- Women Playing Men: Yue Opera and Social Change in Twentieth-Century Shanghai
On May 30, 2009, I revisited Tianchan Yifu Theatre in Shanghai to watch a few highlights from the Yue opera.1 Among the five highlights presented that night, one was a modern-attire piece on Mao Zedong's first wife, Yang Kaihui, performed by a gender-straight cast. That piece paled in comparison with the other four classic Yue opera highlights performed by an all-female cast. Among the four, "Meeting at Yingtai's Chamber" in Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai (Liangzhu) and "Presenting the Phoenix Cap" in Emerald Hairpin (Biyu zan) left the deepest impression.
I observed the audience at the performances. Many of them were elderly women. However, there were also tourists, expats, white-collar professionals, and young lovers. That night, sitting among a full house at the Yue opera in Shanghai, I could not help contemplating the enduring presence of the women's Yue opera in our contemporary life.
Jin Jiang's groundbreaking book Women Playing Men: Yue Opera and Social Change in Twentieth-Century Shanghai is by far the best study of women's Yue opera as social and cultural history in any language.2 Jiang renders a great service to our understanding of Yue opera as an urban popular cultural form throughout twentieth-century Shanghai. Jiang's greatest contribution lies in foregrounding a traditional native opera as an important component of an overall picture of Shanghai's cultural modernity (p. 5). By focusing on the Yue opera's historical development from the early 1920s to the 1980s, Jiang effectively breaks the 1949 divide between the Republican and the Communist eras, which enables her to [End Page 117] examine social change in twentieth-century China in a more exhaustive fashion, and to highlight personal and institutional continuities despite obvious region changes and political ruptures.
For all its thick descriptions and historical nuances, Women Playing Men proves to be a fascinating and surprisingly accessible read. The main body of the book consists of six meticulously organized chapters, with a preface, an introduction, a conclusion, and an appendix of interviews framing the main text. Jiang clearly wrote her preface last; it frames the story of women's Yue opera as an endangered cultural heritage waiting to be rescued. In order to "seize a moment in the history of Chinese women, of Shanghai, and of China's nascent modernity before it is lost"(p. ix), Jiang carried out interviews with Yue opera actresses and audience members, most of them women born in the 1920s, from the mid-1990s onward. Jiang's effort has been richly rewarded in Women Playing Men, as she manages not only to preserve some representative voices of the women of Yue opera, but also to recreate the intangible "historical context and human relationships" (p. ix) that shaped the Yue opera productions throughout the last century.
As a historian of modern China who is especially interested in women's agency in bringing about social changes, Jiang follows the lead of a cluster of inspiring feminist studies in the history of women in China offered by such historians as Charlotte Furth, Gail Hershatter, Dorothy Ko, and Susan Mann.3 "In order to understand the world of Yue opera, the historian must enter it by exploring the mundane experience of the women of Yue opera and leave ideology at the door" (p. xiii), so claims Jiang in her preface. Her background as one of the "Chinese women growing up in the Mao Era,"4 may have ironically triggered such an impulse of disassociating gender from ideology. Jiang succeeds, to a large degree, in rescuing the Yue opera world from the larger nation-building rhetoric of the time and focusing instead on reconstructing "a meaningful world of Yue opera as it existed for the opera's actresses and fans" (p. xiv). Jiang's efforts, indeed, converge with wider scholarly interests in the quotidian of historical processes, and her book joins...