- The Soul of Beijing Opera: Theatrical Creativity and Continuity in the Changing World
Ruru Li's book shows that since its inception jingju (Beijing/Peking opera) has never been a static artistic form. The book provides readers with extensive primary sources from her personal interviews with a number of leading contemporary jingju actors in both mainland China and Taiwan. By focusing on six representative jingju actors—Cheng Yanqiu, Li Yuru, Ma Yongan, Yan Qinggu, Kuo Hsiao-chuang, and Wu Hsing-kuo—the author offers a detailed examination of jingju's artistic transitions from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present. The author pays specific attention to uncovering how each actor experimented with this theatrical genre in order to make the art speak to their contemporary audiences. The interplay between the preservation of jingju's fundamental artistic pursuits and the inspiration of the actors' own creativity forms the driving force in the actors' works.
Born into a distinguished theatre family and trained in jingju acting skills, Li possesses a unique identity as both a theatre historian and a jingju participant. This enables her to articulate the jingju actors' stories from an insider's perspective with the critical observation of a scholar. Most of the six actors whom she examines will be relatively new to English readers, except Wu Hsing-kuo, whose Lear Is Here is a jingju adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear, which is also discussed in Alexander Huang's recent work Chinese Shakespeare (2009). For the first time in English, a chapter-length study is devoted to Cheng Yanqiu, one of the most celebrated male-dan performers (a male actor who specializes in female roles) and a rival of Mei Lanfang. Among Li's invaluable contributions in this book are her meticulously conducted interviews with Li Yuru (the author's mother) and Ma Yongan. Because both actors died in 2008 and 2007, respectively, Li Ruru's firsthand accounts make these actors' interpretations of their own work available to English readers for the first time. The author's theoretical innovation lies in her analysis of Wu Hsing-kuo's experimental jingju. She uses the theoretical concept of "collage," which provides theatre scholars with a new lens through which to examine the hybrid nature of many of the contemporary xiqu (traditional Chinese theatre) productions.
Although the vast majority of Li's points in the book are valid and insightful, a few issues are worthy of being debated, especially when the author attempts to theorize the aesthetic principles of jingju acting. The second chapter focuses on jingju's style of actor training. It starts with Li's discussion of jingju's "non-mimetic" quality, achieved through "conventionalization." Using a quotation from Brecht's famous analysis of Mei Lanfang's performance in Moscow in 1935, Li argues, "Brecht was impressed by Mei's ability to discard the façade of illusion and 'simply quote the character played.' This non-identification of the actor with the character in Mei's performance helped confirm Brecht's conception of the Alienation Effect" (p. 55). Tian Min has already provided a detailed examination of Brecht's (mis)interpretation of Mei and [End Page 308] Chinese acting in general in some detail (1997). Tian's article argues convincingly that Brecht was unable to interpret either Mei Lanfang's performance or Chinese acting by referring to Mei's own perspective or traditional Chinese acting's own context.
Both Tian's work and my own research suggest that Mei did recognize the significance of diminishing the psychological distance between himself as a jingju performer and a fictional character he performs. Mei addressed this point several times in his memoir, My Forty-Year Stage Life, and in other writings. For instance, Mei discussed the significance of forgetting himself as an actor and "becoming the same as the character in the play," when he performed Zhao Yanrong in Beauty Defies Tyranny (Yuzhou feng) (Mei 1961: 153). It is possible that Stanislavsky's naturalistic acting approach shaped...