Min Tian. Mei Lanfang and the Twentieth-Century International Stage: Chinese Theatre Placed and Displaced. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012. Pp. xi + 298. +12 illus. $95.00.
Mei Lanfang (1894-1961) is indisputably China's greatest jingu (Peking Opera) actor. His prolific fifty-year stage career and personal life have been well documented in autobiography, biographies, personal and professional correspondence, diaries, news clippings, and manuscripts, along with audio and video recordings. His life has been adapted on screen and stage. His former residence is now a memorial museum with extensive archives in photographs, calligraphy, collections, and playbills. Interestingly, he lived through both the old and the new China, transitioned from the relic of the Qing dynasty to the innovation of the Republic of China to the People's Republic of China, and survived the Boxer Rebellion, the Long March, and the Great Leap Forward. Mei is a cultural icon who has undergone significant cultural, political, social, and aesthetic changes in his times, while maintaining his supreme artistry as a female impersonator in Peking Opera.
Mei's unrivaled fame and influence also can be attributed to the favorable geographical and social conditions of his era as well as the support from the political, literary, and artistic circles that made him into the rock star of his day. Nevertheless, Min Tian attests in Mei Lanfang and the Twentieth-Century International Stage that "Mei's art is subject to the placement and displacement of the perceived other which led to the various contests and constructions and reconstructions of theatrical forces" (222). Specifically, Mei's international tours from 1919 to 1935 helped achieve international acclaim, cemented transnational relationships, and elevated the status of Peking Opera as Chinas national cultural heritage.
A study in only five chapters, the first three essays focus on the "placement" of Mei Lanfang on the international stage with detailed descriptions of his tours to Japan, America, and the Soviet Union. In each of these three chapters, Tian lays out the historical background of how the Chinese prepared and managed the tours. He then juxtaposes them with the international reception and perception of Mei's performances. Tian's greatest strength is his ability to draw our attention to a balanced history with his comprehensive summary of conflicting views of Mei's tours.
Chapter 1 offers possibly the most valuable insight, as it might well be the first in-depth examination of Mei's 1919 and 1924 visits to Japan written in English. Tian contests that the classical versus modern theater struggles in Japan contributed to Mei's success, and that Mei's visit indirectly helped Japan reposition its reform of classical theater. Specifically, Tian believes that Mei's art as nandan helped legitimize the continued standing of onnagata on the kabuki stage.
In chapter 2, Tian argues that the success of Mei's 1930 tour to the United States was attributed mostly to the "opportune conditions of the contemporary American theatre" (such as Robert Edmond Jones's and Norman Bel Geddes' new stagecraft designs and Eugene O'Neil's expressionistic playwriting) (216).
As the title suggests, chapter 3 presents the "The Chinese Debate on Mei's Soviet Visit" centering on how the ideological content of traditional Chinese theater is placed in relation to Soviet socialism. Tian asserts that the Soviet establishment was interested in using Mei's visit to strengthen Soviet-Sino political and cultural ties, and to provide its theater practitioners an opportunity to appropriate Chinese theater for its investigation (121). …