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  • “Reform” at the Shanghai Jingju Company and Its Impact on Creative Authority and Repertory
  • Elizabeth Wichmann-Walczak (bio)

Until 1949, jingju (historically often called “Beijing/Peking opera” in English) was without question a popular form of theatre, completely dependent upon the equivalent of box-office draw for its very existence. This draw was created in substantial part by the “star power” of leading actors. Most professional companies were created by and for star actors; in each company, the lead actor was an actor-manager who chose other company members, selected works to be performed, and conceived of new works to be created. And while the creation process itself was collaborative, this lead actor remained the primary creative authority throughout, approving or disapproving of scripting and musical composition carried out by other actors and/or assisting writers and musicians.1

During the first half of the 20th century, a number of attempts were made to “reform” jingju, primarily by intellectuals who wanted it to be more “scientific” like the Western “problem play,” or more “elevated” like Italian and German opera. While these reformers did succeed in luring jingju into the Western-style proscenium theatre, dynamics of creative authority remained largely unchanged during this time. However, with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 came more concentrated efforts at reform. New artistic personnel were added to jingju troupes with the aim of making them more scientific and elevated, including directors, designers, and playwrights trained in Western-style theatre, and composers trained in European concert music and other more recent European and American musical styles. But just as serious experiments in new dynamics of creative authority were beginning to get underway, a much more radical change took place. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), all the creative artists involved in each company were placed firmly under the authority of Communist Party officials, who as a group replaced the single actor-manager of the pre-1949 period in many real and practical ways.

In the 23 years since the end of the Cultural Revolution, however, socioeconomic factors have once again come to influence the dynamics of creative [End Page 96]

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1. Shang Changrong as Cao Cao in Cao Cao and Yang Xiu (1995) stands center, with He Shu as the condemned Yang Xiu above. The lighting suggests the full moon. The moon, a central image for Yang’s execution here at the end of the play, also dominates the joyous early scene in which Cao and Yang meet and forge their alliance.

[End Page 97]

authority in jingju. Since the early 1980s, jingju has faced serious and growing problems, including: oversized troupes and companies; shrinking and aging audiences; diminishing state support; and competition from television, film, and popular, often Western-inspired, entertainment. Most jingju companies have only begun to grapple with these problems in the last three or four years. However, as early as 1983 the Shanghai Jingju Company began a process of self-initiated reform, remaking and reorienting itself according to its own priorities. Now, at the end of the 1990s, the Shanghai Company is one of the few jingju companies in the country to have successfully maintained traditional audiences while creating substantial new ones, and to be approaching economic independence from the state.

One of the main reasons why Shanghai is leading the way in self-initiated reform is surely the legacy of haipai, the daringly innovative Shanghai-style jingju of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During that period, Shanghai was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, and haipai developed as a market-driven performing art in competition and interplay with other regional forms of xiqu (literally “theatre [of] song,” the indigenous Chinese theatre comprised of over 300 distinct forms) and international influences (Shanghai Jingju Yuan 1995:15–16). Haipai was characterized by a willingness to expand forms. For instance, it included the practice of “plays in episodic installments,” liantai benxi, in which each performance ended at a “cliff-hanger” moment so that audiences would return for the next installment. Somewhat later, haipai also pioneered “reformed jingju” (gailiang/gaijin jingju), jingju plays produced under the influence...


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pp. 96-119
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