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Andrea S. Goldman. Opera and the City: The Politics of Culture in Beijing, 1770–1900. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012. 386 pp. $55.00. ISBN: 978-0-8047-7831-2.

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Andrea S. Goldman. Opera and the City: The Politics of Culture in Beijing, 1770–1900. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012. 386 pp. $55.00. ISBN: 978-0-8047-7831-2.

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DOI: 10.1163/15685268-0152P0010

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. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012. 386 pp. $55.00. ISBN: 978-0-8047-7831-2.
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<p>The history of Chinese theatre under the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and, specifically that of the Peking Opera (
<italic>jingju </italic>
京劇) in the latter half of the dynasty, has spawned an increasing and excellent English-language literature in recent years. Guo Qingrui’s
<italic>The Features and Significance of </italic>
Jingju
<italic>(Beijing Opera) Plays (1790-1911)</italic>
, published by Tin Ma in Hong Kong in 2006, takes a mainly commercial, political and literary approach to the topic. The posthumous
<italic>Ascendant Peace in the Four Seas, Drama and the Qing Imperial Court </italic>
was completed by its author Ye Xiaoqing in May 2010, only a few weeks before her tragic passing, and published by the Chinese University Press in 2012. As its title suggests, it gives the emphasis to the court theatre, which played a significant role in the rise of the Peking opera, but has a good deal to say also on social history.
</p>
<p>Andrea Goldman’s book calls itself (p. 9) “an interdisciplinary study of opera history, urban culture, and gender representation” in Beijing during the period when the Peking Opera was originating and rising to maturity, namely the last decades of the eighteenth century and all of the nineteenth. Goldman calls the period “a golden age for opera performance in the Qing capital” (p. 3). The book analyses the society that gave rise to and forms the background of the development of this form of art.
</p>
<p>The rise of the Peking Opera depended to a large extent on a group of boy actors, who sang the female roles. Goldman goes a step further in emphasizing gender-crossing by calling them “boy actresses.” They also played the social role of companions of mature, but not necessarily elderly men sometimes called
<italic>laodou </italic>
老斗 or, in Goldman’s translation, “sugar daddies.” The most famous actor China ever produced was Mei Lanfang 梅蘭芳 (1894-1961), himself originally a boy actress and remaining a female impersonator all his life.
</p>
<p>The introductory section is termed “Overture” and the conclusion as “Coda”. This adds to the operatic flavour of the book without diluting its academic quality. The overture takes up the standard issues of aims and theoretical framework. It considers issues like “public space” of the kind Jürgen Habermas developed for England, France and Germany in the seventeenth and eighteenth century when he argued that it was places like coffee-houses that led to the development of civil society and participatory politics through providing public spaces for discussion of major contemporary issues. The coda very appropriately sums up succinctly and effectively the main ideas of the book, especially those that add to or even challenge conventional wisdom and thus add to the literature.
</p>
<p>Part One, entitled “Audiences and Actors,” has only one chapter. What is interesting is that consideration of audiences and actors involves the main sources for the book. This is because there is a genre of literature called “flower registers” (
<italic>huapu</italic>
花譜
<italic>),</italic>
written by the patrons of the boy actors, which have much detail about the theatre and about the boy actors so important for the
<italic>jingju</italic>
. In addition to telling the reader about the actors as artists, these “registers” imply and tell a great deal about the social relationships between the men and the boys and how the former regarded the latter. 
</p>
<p>In discussing this issue once with a very senior Chinese scholar of Peking Opera history, I mentioned to him that my research suggested the boys were in some ways male prostitutes. He reacted very angrily, considering it offensive to draw such a parallel. Goldman states (p. 31): “Boy actresses could be contracted for sex as well as for their entertainment services, and the business relationship between young actors and their trainers was much like that between prostitutes and their madams.” In several other places she produces information that confirms “the link between acting and sex work” (p. 85). Despite the respect I owe to the senior scholar mentioned above, I think these boy actors were indeed in some sense male prostitutes and that Goldman’s research effectively confirms the link.
</p>
<p>Part Two on “venues and genres” has two chapters. The first of them, Chapter 2, re-raises the issue of public space in that it concerns performances in playhouses, during temple fairs, and in salons. Each of these types of venue brings out interesting questions concerning audiences. The government was keen to restrict mixing of audiences along lines of ethnicity, gender and class. It worried, for instance, that if men and women mixed too unrestrainedly during theatre performances, then public morality would be threatened. It introduced various restrictive laws about attendance at theatres and excluded women from the playhouses. Goldman argues that the playhouses, because they were “both public and exclusively devoted to performance,” became a venue highly appropriate “for the circulation of ideas and sentiments among patrons of varied status” (p. 114). These playhouses may not have been quite where new ideas opposing the status quo germinated in the way that happened in Europe at about the same time. On the other hand, they did spawn anti-government protest serious enough to provoke savage censorship. I think Goldman’s approach is right. It is highly insightful to view theatre not just in artistic and aesthetic terms, but in social and political terms as well.
</p>
<p>Chapter 3 considers the various genres of drama, including the more high-brow
<italic>kunqu </italic>
崑曲 and the more low-taste popular local styles, such as the
<italic>qinqiang</italic>
秦腔, which originated in the northwest. It covers ground about the history of particular eminent actors and the role and patronage of the court. It raises issues of censorship and government control. Goldman picks three main factors in the rise of the
<italic>pihuang </italic>
皮黄, which in Beijing is actually the equivalent of the Peking Opera. Two of them have to do with court patronage and control in the second half of the nineteenth century, and the third with the civil strife and wars associated with the Taiping Rebellion, which ravaged much of China, especially the south, through the 1850s and the first half of the 1860s and undermined the social influence and power of the educated elite in the southeast of the country in the area around Shanghai (see p. 140). These are certainly defensible reasons. However, I think she has underestimated social and economic factors from the late eighteenth century, and the already quite recognizable beginnings of
<italic>pihuang </italic>
in Beijing at that time. Certainly, the court’s patronage contributed greatly to the strengthening of the Peking Opera from the 1860s. However, I think it had already taken shape through other factors quite a bit before that. 
</p>
<p>In Part Three on “plays and performances”, Goldman takes up several major issues concerned with how the content of the drama performances in Beijing reflected the society and even politics of the late Qing period. She examines issues of gender and violence in several items focussing on specific opera characters, especially female ones. I found this section particularly interesting for two main reasons. One is that Goldman shows how the different genres of theatre, such as
<italic>kunqu </italic>
and Peking Opera, have different scripts and different slants even on plots that are essentially similar. The other is that she chooses the middle of the nineteenth century as a major dividing point in the ideology of the theatre in Beijing. In gender terms, she argues that a “female-centered narrative of sex, romance, and agency … was suppressed in favour of a male-centered narrative of vigilante violence” (p. 242). And in political terms, she interprets opera as becoming “an important public site for performing patriotism and, for the Qing court, for ‘performing’ ethnicity” (p. 243), meaning that the imperial family was disturbed by the erosion of Manchu identity at the expense of Han, and wished to restrengthen it through the Peking Opera.
</p>
<p>Goldman has argued this main conclusion very effectively and, to me, convincingly. It is plausible that the defeat of the Taiping Rebellion would produce a cataclysmic effect not only on Qing politics and economics, but also society, including in terms of gender relations. I find it very interesting that the social disruption would affect Manchu ethnic identity in the Qing court, and ironic in the extreme that they would use a very Han form of theatre to try re-establishing this identity. Still, it has to be remembered that opera was not among the Manchu performing arts forms.
</p>
<p>Comparing this book with Guo Jingrui’s and Ye Xiaoqing’s mentioned above, it covers some similar ground. The comparison does highlight that Goldman has been successful in striving for an interdisciplinary study. But it seems to me that that this book is definitely more social in its thrust, and more about the
<italic>city of Beijing</italic>
. Its title is thus very appropriate. Another point of comparison and contrast concerns gender. Though gender is inescapable in discussions of Peking Opera, this book confronts it far more directly, copiously and insightfully than the other two books, adding to its interest for the present journal as well as to the scholarly analysis of Chinese history. 
</p>
<p>The academic appurtenances of the book are excellent. There is a very useful glossary of characters, as well as a splendid, if quite short, glossary of theatrical terms that are often very difficult for non-Chinese readers to master. The bibliography both shows very broad reading, as well as being excellently presented. 
</p>
<p>Adding both to the interest and academic value of the book are twenty-three pictures and charts, of which two are in colour. They include two charts of the city of Beijing, and pictures of stages of the city and of the Imperial Palaces. There is a fascinating picture of a temple fair performance in Beijing from 1932, taken by the eminent Peking Opera historian Qi Rushan 齊如山 (1877-1962). It shows how the audiences distributed themselves, mostly in the open air but with the stage itself being covered. The two coloured plates are both of male
<italic>dan </italic>
旦 (female role) characters, one of them probably of Mei Lanfang’s grandfather Mei Qiaoling 梅巧玲(1842-82) playing the part of an empress.
</p>
<p>Overall, this is an excellent book, which adds significantly to the literature in fields like the history of the Qing dynasty, as well as more specialized subfields such as the interrelationship of theatre and society, and the history of Peking Opera during the high and late Qing, a very significant period in Chinese history. For the purposes of the present journal, the book is particularly important for its very useful insights on gender issues, including homoeroticism. I strongly recommend it to specialists, and also to more general readers in these fields.
</p>
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