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  • Beijing Opera Costumes: The Visual Communication of Character and Culture
  • Colin Mackerras (bio)
Alexandra B. Bonds . Beijing Opera Costumes: The Visual Communication of Character and Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2008. xix, 351 pp. Hardcover $50.00, ISBN 978-0-8248-2956-8.

In the Chinese traditional theatre (xiqu), costumes occupy a particularly important role, as they are among the main features contributing to artistic beauty. This applies to all three hundred or so regional styles of traditional theatre, but in particular to the one the Chinese regard as most developed, the Beijing Opera, or Jingju. The costumes are colorful and diverse and attractive to the eye of contemporary audiences, both Chinese and Western, probably more so than the music is to the ear. Although the literature on the Chinese traditional theatre is extensive and growing, this book deals with costumes much more deeply and widely than any earlier study. [End Page 83]

Observers have adopted various English translations for the term "Jingju," which means literally "capital drama." The two most famous are the Peking opera and the Beijing opera. Although the words "Beijing Opera" appear in the title, in the book itself Bonds describes the genre everywhere as Jingju: "The Chinese name for this performance style in the People's Republic of China has been standardized as Jingju (capital drama), and that is how I refer to it" (p. xi). The problem is that, if the term "Jingju" were used in the title without translation, the generalist reader would not know what the book is about, yet the practice among scholars is to use the original Chinese term, and this trend appears to be strengthening. So the practice the author has adopted conveys the meaning without flouting scholarly practice.

The book provides a background chapter, which covers the history of the theatre in China, the role types and conventions of Jingju, the nature of stages in China, and other relevant material. The other chapters are about the costumes themselves. These chapters cover such aspects as historical roots; the symbolism and application of color; embroidery imagery; specific costumes, such as religious, ethnic, and those costumes worn by particular characters; and especially the various categories of costumes used in Jingju, including robes, armor and military dress, skirts, trousers, and footwear. The final chapters deal with such features as makeup, hair, headdresses, dressing techniques, and items that are related to costume but not directly part of it.

This book is extremely well illustrated and carefully produced. Numerous and beautifully colored pictures accompany the text, illustrating the costumes, makeup, and so on. The author herself was responsible for most of these photographs, but a few come from other sources, such as those taken by Elizabeth Wichmann-Walczak, herself a prominent scholar, director, and actor of Jingju. These opulent illustrations make the text more meaningful and readable. The paper is glossy and superior in quality. This is a real coffee-table book as well as a piece of scholarship.

Indeed, it certainly is good scholarship. Bonds has undertaken extensive fieldwork, mostly in Beijing, but also elsewhere. She is herself a costume designer and very familiar with the European and American styles. Though intensive interviewing in Beijing appears to be the most important source, the documentation shows familiarity with the important literature on her topic. The bibliography consists mainly of books in English, but there are also quite a few in Chinese. In addition, lists of the twelve interviews Bonds undertook in Beijing are provided. The several appendices explain the costume patterns and the characters in the dramas, and a glossary explains the many technical terms used in the text. Throughout the text, she follows the practice of translating the terms the first time they occur, but leaving them in the original Chinese thereafter. [End Page 84]

Bonds writes that the aesthetic principles of Jingju are synthesis, stylization, and convention; the ultimate aim of these three factors is "to realize the Jingju definition of beauty" (p. 19). These aesthetic principles certainly apply to Jingju costuming but also more generally to traditional Chinese arts. Another major and symbolic factor in Jingju is color, the function of which in world cultures has received...