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Mei Lanfang and the Nationalization of the Peking Opera, 1912-1930
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positions: east asia cultures critique 7.2 (1999) 377-420


Curious Americans stared at the visitor as they do at their own movie idols.

--article in the Kansas City Independent, quoted in English and translated in
Beiyang huabao [North China pictorial], 19 April 1930

On his six-month tour across the United States in 1930, Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), Peking opera's premier exponent of female roles, took the hearts of American theater lovers by storm. In both China and the United States, his tour was a trumpeted media spectacle, hailed as a triumph of cultural exchange. The New York Times and the Shanghai News [Shen bao] proclaimed it a historic validation of Chinese theater and trans-Pacific understanding. When delivering humble speeches, whether at swank press parties or at stately graduation ceremonies (Mei received two honorary doctorates: one from Pomona College, the other from the University of Southern California), Mei invariably spoke of peace:

Real peace cannot come from reliance on military force. . . . If we want to protect real world peace, humanity must mutually understand, mutually tolerate and sympathize, mutually assist and not battle. . . . To achieve this goal everyone must concretely study both art and science to understand each other's problems. . . . The people of my country, in common with yours, desire peace among nations. . . . You condescend to view our imperfect portrayals of China's ancient drama . . . and you have chosen me for this distinction [the bestowal of an honorary doctorate], which is intended as an expression of your friendship for my people.

Attaching such earnest purpose to a Peking opera tour stamps it as a utopian mission, and, since Mei's above graduation speech was extolled as "a model of public utterance" throughout the press, his listeners must have seen his point. China-U.S. relations at the time were far from harmonious. The predominant images of Chinese people in American newspapers were of starving, ignorant masses -- individually, "a hideous figure with a queue hanging on the back" --ruled by brutal military regimes that even stooped to sabotaging Christian attempts at famine relief; Chinese Americans were segregated and stereotyped, and the Chinese Exclusion Act was so firmly established that it was hardly subject to debate. Some Americans were more inured, others more sensitive to the violence of these representations. In China, urban Chinese were quite familiar with the West's racist representations, and many were irate at the humiliating one-way stream of foul images: "They pick out the extraordinary vices of particular individuals and wrongly present them as the common characteristics of Chinese people . . . thus disgracing Chinese people. . . . They show only the Chinese people's ugly side, never our virtue." Those who sponsored and cheered Mei's tour aimed to refute these images -- to wrest control over the representation of China abroad. Hence, it is not surprising that despite Mei's mollifying rhetoric of culture as a transcendent realm of peaceful understanding (he was dubbed a "cultural ambassador" in both the Chinese and the U.S. media), many of his fans persisted in seeing culture a bit more competitively:

Recently, a Japanese theater troupe that was following on his heels prepared to do battle with our nation's king of actors over this new continent; who would have expected that on opening day their audience would be so thin -- a far cry from the situation at the sardine-packed Forty-ninth Street playhouse [where Mei's troupe was playing]? [This is] good cause for [the Japanese] infuriation and mourning. Because New Yorkers have been so deeply impressed by Mei's troupe, they find that old Japanese culture is just plagiarized from China and that their art cannot come near to topping China's.

Clearly, Western eyes were not the only ones watching. Mei's U.S. tour was not merely a spectacle orchestrated exclusively for "curious Americans" but was just as much designed to impress his audience back home in China. Through it, Mei clinched his legendary standing as Republican China's ultimate (and possibly only) modern icon of national culture.

The goal of this essay is to trace a general outline of the long and complex process of career and image building that set the...

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