- Urban Politics and Cultural Capital: The Case of Chinese Opera by Ma Haili
This book is a study of art and politics through the lens of Chinese opera (xiqu) focusing on yueju, a regional opera popular in Shanghai and Zhejiang Province, during China’s economic reform.
It consists of six chapters with an introduction and a conclusion. The introduction begins with a summary of the founding ideology of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), namely, to overthrow the Nationalist government and to make workers and peasants the master of society, a promise that the CCP kept in the name of socialism under Mao Zedong. That ideology is contrasted with its revised version called “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” proposed by Deng Xiaoping. Under this new ideology, China’s centralized planned economy was to be replaced by a privately based market economy. All aspects of China’s economic life since have gone through a process of reform. The interaction between art and politics is studied through an analysis of how reform took place in yueju from 1984 to the present day.
Chapter 1 traces the history of yueju. Born of folk singing, it became a traveling “beggars’ song” in the mid-nineteenth century. By the end of that century, this improvisational all-male art entered teahouses. All-female yueju emerged in Shanghai in the early twentieth century. The female performers continued the improvisational tradition. Patronized by female workers and rich families from the Zhejiang-Shanghai area, all-female yueju was established by the late 1940s. It was an actor’s theatre, with direct interaction between the singer and the audience. After the founding of the PRC in 1949, all opera in China became nationalized leading to opera companies on state payroll around the country, one of them being Shanghai Yueju Company (SYC), the focus of the book, with both male and female performers. This was accompanied by the change of production styles of xiqu from actor’s theater to director’s theatre with scripts becoming compulsory.
Chapter 2 analyzes post-Mao economic reform in SYC. The “responsibility system” phase lasted from 1984 to the mid-1990s, when SYC was made responsible for its own profits and losses. In this phase, an all-female troupe was created within SYC, which produced pieces on pre-1949 love themes. These efforts brought the new troupe much economic profit and yueju a surge of popularity. The second phase, lasting from 1992 to the present day, witnessed the ending of state-paid salaries and state-guaranteed production funds.
Chapter 3 raises the question of whether yueju has become the Party-State’s opera or remains the people’s art as a result of economic reforms. As the CCP came to allow the newly emerged capitalists to join the Party since the reform, a reflection of its changed ideology, the CCP felt the need to formulate a new ideology to represent all classes to win legitimacy with a unified culture and identity and a prosperous economy. With China’s unprecedented economic growth and the completion of grand theatres, opera itself came to be produced in an extravagant scale. Without funds, however, SYC could not [End Page 507] afford grand productions and thus became effectively marginalized, a situation made worse by various state-sponsored awards that favored grade scales rather than artistic quality.
Chapter 4 argues that the rapid urbanization of Shanghai during the reform has further marginalized yueju. Since 1992, Shanghai has been striving to create for itself the distinction of an international metropolitan and financial center. In this process, SYC was urged by the government to transform yueju into an elite art appropriate for the grand venues. The author sees yueju’s further marginalization in this development: the new middle class has neither the economic power nor the cultural upbringing to appreciate this high art; loyal traditional yueju patrons—middle-aged and elderly working-class women, the social elite in Mao’s era but now the “most vulnerable social group”—possess the least economic capital to afford such shows; and rural migrant...