Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 35, July 2014

Andrea S. Goldman

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

Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012,
ISBN: 978-0-415-62741-2 (pbk), xv + 365 pp.

reviewed by Yu Zhang

  1. This creative and engagingly written book aims for an interdisciplinary study of opera history, fragments of the material urban city, and gender representations in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Qing capital Beijing. Different from other scholarly work on Chinese opera, Andrea S. Goldman regards opera as a contested site of social interactions and cultural practices, based on networks of patronage, gossip, literati connoisseurship and intertextuality. She illuminates the dynamics among opera and its tensions in culture and power, as well as the appropriation and negotiation of competing ideas, values and aesthetic tastes between the elites and commoners. Through the lens of opera, her analysis shines light on a deeper understanding of state-society friction, and the construction of a critical space for social critique and sentimental indulgence.
  2. Goldman synthetically applies the three intersectional approaches of ethnicity, class and gender in her study of Beijing opera. Particularly, while gender as a critical category has been adopted widely in recent scholarship, it is innovative to provide a more gendered perspective in the discussions of Chinese opera and the state-society relations under the Manchu rule. Many times in the book, she displays tensions caused by class and gender transgressions in opera and the potential to upset social hierarchies. Meanwhile, as shown in the bibliography, Goldman establishes her argument on a solid basis of a rich variety of restive primary sources, including fiction, travel records, guidebooks, diaries and journals, opera catalogues, huapu register literature, gazetteers, play scripts and so on.
  3. Goldman begins the book with a closely argued introductory chapter, explaining the significance, methodology, theoretical frames and contextualisation of her project. The main body of the book consists of three major parts: Part I 'Audiences and Actors' contains only one chapter, titled 'Opera Aficionados and Guides to Boy Actresses,' studies opera in discourse. This chapter focusses on a particular literature of huapu, a popular genre which records and ranks the skills of the dan role actors (especially female impersonators). Adopting gender as the lens, Goldman pays attention to how these good-looking young actors have been exploited sexually and consumed culturally by literati and wealthy merchants. She suggests that these writers, sensitive about their declining social status and worsening economic situations in late imperial Beijing, compensate for their lost of materiality and respect with rich literary allusions and a hierarchy of aesthetic discrimination. Their texts convey the nostalgic melancholy and, sometimes, a resentment of the political transformation associated with the rise of the Manchu Qing. Goldman particularly studies the taste of 'subtlety' in the huapu texts, an aesthetic standard that only refined literati can appreciate, while the group of laodou, powerful officials and rich merchants lack such sophistication.
  4. The two chapters in Part II 'Venues and Genres' look at opera in social practice. In Chapter Two, 'Metropolitan Opera, Border Crossings, and the State,' Goldman studies the 'border-crossing' among ethnicities, classes and genders associated with Beijing opera in three physical sites: tolerated but regulated commercial playhouses, where men of all social status were blended; temple fairs, which embraced a broader audience including women and the urban poor; and private salons, a legacy from the previous late Ming era with the (appropriate) presence of women in the audience. These venues are not merely spaces for performance and exchange of ideas, but also sites of social dynamics to construct passion and private desires. Meanwhile her analysis also demonstrates that the state attempted to maintain boundaries on and off stage to (re)claim and reinforce the Manchu legitimacy. In Chapter Three 'Musical Genre, Opera Hierarchy, and Court Patronage,' Goldman shifts to another long-neglected fact, that the state interfered with what and how to play on stage. Goldman treats Beijing opera as a site of cultural contest in which both the Manchu court and the Han connoisseurs sought to assert authority. The court became an active agent in shaping opera taste by highlighting artistic distinctions between the refined yabu and the low-brow huabu. But both the court and the dominant Han elites patronise the aesthetically more sophisticated kunqu opera. Thus, at least on a symbolic level, the Manchu Qing court corroborated the dominant Han taste to set and regulate the cultural norms. Goldman also notices the multiplicity and fluidity of opera performances in the urban context. In addition to court patronage and the interruption of the Taiping rebellion, actors actually characterised their performance styles to cater to the elite preferences and the commercial opera market place, which eventually led to the rising of the pihuang opera.
  5. From the perspective of performance, the two chapters in Part Three 'Plays and Performances' demonstrate the author's excellent skills in textual interpretation. In Chapter Four, 'Social Melodrama and the Sexing of Political Complaint,' she studies the play of The Garden of Turquoise and Jade (Garden) from the late-Ming manuscript to various abridged performance editions to explain how commercial opera also provides the general audience a forum for expressions of social complaint and yearnings of social justice. In this play, gender transgression in the form of sentimentality and sex which ultimately implied social criticism, is visualised on stage with entertainment values. Goldman points out that the narrative of male heroics in Garden continues the late Ming romantic imaginations that young women and common folk were considered as repositories of authenticity.
  6. I personally consider Chapter Five 'Sex versus Violence in "I, sister-in-Law"' operas as the best part of the book, where Goldman's narrative about the three Water Margin-related stories, The Record of the Water Margin, The Righteous Hero and Cuiping Mountain, reveals how the texts and their on-stage adaptations served the state to redeem social values in a larger picture of the Qing's mission of civilisation. The Qing court appropriated the 'I, Sister-in-Law' operas, which were originally 'stigma attached' and suggestive of political insubordination, with allowing dramatically intensified moments of transgression and flirtation. The performances neutralised any potential challenge to social and political orders by promoting violence against women in support of orthodox morality, state power and gentry privilege.
  7. The conclusion/coda of the book further explores the limits of commercial opera in urban Beijing in the dynamics of the competing state power and commercial interests. Goldman indicates that while the gender-class disruption in many on-stage plays places potential threats to the existing social order, the commercial nature of opera always attempted to strike a balance between titillation and transgression. She also suggests that commercial actors were unreliable partners in resistance to social norms and authority because they needed to maintain their marketability. Finally, she examines how opera became an important public site for the (re)construction of Manchu identity, and eventually, performance of patriotism. In that sense, Beijing opera ultimately anticipated a new moralisms in the coming modern age of China.
  8. A culmination of several years of research, this highly readable monograph, with extremely refined and accurate translation of opera terms, not only achieves the goal to provide a much more complicated and sophisticated picture of Beijing opera, but also successfully challenges a few conventional assumptions in the study of Chinese opera. First of all, taking inspiration from her criticising a misuse of Habermass' concept of 'public sphere' in the Chinese context, she argues that the concept of 'Beijing' opera in the Qing capital is not a static one. Rather, opera during the Qing period underwent adaptation and negotiation between and among playwrights, patrons, audiences, the market, and the ever changing aesthetic appreciation, court sensibilities and political conditions. Second, when presenting the coming into being of opera, she juxtaposes public spaces and private passions by [re]highlighting the significance of sentimentality and sensationalism. Thus her work explores the irrational and emotional side of history. Third, she resists the less examined discourse that cross-dressing performances always pose challenges to existing social hierarchies. In fact, she argues that they could merely impose gender hierarchy onto preexisting status hierarchy.
  9. Goldman's impressively detailed study also offers a provocative reexamining of the concept and the practice of Beijing opera in late imperial China. Her book issues an invigorating invitation to reconsider the long-term discussions about the shifting cultural influences between Beijing and Shanghai, as well as the (re)discovery of critical cultural legacy from the Ming to the Qing, which has been unfamiliar with modern and contemporary readers. In short, this complex and impressive book pushes scholars outside their comfort zones to get engaged into other fields, disciplines and approaches. This is indeed an account that will reward readers.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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