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  • Meeting of the Eyes:Invented Gesture, Cinematic Choreography, and Mei Lanfang's Kun Opera Film
  • Xinyu Dong (bio)

In 1959, Mei Lanfang, the famed Peking opera female impersonator, starred in the opera film Dream of the Garden (Youyuan jingmeng), the "highlight" excerpt (zhezi xi) from the Kun opera classic, The Peony Pavilion (Mudan ting). This turned out to be the last opera film that he made prior to his death in 1961. In his essay on the making of the film, "Dream of the Garden: From Stage to Screen," Mei recalls the first opera film he made in 1920, which happened to be another highlight from The Peony Pavilion, Chunxiang's Mischief at School (Chuanxiang naoxue).1 Over the intervening span of forty years, Mei had played these Kun opera excerpts many times onstage and also had made a number of Peking opera films. That Mei's film career started and ended with the Kun opera classic is surely a coincidence. Yet this very coincidence calls our attention to the special affinity between the rich legacy of Kun opera and the new medium of cinema, and between the distinct expressivity of The Peony Pavilion and intermedial adaptation, if only through Mei's practices as a pioneering reformer and an operatic cinephile.

In the following discussion, I will first introduce Mei's rise to stardom in conjunction with the visual turn of the Peking opera reform in the 1910s and 1920s that foregrounded the spectacle of female characters. If Mei practiced the "obsolete" Kun opera to retrieve its repertoire of gestures and enrich his performance, he did so through an invention of tradition at the time of a thriving new visual culture that significantly involved cinema. The previously mentioned excerpts from The Peony Pavilion, for example, showcased not only the play's visual quality but also the inventiveness of Mei and his longtime collaborator Qi Rushan, a scriptwriter, choreographer, and theoretician of the Peking opera reform. The most revealing of such inventions, also a signature of Mei's star image, was the creative use of the "meeting of the eyes" (dui yanshen, or dui yanguang), a protocinematic Kun opera gesture. Thus focusing on the gesture of the meeting of the eyes, I examine the climactic scene of Dream of the Garden in both the stage [End Page 200] performance and the cinematic adaption. In what ways, I ask, is Mei's stage performance of the gesture cinematically informed and its cinematic treatment choreographically motivated? Intended to enact the visual transgression encoded in the play, the meeting of the eyes illustrates the play's theme of self-expression by giving expression not only to the characters but also to the operatic and cinematic performers.

The Visual Turn

In 1918, the Beijing-based newspaper Shuntian News (Shuntian shibao) held a popular election for the "king of opera actors" (lingjie dawang). Mei Lanfang came out as the winner with a total of 232,865 votes, thus becoming the first and only female impersonator to inherit the most recognizable title previously coined for Tan Xinpei, a famous performer of the senior male role type (laosheng). Not merely one of the many popular elections that marked Mei's personal achievement, this event could be seen as announcing a historical sea change in the Peking opera world. Mei's replacement of Tan was emblematic of the general rise to prominence of the young female character against the previously dominant old male character, which was inseparable from the simultaneous visual turn in Peking opera reform.

According to Joshua Goldstein, the theater world in the first decade of the Republican period witnessed a growing dominance of visuality over musicality:

In Beijing dialect, people going to the theater said they were going to ting xi, literally listen to a play.… As Peking opera thrived in Shanghai, kan xi, literally to see a play, became common parlance there. The trend towards visual splendor, however, was not confined to the south but was clearly linked to artistic trends and architectural technologies that thrived in urban areas throughout China. And at the heart of how these trends were articulated on the Peking opera stage was the onstage representation of female characters from elite...


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pp. 200-219
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