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Reviewed by:
  • The Soul of Beijing Opera: Theatrical Creativity and Continuity in the Changing World, and: The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Drama
  • Faye Chunfang Fei (bio)
The Soul of Beijing Opera: Theatrical Creativity and Continuity in the Changing World. By Li Ruru, foreword by Eugenio Barba. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010; 352 pp.; illustrations. $50.00 cloth, $25.00 paper.
The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Drama. Edited by Xiaomei Chen. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010; 1120 pp. $95.00 cloth.

There are a number of similarities between these two books and their authors. Both authors are originally from Mainland China, with deep personal and professional connections to the subject matters they deal with in their books. Both are devoted daughters to mothers who were prominent Chinese stage performers. Both came to the West for graduate studies, and have stayed to teach and write about the theatre of their motherland. Both of these books are about Chinese theatre in the tumultuous 20th century. However, while Li Ruru's book is focused on jingju (Beijing opera), the best known of Chinese traditional theatre genres, Xiaomei Chen's anthology centers on Chinese modern huaju (spoken drama).

Li Ruru's The Soul of Beijing Opera tells the compelling story of jingju over the course of the 20th century, spotlighting its performers and performance practices. According to Li, a senior lecturer in the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Leeds, "Performers and their endeavours in their new work re-form but also continue the tradition, and the dynamic between the creativity and continuity form the 'soul of jingju', which has made the theatre relevant to audiences since its inception" (10). Hence the apt title for her book, which has a prologue, followed by eight chapters and an epilogue.

Li's prologue clearly outlines the book's purpose, scope, methodology, rationale, and special features. It even suggests different ways that readers may choose to approach the book. After the first two chapters that respectively offer a brief history of jingju and a fascinating inside scoop on jingju performer training, the book begins in earnest to study the "soul of jingju" by examining the lives and works of six principal performers from Mainland China and Taiwan: Cheng Yanqiu (1904-1958), Li Yuru (1923-2008), Ma Yongan (1942-2007), Yan Qinggu (1970- ), Kuo Hsiao-chuang (1951- ), and Wu Hsing-kuo (1953- ). Li chose these six performers, from four generations and representative of jingju's four basic character types, "because they have made notable contributions to jingju in their personal efforts to adapt its traditions to the fast-changing external world" (11). In anticipation of her reader's question about why Mei Lanfang isn't among the chosen, Li writes that it is "because he has been so much studied in English writing" (11). Still, his work is extensively discussed throughout Li's book because he is one of the most prominent pioneers in reforming jingju.

The chapter on Cheng Yanqiu, "Masculinity and Femininity," probes why the practice of male dan (male actors playing female roles) flourished from the 1910s to the 1940s despite public censure and also brings to light the strong personalities Cheng's innovations gave his female characters. The chapter on Li Yuru, "The Jingju Tradition and Communist Ideology," is about the struggle of the author's own mother, who managed to negotiate between a strong [End Page 187] theatrical tradition and a formidable ideology in the 1950s and 1960s. The chapter on Ma Yongan, "A Painted-Face Role Type and Non-Painted-Face Character," deals with the impact of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) on jingju and its performers when the fundamental aesthetics and conventions were altered or eliminated. "Staging the Ugly and the Beautiful in the Millennium," on Yan Qinggu, is about how performers have coped with a new market economy and a shrinking audience base since the 1980s. The chapters on the two performers in Taiwan, Kuo Hsiao-chuang and Wu Hsing-kuo, investigate how they have dealt with the anxiety of being cut off from tradition by rebuilding it through reinvention and East-West fusion. A short epilogue discusses the situation of jingju across...


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pp. 187-190
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