- Chinese Operas on Stage and Screen:A Short Introduction
During the final week of the Olympics in August 2008, a friend in Beijing invited me for dumplings at her parents' place. When we got there, the television was turned to CCTV-11, the Chinese Central Television opera channel. My friend's mother was busy cooking and did not seem to mind when her daughter suggested that it would be more entertaining to watch the Olympics instead. When I asked them about the film just being broadcast, they explained that it was an old Ping opera film, of which they both were fond. In the 1980s many such films were shown in cinemas and on television, so my friend had grown up watching them. Opera films had then enjoyed a period of renaissance: those made in the 1950s and 1960s were shown again, and many new ones were produced, refreshing older viewers' memories of a variety of regional operas and introducing them to the younger generation.
The Chinese opera films that are the subject of this special issue of Opera Quarterly brought to the screen the folktales, novels, and historical narratives that had long enlivened the opera stage. In China there are more than two hundred regional operatic forms, collectively known as xiqu, which differ from one another in language, basic melodies, style of singing, and, to a lesser degree, in gestures, costumes, and makeup.1 Some of these operas have a history of centuries, while others were codified as distinct local forms only in the 1950s. Among them, Peking opera has enjoyed the highest prestige throughout the twentieth century and has most often been filmed. Its origins are traced back to Hui opera from Anhui, in the southeast of China, which was first brought to Beijing on the occasion of the eightieth birthday of the emperor Qianlong in 1790. Many other regional troupes were invited to perform in his honor at that time, but the Anhui opera troupes enjoyed the greatest success and settled in the capital soon thereafter, enriching their performances and blending with various other regional styles. This process of assimilation was to continue uninterrupted over the next couple of centuries—notably, as discussed in Xinyu Dong's essay in this issue, when the famous actor Mei Lanfang and his collaborator Qi Rushan introduced [End Page 181] many of the southern Kun opera gestures and singing styles into Peking opera in the 1920s. The Shanghai-based, all-female-troupe Yue opera was also popular in the mid-twentieth century, as was Ping opera, a genre that thrived in northern and northeastern China.2 At the lowest end of the spectrum of geographical diffusion we find local operas performed in small regional areas or villages; often considered vulgar and unrefined by fans and practitioners of the major genres, they have hardly ever made it to the silver screen.
Overall, Chinese opera is a rich and diverse field, characterized by uneven cultural prestige among rural and urban genres and also by an ongoing history of mutual contaminations. Adored by emperors and commoners alike but feared by authorities as a source of social unrest—performances considered obscene or violent were often subjected to censorship in late imperial times—opera became the topic of inflamed debates among intellectuals, who, from the last decade of the nineteenth century on, emphasized the social impact and pedagogic potential of popular cultural forms.
At the turn of the twentieth century, a time in which the survival of China appeared threatened by economic and sociopolitical crisis from within and imperialist aggression from without, many reformers and revolutionaries turned to opera and fiction to awaken the people to the predicament of the country. As the soon-to-be Communist leader Chen Duxiu put it in an essay written in 1904, opera houses were "schools for the masses, and the actors their great teachers." Opera's popular appeal—Chen referred in particular to xipi and erhuang, the two main melodies of Peking opera—made it an ideal tool to educate the people and spark political change. But to be truly beneficial to all and appreciated by those who still dismissed it as a vulgar pastime, it...