- Drama Kings: Players and Publics in the Re-creation of Peking Opera, 1870–1937
Some years ago in Berkeley, California, I accompanied a friend from China to an experimental music concert celebrating the convergences of African American and Chinese culture. The climax of the first act was a Peking opera aria underscored by jazz percussive accents. I listened intently for the moment right before the crest of the crescendo of one extended melisma, at which point I called out a soft "hao!" (bravo!) in admiration of the singer's skill. My voice echoed within the politely silent theater. My friend recoiled from me in embarrassment and then whispered sharply: "Don't do that! That's so uncivilized!" How the shouting of hao in the Chinese opera theater came to be viewed as uncivilized is just a part of Joshua Goldstein's larger investigation into the disciplining of Peking opera audiences under the strictures of colonial modernity in his smart new book, Drama Kings: Players and Publics in the Re-creation of Peking Opera, 1870–1937.
Goldstein's work is among a cluster of studies produced over the last decade charting the politics of culture under the conditions of colonial modernity in late Qing and Republican China. The phrase "colonial modernity" takes its cue from the postcolonial scholarship of Tani Barlow and others, which sees all modernity—whether in the imperialist core or the colonized peripheries—as inextricably interwoven with global flows of capital, goods, and knowledge set in motion by the processes of colonial domination.1 Central to this approach is a focus on "knowledge production," whereby understanding of the colonized culture is shaped both externally and internally by constant reference to a universalized Western experience; those cultural practices that do not conform to the universal modern norm get tagged as traditional and unchanging. The study of Peking opera, then, provides a window onto one instance of this process of knowledge production in China in the first half of the twentieth century.
Drama Kings begins with the observation that Peking opera (the nomenclature pointedly chosen to highlight its colonial legacy) flourished within a rapidly modernizing China, and yet it has always been seen as "somehow in modernity but not of it" (3). In fact, from the rails that actors traveled to tour the eastern seaboard cities to the treaty port newspapers that advertised the latest fashions set [End Page 460] by opera stars, the genre was deeply implicated in colonial modernity. And yet it was precisely during the critical May Fourth era (1915–25), usually hailed as a watershed of modern consciousness awakening in China, that Peking opera was recast as traditional and wholly Chinese (3).
Building upon the foundational work of Eric Hobsbawn and Terence O. Ranger on invented traditions, Goldstein demonstrates the various ways in which both defenders and detractors of Peking opera sought to fix the evolving art form as representative of "traditional Chinese culture," even as it thrived off new circuits of communication and commercialism made possible in the cities of Republican Shanghai, Beijing, and Tianjin. But Goldstein's inventors of tradition are neither cynically manipulating Peking opera for ideological ends nor naively blind to the practices of earlier times. The Republican era promoters of Peking opera, he shows, were highly aware of their role in the molding of its history and content. Qi Rushan (1876–1962)—the exemplar of Peking opera advocates—and others involved in this process had no qualms about their reinventions of Peking opera to meet the needs of a modernizing nation; as self-appointed guardians of Chinese culture past and present, it fell to them, they passionately averred, to shape ideal cultural traditions against the uncertainties of political chaos, foreign encroachment, and economic instability. Goldstein demonstrates that cultural traditionalists such as Qi were every bit as invested in the May Fourth construction of the tradition/modernity binary as the radicals and liberals of the time. Drama Kings thus offers a new reading of the May Fourth moment from the perspective...