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  • The Rise of Cantonese Opera by Wing Chung Ng
  • Zheng Guohe
THE RISE OF CANTONESE OPERA. By Wing Chung Ng. Urbana: Univer-sity of Illinois Press, 2015. xv + 266 pp. Cloth, $60.

Wing Chung Ng’s The Rise of Cantonese Opera is a study of the history of Cantonese opera, one of the 360 regional operas in China popular in Guangdong and among Cantonese-speaking immigrants overseas. It reconstructs that history from its beginning to the outbreak of the Pacific War.

The book consists of eight chapters divided into three parts examining that period from three different perspectives. Part 1 deals with the title theme, the formation and rise of Cantonese opera in South China. The origin of popular theatre in Guangdong is traced back to the mid-Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Readers are told that the earliest artists performing in Guangdong came from elsewhere with different performance systems, including yiyang musical drama from Jiangxi; the bangzi clapper style from Shanxi, Shenxi, and Hebei; and kunqu from the Lower Yangzi. By the mid-sixteenth century, Guangdong natives started to join the rank of performers, learning particularly from yiyang and the bangzi styles while incorporating local tunes and dialects to better entertain the local people. Opera troupes from other provinces, called waijiang ban, ascended to dominance in Guangdong in the eighteenth century due to the patronage of government officials and literati, all from northern provinces and favoring drama of their home regions. As a result, local troupes, called bendi ban, were pushed out of Guangzhou to perform in the countryside. Local opera suffered disastrous setbacks in the mid-nineteenth century when it was ruthlessly cracked down on for its involvement in the Taiping Rebellion. The last half century of the Qing period, however, witnessed a sweeping revival of the local theatre, which laid the foundation for Cantonese opera as a distinct genre with a strong flavor of the pihuang style from Anhui and a solidifying system of role types.

Two institutional landmarks played an important role in the process: the red boats that transported itinerant troupes to rural markets and temples across the Pearl River Delta, and the founding of guild organizations of Jiqing Gongsuo and the Bahe Huiguan. After the turn of the century, Cantonese opera became urbanized in Guangzhou and Hong Kong, a process driven by merchant capital. The enclosed urban theatres led to not only the use of local dialects for better audience comprehension, but the birth of xiban gongsi, whose merchant capital controlled opera productions as business. Chaos in the countryside in the early Republic era forced actors to congregate in urban areas, but only a small number of troupes managed to perform in cities regularly, the Sheng Gang troupes that defined Cantonese opera in the modern era. The constant demand of city theatregoers for novelty raised the status of scriptwriters and creators of new plays, and made actors’ individual distinctions the biggest selling point, giving birth to superstars such as Qianli Ju, Bai Jurong, Chen Feinong, Xue Juexian, and Ma Shizeng.

From the mid-1920s, Cantonese opera underwent a series of crises. It suffered a lull in activities in 1925 and 1926 during the sixteen-month strike in Hong Kong. Although there was a dramatic recovery in 1926–1928, the [End Page 510] subsequent theatrical downturn was stunning thanks to the Great Depression and the retraction of merchant capital. The downturn continued, in part due to the competition from the emerging motion pictures, until it hit a nadir in 1932–1934 when natural disasters and political and social disorder closed the rural markets as well. Three positive developments kept Cantonese opera afloat through this difficult period: the growth of entertainment publications; the star power of Xue Juexian and Ma Shizeng, whose virtuosity and flair fascinated audiences more than others in the period before Pacific War; and the reform measure by the guild to eliminate minimum troupe size, which allowed Cantonese opera to regain its footing in the latter half of the 1930s.

The rise of Cantonese opera took place in the context of upheavals in China accompanying the fall of the Qing dynasty and the subsequent nation building and modernization in the Republic era...


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