Mei Baojiu, master of the performing art form jingju (always referred to as “Peking opera”) and son of the late, great Mei Lanfang, died last month. Father and son were celebrated for playing female roles, a dying occupation as the obstacles to women’s participation as performers are long gone. This is in contrast to kabuki (never referred to as “Japanese opera”), wherein the tradition of male actors playing women is still extant and celebrated.
Despite being widely regarded as the pre-eminent form of traditional xiqu (“Chinese opera”), jingju was actually an upstart discipline. To celebrate the Qianlong Emperor’s 80th birthday, in 1790, several performing troupes from Anhui province arrived in Beijing and became an overnight sensation. Over time, the older forms of xiqu, hitherto popular in the capital, lost their audiences and, more significantly, their performers to the Anhui troupes, resulting in an amalgamation of styles. This, together with input from performers from Hunan and Hubei provinces, who went to Beijing in large numbers in the early 19th century, created the jingju that we know today.
Be it jingju, or other types of xiqu, performers must undergo years of gruelling training to sing, act, dance and sometimes do acrobatics on stage. Therefore, as a show of respect to the actors and the art form, we should perhaps stop calling it “Chinese opera”, as if it were a Chinese or ersatz version of opera, a European art form. We should call it by its real name.