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Reviewed by:
  • Women Playing Men: Yue Opera and Social Change in Twentieth-Century Shanghai
  • Xiaomei Chen (bio)
Jin Jiang, Women Playing Men: Yue Opera and Social Change in Twentieth-Century Shanghai Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009 352 pages, $30.

A major contribution to Chinese theater, performance studies, and modern history, Jin Jiang's Women Playing Men: Yue Opera and Social Change in Twentieth-Century Shanghai illustrates the rich cultural history of the Yue opera popular in Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s and its transformations in the People's Republic of China (PRC) through the 1990s. Bringing together stories of the rise of the opera, the rise of its actresses, and the rise of a large female audience in Republican Shanghai, Jiang has produced what appears to be the first English-language study of this significant subgenre of indigenous Chinese opera and its unique progression from an all-male to an all-female performance art during the twentieth century. It breaks new ground in existing scholarship on traditional Chinese opera, which to date has mostly focused on the dominant genre of Beijing, or Peking, opera. It also draws needed attention to the intriguing question of women's culture and gender identity in cosmopolitan Shanghai during the Republican period.

Jiang's account draws on reliable Chinese-language primary and secondary sources such as scholarly histories of Yue operas, local newspaper accounts, and, most valuably, her numerous interviews with Yue opera performers. The opening chapter, "The Origins of Yue Opera," traces the roots of Yue opera to folk storytelling among peasants in the Zhejiang countryside in the mid-nineteenth century (26). "Little operas" or "minor operas," Jiang argues, flourished at the lower level of rural society by weaving together romantic stories, Buddhist influences, and rich local oral traditions to develop into an all-male Shengxian opera, which enjoyed a "golden age in the 1920s" (51). However, thanks to the introduction of new forms of "gender straight" theater that cast roles according to sex—such as new drama (xinju), amateur theater (aimeiju), and early forms of spoken drama—and abetted by Peking opera's similar new practice of allowing actresses to play women onstage, Yue opera developed into a genre dominated by all-female troupes. Jiang attributes Yue opera's unique gender affiliation to institutional causes, particularly the regional tradition peculiar to the Jiangnan area of cultivating "all-girl training schools/troupes," a practice dating back at least to the Ming dynasty (53). Jiang's explanation would have been more satisfying had she [End Page 471] discussed the reasons why Yue opera, rather than any other local opera, such as Peking opera, initiated and sustained all-girl training schools/troupes. Institutional practices alone, moreover, are not sufficient to explain this unique phenomenon.

The second chapter, "The Rise of Feminine Opera," delves into the artistry and advantages of Yue's all-female opera performances compared with its predecessors and counterparts in other dramatic genres. It also makes the case that Yue opera's emphasis on love drama and romance enabled it to tap into its fullest potential as women's theater. Intriguing as this account is, the analysis would have more weight if Jiang had explored how love drama and romance were also key to many of the Peking operas and spoken dramas to which she refers, and examined why those forms, in the context of another theatrical genre, failed to set women apart in the way Yue opera did. Love drama and romance were certainly not unique to Yue opera, or merely local features of women's theater—the rising film industry drew especially heavily on them during the same period.

Most interestingly, the chapter discusses two sensational suicides of Yue opera stars, whose funerals angered fans and attracted media attention. Jiang uses the events to examine how the public debate over the concept of qingbai (purity and cleanliness), central to an actress's image, helped shape the themes and generic features of all-female Yue opera. She also introduces Yuan Xuefen, one of the most famous Yue opera actresses, and charts her unremitting efforts to use her knowledge of spoken-drama stage management to modernize the theatrical practices and performance environment...


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pp. 471-475
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