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  • Opera, Society, and Politics in Modern China by Hsiaot'i Li
  • Yizhou Huang
OPERA, SOCIETY, AND POLITICS IN MODERN CHINA. By Hsiaot'i Li. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2019. 376 pp. Cloth, $49.95.

Although the model operas produced during China's Cultural Revolution stand out in theatre history for their ability to seamlessly blend traditional forms with contemporary concerns, a number of scholars writing in English have shed light on experiments that preceded these performances. Colin Mackerras, for instance, has pointed out that popular opera played a part in the collapse of the Qing Dynasty (Chinese Theatre: From Its Origins to the Present Day). Later, researchers have discussed politicized performances in the context of subsequent historical moments and specific geographical locations, including the Sino-Japanese War (Chang-tai Hung, War and Popular Culture: Resistance in Modern China, 1937–1945), the Yan'an years of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (David Holm, Art and Ideology in Revolutionary China), and the CCP's rural revolution (Brian James DeMare, Mao's Cultural Army: Drama Troupes in China's Rural Revolution). Citing Chinese, English, and Japanese sources, Hsiao-t'i Li joins these scholars to think about reformed opera in Opera, Society, and Politics in Modern China, but his project is more ambitious in scope. With an emphasis on intellectual discourses, Li delineates and contextualizes the repurposing of popular opera to serve sociopolitical agendas from the 1900s to the 1940s. He argues that this continuous use of reformed opera for social criticism, enlightenment, and revolutionary propaganda was propelled by the timehonored tradition of jiaohua (moral transformation) in imperial China and its radicalized variations in the twentieth century (p. 1). In a way, this book is a continuation of Li's earlier project, Qingmo de xiaceng shehui qimeng yundong, 1901–1911 [End Page 277] (The Late Qing Popular Enlightenment Movement, 1901–1911) in which he examines the roles of popular forms, including vernacular Chinese newspaper, public speech, and opera, in educating the masses.

Lying at the heart of Li's discussion are two in-depth case studies: the Xin Wutai (New Stage) of Shanghai and the Yisushe (the Shaanxi Society to Transform Customs) of Xi'an, Shaanxi Province. Founded, among others, by actors Xia Yueshan, Xia Yuerun, Pan Yueqiao, and merchants Li Pingshu and Shen Manyu, the New Stage (1908–1927) spearheaded experiments that came to be known as haipai jingju (Shanghai-style Beijing Opera). The Yisushe, by contrast, produced reformed qinqiang (the Qin tune opera), the regional form of Shaanxi Province in northwestern China. Established by gentry-literati Li Tongxuan, Sun Renyu, et al. in 1912, this theatre group is still in business today. The helmsmen of both the New Stage and the Yisushe had connections with Sun Yat-sen's Tongmenghui (the Revolutionary Alliance) and the Xinhai Revolution, which partly explained their shared interest in reformed opera. The critical juxtaposition of the two case studies leads to fruitful comparisons: a national opera versus a regional style, a semi-colonial treaty port versus an inland garrison city, and a market-driven company targeted at urban audiences versus a theatrical society with strong rural connections. Such comparisons highlight the importance of local contexts as well as the various factors at play between opera and society. This comparative framework also distinguishes Li's project from existing scholarship on China's theatre reform.

The book consists of an overture, six chapters, and a finale. After laying out the structure, key concepts, and major themes in the overture, Li provides some background information on opera in late imperial China in chapter 1. He documents the rise of jingju over kunqu and huabu (flowery tunes) over yabu (elegant tunes) in the Qing Dynasty. Accounting for a wide array of audience groups of popular opera, including members of the court, the gentry-literati, merchants, and the masses (p. 19), Li specifies the circumstances under which different groups attended opera and the venues they frequented. Here, Li pays special attention to the urban and rural differences that existed in opera performances. Towards the end of the chapter, Li argues that historically religion and theatre were intertwined: not only did rituals and performances take place in proximity with...


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