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Chinese Opera: Images and Stories

by Siu Wang-Ngai with Peter Lovrick

Just in time to celebrate Canada’s Year of the Asia Pacific comes the publication of a comprehensive book celebrating one of the world’s oldest theatrical treasures. Written by the award-winning Hong Kong photographer Siu Wang-Ngai and Toronto-based theatre scholar Peter Lovrick, Chinese Opera: Images and Stories marries colourful images with fascinating stories. Even readers who are not familiar with the classical Chinese theatre will find this book accessible and inviting.

There are few books on Chinese opera available in non-Chinese languages. The late A.C. Scott did write books on the subject in English, but he concentrated on the Peking or so-called “national” opera. It is rare to find any information on regional styles such as Yue, Sichuan, or Hebei Clapper. Chinese Opera takes a unique approach, combining the national and various regional operas in a single book.

To introduce the regional styles, the authors include a chapter that covers the historical development of the Chinese dramatic tradition and its rich theatrical conventions. Each regional style then gets its own section. The rest of this innovative book is organized by character types according to their place in the three levels of traditional Chinese cosmology: heaven, earth, and the nether world. This fresh angle gives readers a greater understanding of traditional Chinese social structure.

The authors have done an excellent job summarizing each opera story in one page without losing the flavour of the characters’ development or the story line. In addition, the comparisons made between the Chinese characters and familiar Western archetypes assist the neophyte. Parallels are drawn, for instance, between the “wicked mother-in-law” in Chinese opera and the “wicked stepmother” in European fairy tales.

Siu Wang-Ngai’s vivid and expressive photographs truly portray the characters and enhance the reader’s understanding of the stories. These remarkable shots of live performances in Hong Kong capture the rich facial expressions and dramatic gestures characteristic of Chinese opera. A more experienced eye will pick up the subtle differences between the regional styles in make-up, costumes, and stage direction. It is unfortunate that the text does not explore these aspects of the operas in any detail.

It is also worth pointing out that many of the performers in the photos are Chinese opera stars of national and international status. Names such as Pei Yanling (Hebei Clapper opera), Sun Ma Sze-Tsang (Cantonese Opera), Xu Yulan (Yue opera) carry a great deal of weight in the Chinese opera community. Yet their contributions to the art form both inside and outside of China are not recognized here.

Overall, however, Chinese Opera is highly recommended. It is a thoughtful book that deals sensitively with many aspects of the theatre never before covered for English readers.


Reviewer: William Lau

Publisher: UBC Press


Price: $49.95

Page Count: 156 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-7748-0592-7

Released: Feb.

Issue Date: 1997-4

Categories: Politics & Current Affairs