Opera and the City: The Politics of Culture in Beijing, 1770-1900

Opera and the City: The Politics of Culture in Beijing, 1770-1900

Opera and the City: The Politics of Culture in Beijing, 1770-1900

Opera and the City: The Politics of Culture in Beijing, 1770-1900

Synopsis

In late imperial China, opera was an integral part of life and culture, shared across the social hierarchy. Opera transmitted ideas about the self, family, society, and politics over time and space. The Qing capital of Beijing attracted a diverse array of opera genres and audiences and, by extension, served as a hub for the diffusion of cultural values via performance.

It is in this context that historian Andrea S. Goldman harnesses opera as a lens through which to examine urban cultural history. Her meticulous yet playful account takes up the multiplicity of opera types that proliferated at the time, exploring them as contested sites through which the Qing court and commercial playhouses negotiated influence and control over the social and moral order. Opera performance refracted ethnic tensions and discontent among literati, blurred lines between public and private life, and offered a stage- literally and figuratively- on which to act out gender and class transgressions.

By examining opera in Qing Beijing, this work illuminates how the state and various urban constituencies partook of opera and manipulated it to their own ends. Given Beijing's political influence, Goldman's analysis of opera and its tensions in the capital also sheds light on empire-wide transformations underway at the time.

Excerpt

A Chinese comedy sketch from the 1950s commences with two men reminiscing about a day at the opera in times past. “When I was young,” says the comic to the straight man, “the theater wasn’t nearly so orderly as it is now.” The comic begins to narrate the scene: outside the door to the theater stands the barker, announcing the shows and drawing crowds into the semi-open-air playhouse. In a stream of verbal pyrotechnics, the comic imitates the barker’s exaggerated description of the day’s offerings. “You’ll see melodramas and military sagas,” he cries; “there’s flips and there’s fighting—real knives, real spears, real deaths!” But that, the comic claims (back in his own voice), is nothing compared with the chaos inside the theater! Inside, people are milling around looking for seats and locating friends. The opening number has started, but hardly anyone is paying attention. Two men who were listening are now brawling over which of their favorites is the better actor. Vendors are hawking playbills and cigarettes, candied fruits and pumpkin seeds. Table tenders are pouring tea water, and towel servers are dispensing hot washcloths, which they pass out—zip and whoosh—by flinging them through the air across the house. The comic then adopts the voices of two women who have just found their seats and have begun chat-

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