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  • Opera and the City: The Politics of Culture in Beijing, 1770–1900 by Andrea S. Goldman
  • Liana Chen
Opera and the City: The Politics of Culture in Beijing, 1770–1900. By Andrea S. Goldman. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012. 386 pp. Cloth, $55.00.

Anyone who walked into a nineteenth-century commercial playhouse in Beijing would have been overwhelmed by a chaotic, eye-dazzling scene: theatergoers occupying the cheapest seats in the “pond” snacking, chatting, and singing along; waiters serving tea, distributing playbills, and flinging steaming hot towels to those who needed to freshen up; “boy actresses” (female impersonators) flirting, via meaningful eye contact, with wealthy theatre patrons sitting in the stage-left balcony seats; court theatre bureau eunuchs on headhunting missions to recruit new talents from the stage; connoisseurs playing the part of opera ethnographers and offering evaluative comments. The sights and spectacles on and off stage in the eighteenthand nineteenth-century commercial theatre in Beijing have drawn much scholarly attention in recent years, and Andrea Goldman’s Opera and the City makes a major contribution to our understanding of a theatre culture that is an integral part of the social fabric of late imperial Chinese cities. As various social constituencies—the imperial court, acting troupes, theatre owners, merchants, civil service examinees, elite and commoner patrons—participated in the refashioning and appropriation of the popular theatre tradition, the plotline of this tale about opera and city, as Goldman suggests, would never be a neat, linear one.

Opera and the City comprises five chapters, an overture, and a coda. Its appendices include a glossary of xiqu-related terms and two comprehensive lists of performance scripts of Feicui yuan (Jade Garden) and “I, Sister-in-Law” plays (discussed in chapters 4 and 5) in various archives in Beijing, Tokyo, and the United States. Drawing upon a broad range of primary materials, including biographical and anecdotal sketches of actors, fictional accounts of Beijing theatres, court documents, as well as the production scripts of popular plays of kunju and pihuang (the musical system that formed the basis of jingju), Goldman gracefully and convincingly establishes xiqu in late Qing Beijing as a contested site where sentimentality and sensuality were displayed and experienced, gender and class transgressions reimagined, and state power and commercial interests intersected.

Part 1 (chapter 1) explores the demographic composition of urban audiences and their relationships with actors. Specifically, Goldman examines a set of midto late-Qing “flower registers” (huapu) composed by xiqu aficionados to rank and comment upon the talents and demeanors of young boy actresses. Until today, historians have mostly used flower registers to reconstruct a performance history of jingju or a social history of homoerotic desires of Qing China. Opera and the City situates this group of works in the traditions of pin connoisseurship, of courtesan literature, and of urban memoirs. Through her rich and nuanced analysis of these “borrowed discourses” employed by the huapu writers, Goldman unveils to us the world of this small urban textual community who distinguished themselves as true xiqu connoisseurs with unsurpassed tastes. Their shared expression of eccentricity, however, is ultimately [End Page 327] a reflection of these writers’ anxiety about their own place “within a long historical and literary legacy … among contemporary peers, and place within the slippery social hierarchy” (p. 58).

The patterns of xiqu consumption and connoisseurship in eighteenthand nineteenth-century Beijing were further complicated by the variety of theatre venues available for different types of audience clientele. Part 2 (chapters 2 and 3) examines three key theatre venues—commercial playhouses, temple fairs, and private salons—to delineate the spatial dynamics of xiqu within the capital city. Various kinds of boundary crossings—ethnic, gender, and class—took place in these theatres and were closely monitored by the state. Qing court patronage and oversight of xiqu could be felt at all levels. Goldman’s well-grounded study tackles some unexamined assumptions in this regard. First, not all boundary crossings in the opera houses were seen by the Qing rulers as transgressive. As the single most important patron of jingju, late Qing rulers seemed to silently indulge in and encourage potentially subversive performances of sexual topics—so long as they...


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pp. 327-329
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