Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Brokering Glory for the Chinese Nation: Peking Opera's 1930 American Tour

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Brokering Glory for the Chinese Nation: Peking Opera's 1930 American Tour

Article excerpt

On 29 December 1929 a company of some twenty Peking opera actors, musicians, and artistic advisors left Shanghai for the United States. Head of the troupe was China's foremost actor of Peking opera, Mei Lanfang, who was already an international sensation. (1) The tour, to at least five major U.S. cities, would be a brilliant success. With a tremendous demand for tickets, the engagement in New York was extended from two to five weeks, during which Peking opera played to capacity houses. Scalpers were able to sell tickets that had cost $3.85 at the box office for as much as $18.00. (2) The critic for the New York World proclaimed that it was one of the "most exciting evenings" that he had ever spent in a theater. (3)

Mei's success in New York was so great that a banquet held in his honor, sponsored by the newspapermen's club, was attended by five thousand guests, including the city's mayor, Jimmy Walker. Tables at the affair, which was held shortly after the 1929 stock market crash, were priced at $500, while booths in the balcony went for $1000 each. (4) Upon arrival in San Francisco, the troupe was met by a huge delegation headed by Mayor James Rolph, Jr. (5) Mei's tour was to receive an equally warm welcome in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Honolulu. What, then, accounted for the tour's enormous success? The answer must lie with the Chinese motivation for organizing the tour and the reasons for the warm embrace of this aesthetically unfamiliar art form by American audiences.

Performance is a dualistic process; presenters have certain aims and audience members have particular needs and expectations. A common assumption is that presenters primarily aim to give an aesthetically pleasing performance. This view overlooks other motivations that may be of equal, and sometimes even greater, importance. Likewise, the reason that a person attends (or a crowd flocks to) a performance may exceed hoping to experience an artistically satisfying moment.

Mei Lanfang's 1930 tour to the United States (see fig. 1) provides an opportunity for examining the motivations of both presenters and receivers, and in this instance demonstrates that the Chinese and Americans entered into a discourse with each side having its expectations fulfilled. The highly favorable reception of the tour was by no means an accident, for the Chinese tour organizers had systematically studied the desires and aesthetic preferences of foreigners who had attended Peking opera performances (and Chinese culture in general) in China. They acted as "culture brokers" representing their own culture to nonspecialized others. As Richard Kurin has argued, culture brokering involves"the idea that these representations are to some degree negotiated, dialogical, and driven by a variety of interests on behalf of the involved parties." (6)

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

To understand the context of the success of Mei's troupe in America, we need to know the environment in which the tour was conceived and launched. How did conditions in China shape the motivations of tour supporters and the touring performers? What were the prevailing conditions in American culture that helped to create an atmosphere of receptivity to this foreign and aesthetically unfamiliar art form? But we need to begin with the central figure in this story: Mei Lanfang.

Born in 1894 to a prominent family of Peking opera performers, Mei was a superstar in his lifetime, and he remains one of the most important figures in the history of the genre. He made his stage debut at the age of eleven and had achieved national fame by his early twenties. His specialty was the performance of young female roles, and his performing style remains one of the most popular and widely practiced for such roles on the Peking opera stage. Cross-gendered performance was commonly though not exclusively practiced in China well into the mid-twentieth century. In fact, several of the last century's most important Peking opera performers, known as the "four great dan" (si da ming dan) of which Mei Lanfang was one, were male performers of young female roles. …

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