp. 121-154)

    In 2007, Li Yuru was one of the four recipients of the Great Achievement in Performing Arts awarded by the All-China Association of Literature and Arts, honouring her contribution to jingju stage work and her recent research on acting in the genre. This is the sixth year the national award has been run, and the performing arts category covers actors in modern and traditional theatres, dancers (ballet and folk) and singers (bel canto and folk).¹ In order to prepare material for the gala’s commemorative brochure, I helped Li sort through old photographs and newspaper cuttings. Among these I was surprised...

  12. 5 Ma Yongan A Painted-Face Role Type and a Non-Painted-Face Character
    (pp. 155-188)

    This chapter focuses on the revolutionary contemporary model jingju, perhaps the most peculiar cultural phenomenon produced by the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–76). During this period, the entire traditional repertoire and the newly written historical plays (like Tang Sai’er) were abolished, while model theatre and a small number of its adherents, directly guided by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing (1914–91), dominated the stage, broadcasting and screen. A sense of mass culture was produced, although strictly controlled by the authorities, because the whole population of one billion people could sing or recite lines of these jingju productions. Phrases from the...

  13. 6 Yan Qinggu Staging the Ugly and the Beautiful in the Millennium
    (pp. 189-214)

    Chou is the comic character in jingju. The role’s trademark make-up is a white patch on the nose/eye area, and it is called “small flowery face” (xiao hualian) as distinct from the “big flowery face” of the jing role (cf. chapter 5). Chou is often associated with the ugly and grotesque, which means it has “something in common with comic figures right across the world” (McCormick 2007, iv). In this volume, the words chou and “clown” are used interchangeably. However, unlike the clown in the West, which “primarily evokes the circus clown, complete with a red nose, a grotesque costume...

  14. 7 Kuo Hsiao-chuang A Theatre That “Belongs to Tradition, Modernity and to You and Me”
    (pp. 215-240)

    This chapter moves the investigation from the mainland to Taiwan. The central figure is Kuo Hsiao-chuang, a dan actress whose work in the 1980s was once described by Wang Anqi, a Taiwanese scholar, as “dazzling sunlight” that people either loved or hated.² How could an individual performer play such an important role, altering not only the jingju tradition but even cultural trends? A photograph of one of Kuo’s performances might yield some clues.

    Plate 7.1 depicts Xishi, a historical beauty of the Spring and Autumn period (750–500BC), acted in 1993 by Kuo in her own company’s production of Passions...

  15. 8 Wu Hsing-kuo Subversion or Innovation?
    (pp. 241-274)

    In 1986, seven years after Kuo Hsiao-chuang and her Elegant Voice first assailed jingju circles, Wu Hsing-kuo and his newly established Contemporary Legend Theatre (CLT) gave Taiwanese audiences another shock. The Kingdom of Desire, an adaptation of Macbeth that was to meet with international acclaim for decades, began the CLT’s maiden voyage into contemporary experimental theatre on the island. It was the first time that Shakespeare, the representative of the Western canon, and the “national drama” (guoju) symbol of the Chinese traditional culture, had met on Taiwan’s stage.² The struggle between the two cultural fields (Bourdieu 1993, 58) resulted in...

  16. Epilogue New Beginnings or the Beginning of the End?
    (pp. 275-282)

    Jingju is a highly stylized song-dance theatre with specific role types, internationally renowned for breathtaking acrobatics, exquisite costumes and striking make-up. Like every theatre in the world, it is a socio-cultural product. Its performers stand between its strong theatrical tradition and the implicit, and sometimes explicit, interference of formidable external forces. Performers are the real creators of jingju, not only because “the audience comes to see the actor rather than the play” as A. C. Scott has observed (1957, 17), but also because they are social beings as well as presenters of the genre. Their response to the diverse and...

  17. Appendix 1 Chronology
    (pp. 283-300)
  18. Appendix 2 Main Features of Jingju Role Types
    (pp. 301-306)
  19. Glossary
    (pp. 307-314)
  20. Bibliography
    (pp. 315-328)
  21. Index
    (pp. 329-336)