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  • Operatic China: Staging Chinese Identity Across the Pacific
  • Ashley Thorpe
Operatic China: Staging Chinese Identity Across the Pacific. By Daphne P. Lei. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 360 pp. Hardcover $69.95.

"What could be more Chinese than Chinese opera?" asks Lei at the end of her imaginative study of Chinese opera and identity. The book, which is both wide ranging in its scope and detailed in its research, offers a number of innovative perspectives on Chinese opera and the shifting, often historicized identity it encompasses. Given that the book is primarily concerned with the construction of identity through performance, it seems a little odd that Lei should render xiqu as "Chinese opera" throughout, a term that suggests stasis and homogeneity in a tradition celebrated for its hundreds of regional styles. Yet, what at first appears problematic soon becomes central to the argument: "opera" represents the desire to make traditional performance "pure" and "unchangeable," to inhabit a fixed identity that exhibits a perceptible "Chineseness" in different contexts. By focusing on the performance of "opera" in Chinese diasporas on both sides of the Pacific as a means to express a fixed "Chinese identity," Lei draws nuanced comparisons across shifting historical and geographical planes that provide an important transcultural dimension to the work.

Chapter 1 provides a historical overview of the first Cantonese opera (yueju) troupes in San Francisco, who arrived on the back of the mid nineteenth century gold rush. Drawing upon English-based materials (Chinese materials were largely lost in the 1906 earthquake), Lei paints a vivid picture of white America's reactions to this "exotic" theatre, while simultaneously highlighting that, for many, a trip to the Chinese opera also meant a trip to Chinatown. Seeking an evening of "Chineseness," which began as soon as the audience stepped foot in the district, audiences constructed an identity of "otherness" for the Chinese that was steeped in Orientalism, racism, and misogyny. Performances also provided white audiences with the opportunity to satisfy their [End Page 387] sexual curiosities and fantasies about Chinese women, who, uniformly conceived of as prostitutes, represented a threat to the ethnic "purity" of the white race. The performance of women on stage meant that such dangerous exotics could be viewed from a safe distance: a distance expressed in terms of both the limits of the stage as well as in the codified movements of the cross-dressed male dan role. From ethnographic accounts of Chinatown in the nineteenth century, Lei argues that a series of universalisms about Chinese identity were propagated throughout the white population of America, from which a developing sense of American identity was formed as oppositional to the exotic and barbaric "Chineseness" of Chinatown.

In turning her attention to Chinese opera performance on mainland China in the nineteenth century (chapter 2), Lei cleverly expands upon on the mechanism through which Chinese opera reflects and formulates notions of "Chineseness." Despite the extent to which the Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty assimilated themselves to Chinese attitudes, it nevertheless remained the case that anyone not ethnically Han Chinese, including the Manchu rulers themselves, were conceived of as either "barbaric" or "demonic." Lei notes how Chinese opera, like other aspects of popular culture, referred back to the Ming dynasty as a means of reasserting "Chineseness" in the face of a "foreign" government. Rather than offering blanket assertions for this period, Lei articulates the ways in which this sense of "Chineseness" was reconfigured in different historical and social contexts, both in the spoken drama propagated by intellectuals and in local dramas by the general populace. In a particularly insightful section of the book, Lei notes how local dramas were reconfigured to express the ocean as the new frontier from which China had to be protected. The ocean was synonymous with the arrival of the Western powers that had an increasingly strong position on the Chinese mainland, and Lei demonstrates how local dramas subtly altered conventions to express this shift in concern.

The mechanism through which Chinese opera provided access to "Chineseness" is extended further in chapter 3, in which Lei explores the connections between theatrical performance and the performance of everyday life. From the Taiping Rebellion (1851–1864...


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