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  • Drama Kings: Players and Publics in the Re-creation of Peking Opera 1870-1937
  • Colin Mackerras (bio)
Joshua Goldstein . Drama Kings: Players and Publics in the Re-creation of Peking Opera 1870–1937. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007. xi, 371 pp. Hardcover $49.95, ISBN 978–0–520–24752–9.

This book is essentially an account of the art form Peking opera over the period from 1870 to 1937, covering especially Beijing (or Beiping from 1928), but also Shanghai and other cities. Multidisciplinary in its scope, it considers social, economic, and political as well as artistic and literary matters. There is a good deal of biography of actors (the "drama kings" of the title), especially the "four famous dan" (sida mingdan), among whom the leading one was Mei Lanfang (1894–1961). But what makes this book remarkable is the way it takes up a whole range of matters that integrate the history of Peking opera over this period into the history of China as a whole. For instance, what do the livelihood and status of actors in a changing society tell us about Chinese society as a whole? What does the development of the proscenium stage as opposed to the traditional teahouse theatres of the Qing dynasty tell us about change in China? And is there any linkage with "the nation" and "nationalism," which we know loomed large in the history of republican China?

In the acknowledgments (p. x), I am one of two people perhaps given some credit for the title. I can claim no credit, having played no part at all in suggesting this title, though I consider it a very good choice. When contrasted with "drama queens," the term "drama kings" carries overtones of male dominance in a context of people used to being treated with great respect and to getting their own way. There is a bit of space given to female actors, but they were not nearly as important as male. As for the subtitle, the idea that this form of theatre was "re-created" in the republican period recurs enough throughout the book to make the inclusion of the word "re-creation" there entirely appropriate.

The book has made a substantial theoretical contribution to the study of Peking opera. One of the main ideas is to set the history of Peking opera within the context of what Goldstein calls "colonial modernization." What that means is that, though a traditional form of art, Peking opera was deeply enmeshed in the general history of the time that included the impact of imperialism and attempts at modernization. This impact was profound enough that Goldstein regards Peking opera as having been more than influenced but actually re-created due to colonial modernization. It was not only in modernization, but also of modernization (see p. 3). One theory within colonial modernization is enframing, a process enabling colonizers to manage populations and impose cultural patterns they regard as superior. In the case of Chinese theatre, enframing is obvious in the adoption of Western-style theatres. [End Page 443]

The way these theories are woven into the history of the Peking opera and the social history of China between 1870 and 1937 is both enlightening and perceptive. It certainly adds a new way of looking at Peking opera that I find both novel and brilliant. The way the author comes back to theories is certainly insightful. I do have one misgiving about the idea that colonial modernization was so important to traditional Peking opera as to "re-create" it. It shifts both the responsibility and even the credit to some extent away from indigenous and toward external forces. Of course, Goldstein makes no attempt to credit individual foreigners with contributions or to take away such credit from drama kings like Mei Lanfang. But the very notion of colonial modernization seems to me to change the balance slightly, and more than I would wish to do.

Goldstein regards the Peking opera of the republican period as an "invented tradition" (for example, p. 5), an art form consciously re-created for political purposes. Like the idea of colonial modernization, this concept implies intervention. Peking opera is not a folk...