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  • Drama Kings: Players and Publics in the Re-creation of Peking Opera, 1870-1937
  • Wei Bingbing
Drama Kings: Players and Publics in the Re-creation of Peking Opera, 1870–1937. By Joshua Goldstein. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. xi + 371 pp. Cloth $49.95.

In this study of the history of Peking opera, Joshua Goldstein challenges a popular point of view that Peking opera (jingju) is a wholly traditional and purely Chinese art form. In contrast, he argues that Peking opera is a modern construction, and that its parameters, performances, and disseminations were greatly affected by the conditions of colonial modernity in late Qing and Republican China (p. 3). Approaching Peking opera as an object of knowledge production, Goldstein tries to trace various historical forces and changing discursive and social context that influenced the (re)framing of Peking opera as a genre. Furthermore, he illustrates how this knowledge construction changed the way jingju was perceived, produced, and performed. In sum, Goldstein argues that it was China's shift from a troubled empire to a troubled republic that underpinned the reshaping of Peking opera, which finally became the "national drama" (guoju) of China (pp. 9–10).

Attempting to present a generally chronological narrative, Goldstein divides his complicated story into two parts, with four chapters in each section. Part 1 examines the development of Peking opera from the late Qing to the May Fourth era. The first chapter provides readers with a significant background for the subsequent analysis, describing the key institutions and operation systems of Peking opera in the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, particular attention is paid to laosheng actors (older male character performers), who dominated the Peking opera troupes in late Qing. Goldstein believes that relentless internal and external crises of the period resulted in the leadership of laosheng actors who symbolized masculinity, but when China shifted from an empire to a nation-state, their status was replaced by dan actors, who took the roles of young female characters and symbolized beauty (p. 50). Chapter 2, "From Teahouse to Playhouse," focuses on the transformation of theaters in the early twentieth century in terms of architecture, operation, the performance-audience [End Page 365] relationship, and so on. Goldstein argues that the architectural replacement of the traditional teahouse (chayuan) with the modern stage (wutai) and playhouse (juchang) coincides with China's social and political shift from an empire to a republican nation. These new theatres, with their architectural design, seating arrangements, and new modes of operation, were as much spaces of liberation from imperial hierarchies as they were places to discipline and reorder society to serve new aims (p. 56). Chapter 3 considers theater changes in a broader historical context. In the late Qing and the early Republican era, drama came to be seen as a crucial medium to shape citizens' political attitudes and social behavior, and theaters became spaces of social liberation and gender experimentation; Goldstein sees this evinced in innovations of themes and forms of performances, and changes in performers' social status. Examining drama criticism by Chinese intellectual elite from 1900 to the 1930s, chapter 4 may be the best illustration of Goldstein's argument. He argues that the May Fourth era saw Peking opera's transformation from a relatively loose dramatic form to a much more rigidly delimited genre that lost its power to represent the present world (p. 165). Despite contrasting opinions about Peking opera, radical and traditionalist critics of this period shared some fundamental assumptions, and it was Qi Rushan's theory of aestheticization that finally assigned Peking opera a fixed essence and thus "legitimacy" of existence.

Part 2 deals with Peking opera's rise to national drama in the 1920s and 1930s. National pride brought Peking opera not only benefits, but also various social responsibilities that were almost impossible to fulfill (pp. 180–181). Chapter 5 focuses on the Peking opera star, as both a national celebrity and a character on the stage. Onstage performers were expected to be amenable to the expression of characters' interiority, while public attention was also paid to stars' real personality, their performance of good citizenship. Chapter 6 discusses the limits of reform of production and consumption into models...