- Women in Traditional Chinese Theater: The Heroine's Play
Given China's rising status in the global power structure, it is surprising how few plays from its extraordinarily rich performance traditions have been translated into English. The selection of unabridged and/or newer translations is more limited still. Thus Qian Ma's new anthology of English translations ofxiqu (Chinese opera) plays is a welcome addition to existing resources. Sharing the common element of a female protagonist, the six plays are intended both as a general introduction to xiqu's dramatic literature and as a more focused investigation of the portrayal of female characters in xiqu over several centuries. Though the first of these goals is incompletely addressed by the introductory material and included plays, the individual translations are engagingly readable and provide a fascinating overview of female characters in traditional xiqu.
The collection includes five plays in the zaju (variety play) xiqu form with one or two plays representing the Yuan (1271–1368), Ming (1368–1644), and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. First is Injustice to Dou E (Dou E yuan), a Yuan zaju in which the ghost of a woman executed for a murder she didn't commit returns to demand justice. Next is Qiannu's Soul Leaves Her Body (Qiannu li hun), a Yuan zaju in which a young woman's soul travels to be with her fiancé after her parents call off their engagement. Third is Mulan (Ci Mulan), a surprisingly earthy Ming zaju based on the story made famous by Disney in which a young woman in male disguise answers a military conscription in place of her aging father. Fourth is Spring Pavilion (Lin chun ge), an early Qing zaju in which a female general, a female court scholar, and an [End Page 412] Imperial concubine (none of whom know they are celestial beings temporarily in human form) struggle in vain to protect the nation from invasion. Fifth is Laughter in a Flour Barrel (Miangang xiao), a later Qing zaju farce in which a prostitute gets permission to marry a poor scholar, then cleverly prevents several corrupt officials from demanding a last sexual encounter before the wedding.
The final selection is a transcription of a contemporary performance of the Huangmei xi (a regional xiqu form from Anhui province) play The Girl Who Marries a Princess (Nu fuma). The play involves a young woman whose parents have falsely accused her fiancé of theft so they can call off the engagement. After he is jailed, she takes the fiancé's identity, places first in the Imperial examinations, is awarded with marriage to the emperor's daughter, and enlists the princess's help to trick the emperor into forgiving her deception. Happily her older brother is an unmarried successful scholar who takes her place as the princess's new husband. Her fiancé is released from jail and they too are married. Ma included this non-zaju primarily because it is her favorite xiqu play. Since it is an utterly delightful play that is not otherwise available in translation and one that is connected thematically to the other plays in the collection, this inconsistency of form is welcome, even if not analytically justified. (Let us hope Ma has plans to make available the performance video with her translations in subtitles.)
In the book's preface, Ma positions herself as a fan of xiqu plays in performance, recounting her early exposure as both spectator and amateur performer of the modern "model" plays of the Cultural Revolution and her subsequent exposure to traditional xiqu performances. But even for the translation of a transcribed performance, Ma includes only the most limited descriptions of stage business, relying frequently on the generic verb "pantomime" (e.g. "Wang pantomimes playing the lute" [p. 104]). Thus, the translations of the plays (as well as the introductory materials) have a decidedly literary focus consistent with Ma's position as associate professor of English at Roanoke College in Virginia and her PhD in comparative literature.
Ma describes her...