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Reviewed by:
  • Opera, Society, and Politics in Modern China by Hsiao-t'i Li
  • Jonathan P. J. Stock (bio)
Hsiao-t'i Li. Opera, Society, and Politics in Modern China. Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series 117. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2019. x, 365 pp. Hardcover $49.95, ISBN 978-0-674-98716-6.

Li's book is a fascinating series of close-up insights into the workings of opera reform in Shanghai and Xi'an, primarily from 1910 through the late 1930s but further contextualized by a historical introduction and with some concluding commentary on later developments post-1949 and up to the Cultural Revolution. Specifically, Li compares materials relating to the performance of Beijing opera at the Xin Wutai (New Stage) Theater in Shanghai and the Qinqiang dramas created by members of the Yisushe (Society to Transform Customs) in Xi'an. These two settings represent the more commercialized and the gentrified elite poles of a social reform movement that had several expressions across China, all of them sharing the idea of influencing the population at large through the powerful appeal of traditional theater.

Chapter 1 provides a review of the history of traditional opera in late imperial China, and covers the subject in a rich, if chronologically and topically convoluted, fashion. A number of citations add historical character, and these are both a strength and reveal the occasional weaknesses of Li's approach. For instance, Li quotes at some length a rich and telling account from scholar Jiao Xun (1763–1820) who relates that he's fond of the "miscellaneous tunes" (luantan) or flowery tunes (huabu) of his day, which he compares favorably to the Kunqu dramas. "The words of the plays are simple and straightforward: even women and children can understand them. The melodies are so impassioned that the audience is stirred by them." Jiao immediately goes on to complain about the presence of "licentious, vulgar, and teasing words" in so many dramas (cited on p. 15). Li notes that Jiao's Confucian ideology biases him against certain aspects of the performances, but then other documents are presented at face value without a similar evaluation [End Page 321] of the writer's rhetorical stance: I wondered, for example about the anecdote on actor Yuan Shihai's domestic singing as overheard by his neighbors (p. 17). That looks like a romantic formula found in many a Communist (auto) biography, emphasizing the formative role of the laboring people in the encouragement of the young artist. Or in a further example, it's unclear to me why Li appears to believe, following writers like Hu Shi, that, "The omnipresence of opera melodies in the streets of Beijing was a deplorable malady of the entire society" (p. 33). I rather suspect Li doesn't accept this generalized complaint, but providing the statement without any critical commentary or interpretation leaves the matter ambiguous.

In the second chapter, Li introduces the reader to a series of intellectual reformers active in the first part of the twentieth century, from Chen Duxiu to Qu Qiubai. Their viewpoints are reflected in discussions of sample prospectuses from each figure. He talks us through a 1904 article by Chen, "On Opera" (Lun xiqu) which provided a detailed outline of the changes Chen saw as necessary for turning the theater into a powerful site for social reform (pp. 55–60). Some reflect conventional Confucian criticisms and others seem quaint from a century later on: for instance, that use of electricity in stage lighting would introduce the masses to modern science or that plays concerning immortals and ghosts were to be held responsible for the superstitious beliefs of the recently defeated Boxer rebels (p. 57). Again, Li isn't an especially demanding interpreter of this data but he presents it clearly, pointing to its salient features in historical context. If certain of these reformers are well-known figures, Li brings fresh attention to three US-trained dramatists (Yu Shangyuan, Xiong Foxi, and Zhao Taimou) each of whom apparently defended traditional opera from its high-brow critics while developing new work that drew from their personal contact with Western spoken dramas. A valuable biography is provided for each figure (pp...


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pp. 321-325
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