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  • Beijing Opera Costumes: The Visual Communication of Character and Culture
  • Mei Sun
Beijing Opera Costumes: the Visual Communication of Character and Culture. By Alexandra B. Bonds. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2008. xxii, 350 pp. Cloth, $50.00.

The product of eighteen years of painstaking research undertaken in Taipei, Beijing, Honolulu, and Oregon, this book is the first comprehensive study of the costumes of jingju (Beijing opera), encompassing both techniques and aesthetics. Jingju, China’s national theatre, was established during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) and has experienced significant changes, particularly after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The book focuses on the traditional jingju repertoire that is performed in China today, although contemporary Chinese stages also feature newly written historical and modern plays created after 1949.

The book contains eight chapters with more than 250 colorful photographs and black-and-white costume pattern drafts. The first chapter, “The World of Traditional Jingju,” provides readers with basic knowledge to understand the mysterious world of jingju costumes. The chapter begins with the historical context of the theatrical form. Successively, it discusses jingju’s role types, plays, and visual components (including the stage, settings, staging, and lighting) and then explicates the historical background and the four major categories of jingju costumes. The chapter ends with the aesthetic principles and aims of jingju.

Chapter 2, “The World of Traditional Jingju Costumes,” explores the costumes’ relationship to actors and their performances. Jingju is a unique form of song-and-dance theatre in which the core is the actor’s performance, which is both stylized and conventionalized. It follows then that the main function of the conventionalized costumes is to highlight the visual image of character, thereby supporting actor’s performance. As the author describes, jingju costumes do not specify the period, season, or region in which the play takes place, but do emphasize characters’ gender, age, social status, and mood. Through examples of water sleeves, feathers, sashes, hairstyles, and beards the author depicts how traditional jingju costumes function in terms of the actors’ conventionalized movements.

Chapter 3, “The Form and Historical Roots of Costumes,” traces the tradition and sources of jingju costumes. Through detailed analysis, the author indicates that most jingju costumes evolved from the historical dress of the ethnic Han majority, particularly that of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Through [End Page 174] illustrations, she also argues persuasively that some jingju costumes developed from the clothing of the Manchus, the ethnic group that conquered the Ming and founded the Qing dynasty. Other garment choices came from the costumes of previous performance forms. As a professional costume designer, the author explains the patterning and cut of jingju costumes. Finally, based on her field research at the Donggaokou Embroidery Factory in China’s Hebei province, she describes the technical process of making jingju costumes.

Chapter 4, “The Symbolism and Application of Color,” offers readers an insight into the color system of jingju garments. Bonds starts by discussing yin-yang and the five phases (wuxing) in classical Chinese philosophy, then investigates the arrangement of color in jingju costumes and describes some typical meanings for colors. Related to the theory of yin-yang and the five phases, the colors for jingju costumes are traditionally divided into a pair of categories, the upper five colors and the lower five colors. The former consists of red, green, yellow, white, and black, while the latter consists of purple, pink, blue, lake blue, and bronze or olive green. Practically, costume colors are set and adjusted in relationship to the conventions of each character on stage.

Chapter 5, “The Aesthetics and Meanings of the Embroidered Imagery” (in the table of contents, this is printed as “Embroidery Imagery” [vi]), introduces readers to extensive information regarding embroidery. Corresponding to the aesthetic principles of jingju, embroidery not only constitutes an important part of the visual image of an individual character, but also contributes to the overall beauty of the production. The chapter first reveals embroidery’s history and techniques and then illustrates its practice in jingju costumes. Embroidered objects such as lions and flowers are stylized and sometimes symbolic rather than realistic. To help readers understand this...


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pp. 174-176
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