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  • A Note from the Guest Editors
  • Paola Iovene and Judith T. Zeitlin

This special issue on Chinese Opera Film includes an introduction to the theme plus eight of the thirteen papers presented at the symposium "Chinese Opera Films after 1949" held at the University of Chicago in April 2009, which was itself the culmination of a series of screenings and discussions initiated by a group of graduate students the year before. The first few Chinese opera films we saw at the screenings were a revelation to us: these dazzling films were made in the 1950s and early 1960s, a time during which Chinese arts, especially cinema, were supposed to follow the rules of socialist realism, portray the people's revolutionary struggle under the leadership of the Communist Party, and promote the policies that lay the foundations of the newly established state.1 The development of a socialist art surely also involved the refilling of traditional forms such as opera with new content, but how could Chinese state studios embark on such sumptuous costume productions that offered little or nothing in terms of obvious ideological promotion and that were mostly set in a mythical or feudal past? What was at stake in the making of these films, and what did the process of transposition from opera to cinema mean for each medium in the early years of the People's Republic? If these films forced us to revise what we knew about recent Chinese cultural history, it soon became clear that the genre demanded to be approached from a wide range of disciplinary angles, and that it offered a fertile terrain to investigate what happens when different artistic forms, social worlds, and professional fields meet and collide.

Chinese opera films are much more than mere recordings of stage performances. They formed a popular artistic genre of their own, and in many ways paved the way for the better-known film adaptations of the model operas that were to dominate the screen in the early 1970s. The introduction to this issue is mainly intended to provide an overview of the topic for those who are new to Chinese opera and cinema. The articles that follow explore the rich history of the making of Chinese opera films, deftly illuminating their artistic features and theoretical implications, as well as the performative and musical elements that filmmakers adapted from various art forms. More work surely needs to be done to unravel the transregional connections in which Chinese opera films were enmeshed, particularly with other Sinophone regions where the genre also thrived. But while none of these experiments in filmmaking can be considered in isolation, relatively narrowing our geographical and institutional focus during this [End Page 179] preliminary phase ofinquiry has allowed us to discover an incredibly rich array of interpretations of what cinema, theater, and Chinese opera film as a distinctive national art form—as it was indeed presented in the People's Republic—meant to the various artists involved in the creation of the films and, more tentatively, to audiences at large.

We are therefore delighted to include, in addition to the symposium papers, and for the first time in English translation, important essays by the Peking opera performer Mei Lanfang, set designer Han Shangyi, actor and director Shi Hui, and cultural official Jiang Qing. We are grateful to all the translators for their hard work to make these texts available to an Anglophone readership. The international dimension of Chinese opera film emerges most clearly in the "Performance" section, which shifts the focus of the issue to the contemporary moment with a review of Chen Kaige's film Forever Enthralled (Mei Lanfang) by Fu Jin, and an overview of various Chinese versions of Puccini's Turandot by Sheila Melvin and Jindong Cai. Professor Fu, who spent a research quarter at the University of Chicago in 2009, has taught us a great deal about twentieth-century Chinese opera and has inspired us throughout this project.

We are deeply grateful to The Center for East Asian Studies, The Franke Institute for the Humanities, and the Arts Council, all based at the University of Chicago, for the generous support that made the Chinese opera film symposium possible...


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