Drama Kings: Players and Publics in the Re-Creation of Peking Opera, 1870-1937

Drama Kings: Players and Publics in the Re-Creation of Peking Opera, 1870-1937

Drama Kings: Players and Publics in the Re-Creation of Peking Opera, 1870-1937

Drama Kings: Players and Publics in the Re-Creation of Peking Opera, 1870-1937


In this colorful and detailed history, Joshua Goldstein describes the formation of the Peking opera in late Qing and its subsequent rise and re-creation as the epitome of the Chinese national culture in Republican era China. Providing a fascinating look into the lives of some of the opera's key actors, he explores their methods for earning a living; their status in an ever-changing society; the methods by which theaters functioned; the nature and content of performances; audience make-up; and the larger relationship between Peking opera and Chinese nationalism.

Propelled by a synergy of the commercial and the political patronage from the Qing court in Beijing to modern theaters in Shanghai and Tianjin, Peking opera rose to national prominence. The genre's star actors, particularly male cross-dressing performers led by the exquisite Mei Lanfang and the "Four Great Female Impersonators" became media celebrities, models of modern fashion and world travel. Ironically, as it became increasingly entrenched in modern commercial networks, Peking opera was increasingly framed in post-May fourth discourses as profoundly traditional. Drama Kings demonstrates that the process of reforming and marketing Peking opera as a national genre was integrally involved with process of colonial modernity, shifting gender roles, the rise of capitalist visual culture, and new technologies of public discipline that became increasingly prevalent in urban China in the Republican era.


Jingju [capital drama]? Pingju [Beiping drama]? Jiuju [old
drama]? Guoju [national drama]? the people of the nation
call it by different names. Before Beijing became Beiping it
was called Jingju; afterward it was called pingju. the capital
is old—a great place—so Jingju is also called old drama.
Promoters of new drama [spoken drama] see Jingju and call
it old drama. Promoters of Jingju think it should be called
national drama. It is all the same drama, but the names are
unclear. the name needs to be rectified.

                                        Sun Danhan, “Jingju? Pingju? Jiuju? Guoju?”
                                        Xiju xunkan (Drama Biweekly), 1936

In July 2001 China Central Television launched its eleventh national channel, cctv 11, dedicated to broadcasting traditional Chinese opera and music to all of China’s thirty-four provinces and autonomous regions. Though its programmers boast more than two hundred kinds of Chinese musical drama in their broadcasting repertoire, the genre that dominates cctv 11’s fourteen hours of daily air time is Peking opera: daily programming usually includes more than an hour of Peking opera singing and music lessons and a broadcast of a full-length performance. Also, in the prime-time lunch and dinner hours, the voices of Peking opera’s greatest stars of the 1930s can usually be heard singing their signature roles to a hungry nation. These programs, of which there are hundreds, involve today’s star actors performing actions and gestures in sync with sound recordings from past decades, in a sort of reverse karaoke. For a historian researching Peking opera, these shows offer not only a wonderful insight into the vocal and staging techniques of actors past but also a daily reminder of the iconic stature of Republican-era actors in shaping Peking opera into a genre of national importance, then and today.

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