- China’s Greatest Operatic Male Actor of Female Roles: Documenting the Life and Art of Mei Lanfang, 1894–1961
Master jingju (Beijing/Peking opera) performer Mei Lanfang holds a prominent place in Western theories of performance, particularly those of Bertolt Brecht. The surprising paucity of resources in English on this seminal artist has begun to be redressed recently by Joshua Goldstein’s excellent Drama Kings: Players and Publics in the Re-creation of Peking Opera 1879–1937 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007) and Min Tian’s own illuminating Poetics of Difference and Displacement: Twentieth-Century Chinese-Western Intercultural Theatre (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008). In the volume under review, Tian generously makes available translations of key Chinese and Russian texts on which his own groundbreaking scholarship has relied. Reprints of major critical essays on Mei’s intercultural influence, including two of Tian’s own, complete this important collection.
The materials are divided into four parts: “Mei Lanfang’s Perspectives,” “Chinese Perspectives,” “Western and Russian Perspectives,” and “Intercultural Perspectives.” Tian’s excellent introduction summarizes key biographical information and frames within shifting political contexts the often scathing theoretical debate over whether xiqu (the umbrella term for the more than three hundred forms of China’s indigenous music-drama, of which jingju is the most prominent) should be abolished as outmoded feudal remnant or carried forward into the cultural fabric of modernizing China. The latter view ultimately prevailed, but Tian’s selected documents reveal the length and [End Page 585] complexity of the debate more vividly than any documents previously available to non-Chinese speakers. The introduction only cursorily addresses the political pressures in Russia necessary to understand the Russian documents, but this context is amply addressed in articles by Georges Banu and Tian contained in Part 4.
Part 1 is a reprint of Mei Lanfang’s own writings. First published in 1961 in the journal Chinese Literature, the excerpt humbly traces Mei’s artistic development, including influences from his study of painting, and addresses his creative process and aesthetic goals in several important plays. Though fascinating and worthy of reprint, I was disappointed to find no offer of new translations from Mei’s extensive writings.
Part 2 offers polar extremes of Chinese perspectives, beginning with noted intellectual Hu Shi’s brief apology for Chinese theatre’s “arrested development” in failing yet to become “a drama of natural speaking and spontaneous acting” (61) that appeared in the program for Mei’s 1930 tour of the United States. The second piece is a combined and abridged translation of several essays written from 1925 to 1934 by leading modern Chinese writer and scholar Lu Xun. I believe this entry and several others in this section, all translated and edited by Tian, are appearing in English for the first time. Tian’s translation of Lu Xun’s deeply cynical tone is sometimes difficult to follow, but forcefully conveys Lu’s disgust at the manner in which Mei’s “vulgar” but “full of life, bold and vigorous” performance style was “snatched” from the people by the “literati and officialdom” and transformed into something “noble” but “lifeless, stereotyped and pitiably restrained” (71). Even more vicious is Zheng Zhenduo’s 1929 essay “Down with the Dan [female role] Actors in Women’s Clothes; Down with the Representative Dan Actor Mei Lanfang,” in which he decries jingju’s “cruel, inhuman, artificial and most despicable trick” of male actors playing female roles. These negative entries are balanced by three glowing accounts of Mei’s artistry from leading xiqu performers Jiang Miaoxiang, Yu Zhenfei, and Ouyang Yuqian (also a founder of spoken drama [huaju]). The section concludes with Huang Zuolin’s landmark if simplistic comparative analysis of Mei Lanfang’s, Stanislavsky’s, and Brecht’s “systems” of performance (97–112). I wished for notes offering more detailed historical contextualization, especially given Tian’s decision to not structure the section chronologically. But the material is utterly fascinating and will be of enormous value...