Looking at Chinese Operas from Social Science Perspectives

When speaking of operas, be they Western or Chinese, we would normally relate them to cultural activities or leisure time entertainment. In the book Opera, Society, and Politics in Modern China written by Professor LI Hsiao-ti, Department of Chinese and History, operas in modern China are examined from different perspectives.

The book starts with a review of operas in late imperial China, when these musical plays were a major part of daily entertainment and a tool for transmitting knowledge of Chinese culture and values – very much matching the definition of opera in our contemporary minds. This review provides an entry point for the comparisons and discussions in the next chapters, which reveals the significant changes to aspects of Chinese operas that took place in the 20th century and the implication of these changes.

According to the author, theatres all over China experimented with both stage design and scripts to present bold new plays centring on social reform during the first four decades of the 1900s, and Xin Wutai (New Stage) in Shanghai and Yisushe in Xi’an were two theatres that played an important role within this movement. From the 1930s to the 1970s, operas were no longer a pure art form but were heavily connected to social and political issues. Given this argument, it is not surprising that the book devotes a number of chapters to the reformation of operas staged in these two cities as well as a detailed discourse on politicisation and radicalisation.

In addition to extensive information on both traditional/ imperial China and revolutionary/Communist China operas, the book also includes a number of old and new photos, plus maps showing the distribution of theatres in Shanghai and Xi’an in different periods.

Published by the Harvard University Press, it is one of over 100 titles under the Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series which is dedicated to serious scholarship on Asian humanities.

Publications and achievements:
LI, H. (2019). Opera, Society, and Politics in Modern China. (Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series). USA: Harvard University Asia Center.