- Opera and the City: The Politics of Culture in Beijing, 1770–1900 by Andrea S. Goldman
Finally, a book about opera and the theater in the Qing that uses new material to situate the playhouse and the performance in a specific geographic, historical, and social context. The importance of opera and theaters to Chinese life hardly needs emphasizing. Andrea Goldman’s Opera and the City, building on her Ph.D. dissertation from the University of California, Berkeley,1 looks specifically at the city of Beijing, covers the period from the 1770s through 1900, and is particularly concerned with the relationship between the state and the world of the urban theater. This detailed study, a contribution to both Qing history and literature, begins by arguing that “the networks of patronage, gossip, and literati connoisseurship, reflected and generated by the opera demimonde in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Chinese capital, formed a public space for social critique and sentimental indulgence” (p. 9). It then points to the significant changes that took place after the pivotal 1860s: “At the beginning of the period under evaluation, in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, commercial opera—albeit always subject to the twin pincers of court surveillance and market demand— retained some autonomy from the state. By 1900, through patronage of commercial performance, the court had for the most part succeeded in taming the inflammatory potential of the urban theatrical marketplace and opera had become to a large extent the last bastion of the beleaguered court’s expression of cultural power” (p. 242).
This story about the changing relationship between theater and state is threaded through the book’s three parts: audiences and actors, venues and genres, plays and performances. Goldman’s sources, like her questions, are both literary and historical, and they include “diaries of opera fans, guidebooks to the Beijing demimonde, court edicts, descriptions in novels and popular ballads, and hand-copied scripts” (p. 8). The fan literature and scripts, which underlie three of her five chapters, are put to particularly effective use. Although Goldman fits [End Page 414] her themes into the secondary literature in English and Chinese on Ming-Qing sensuality, sentiment, and gender, she points to changes across these centuries that are less often noted. Moreover, in contrast with the familiar picture of a nineteenth-century state that had been weakened by revitalized local elites, in the world of late Qing Beijing theater, literati critiques had been preempted and diffused and the shared taste of court and popular audiences had triumphed.2
After a short Overture, Chapter 1 describes in wonderful detail the urban playhouse world of the late eighteenth-century capital. It introduces the huapu 花譜, a genre of literati fan literature about cross-dressing boy actors, here discussed at fascinating length. With roots in the courtesan connoisseurship tradition of the late Ming, the writings of these enthusiastic male admirers of the attractive youths who played the female dan roles were infused with their own poetic longing and passionate obsession. They gave expression, Goldman shows, to what was intended as a sophisticated yet sensual aesthetic, and they thus reveal a dimension of Qing elite male concerns that are not obvious in their staid collected writings and official memorials. Using the language of taste (pinwei 品味), these writers kept unseemly monetary and sexual matters hidden and maintained their distance from the ostentatious merchants and vulgar rich patrons they disdained.
Chapter 2 puts these and other sources to good use and opens out to treat the experience of theater-going in its many urban venues (fair, salon, palace, as well as playhouse). We learn about daytime plays, circulating troupes, the “socially homogeneous” private salon (tanghui 堂會), and the grand operas of the emperors. Goldman’s attention is, however, focused on the novelty of the eighteenth-century playhouse (chayuan 茶園, xiguan 戲館, xiyuan 戲園): commercial, enclosed, public, and entertainment-oriented. There, ethnicity, class, and gender became fluid, and “border crossings” were not only possible but common. The book has vivid accounts of theater clientele and shows how distinctions...