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Asian Theatre Journal 20.1 (2003) 98-100

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Acting the Right Part: Political Theatre and Popular Drama in Contemporary China. By Xiaomei Chen. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2002. xi + 466 pp. $29.95 (paper); $59.95 (cloth)

History—or fate—positions certain authors perfectly to write certain books. Xiaomei Chen is the ideal person to have conceived and composed Acting the Right Part; she has produced a work of comprehensive and groundbreaking scholarship appropriately leavened with deeply felt personal observation. Scholars of Chinese drama (or any reader with even a passing interest in the topic) will turn to it repeatedly, not only for its academic insights, but also for its unique perspective on a tumultuous period in world history.

Chen has been intimately connected with modern Chinese theatre all her life. Her mother, Ji Shuping, acted Ibsen's Nora to international acclaim and performed many other leading roles; her father, Chen Yongjing, was an award-winning set and costume designer. At the age of four, Xiaomei made her stage debut in an anti-American piece during the Korean War. The Cultural Revolution coincided with her adolescence, and it was with full revolutionary fervor that she left Beijing for remote Heilongjiang province (to perform, so she thought). The passage of time and her subsequent formal training as a scholar have allowed her not only to contextualize her own experiences but also to write a broad-ranging and provocative history of Chinese drama from 1966 to the early 1990s.

After a brief prologue, Chapter 1 introduces her topic. Chen argues that spoken Chinese drama has been marginalized and slighted as being neither Chinese nor Western. She also situates the drama of the Cultural Revolution (and after) in the actual life of the period, which was itself dominated by theatricality of various types. Most of her personal recollections appear in this chapter, though subsequent chapters return to them. This chapter also introduces her wide range of scholarly interests: her discussion includes not only staged drama but also film and the iconography of posters. Moreover, she makes concise and apposite comparisons between modern Chinese drama and the theatres of Nazi Germany, Quebec, and Francophone Africa. These digressions, which could have been leaden and distracting, are brief and deftly handled.

Chapter 2 focuses on the model works of the Cultural Revolution with a special emphasis on female characters. She takes issue with the standard view that these creations represent a completely unprecedented development in Chinese drama; she argues persuasively that in fact they show strong continuity with drama as far back as the late Qing and continuing through the Republican and early Maoist eras. Her research has been thorough and comprehensive and provides much food for thought. The latter portion of the chapter notes the contradiction between the model works' deprivation of their female characters' gender and the titillation provoked by the theatrical representation of these characters.

Chapter 3 is devoted to historicizing studies of the model theatre—again [End Page 98] with a strongly feminist inflection. Chen looks most closely at The Red Lantern, including its modern, post-Tiananmen performance history. Her treatment of this play exemplifies her skill at producing new information that alters our perception of the significance of a text. In the official version, the play's success was attributed to a new appreciation of the revolutionary heritage. Many in the audience, however, were gratified because it showed Mao as a leader who would never turn the military against his own people. In response, the radio engineers in charge of a rebroadcast of the show censored the loud applause the play received at the end.

Chapter 4 discusses the surge of dramatic works following the Cultural Revolution, especially in 1978-1979, subsequently viewed as somewhat of a renaissance of Chinese drama. Her main focus here is "border crossing"—the complex ways in which playwrights adhered to official ideology while at the same time defying it. Her prime objects of scrutiny are the 1979 play White Jasmine, which featured a protagonist from a questionable family background...