Mei Lanfang, China’s greatest stage performer

Society & Culture

Mei Lanfang was more than just a performer with exceptional poise, a beautiful falsetto trill, and a sharp jaw-line. He helped rework the genre of Peking Opera into what it is today, an intangible cultural heritage and source of national pride.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

In China, according to one American visitor, “The masses adore him so much that a manager who induces him to sign a contract is always sure of a crowded house. Officials and wealthy businessmen bid against one another for the privilege of paying him huge sums for private performances.” In New York, The New York World declared him “one of the most extraordinary actors ever seen.” In Japan, another American onlooker was astounded by how “girls went absolutely mad over him!”

Surprisingly modern reviews for a cross-dressing Peking Opera singer from the 1920s.

But Méi Lánfāng 梅兰芳 was more than just a performer with exceptional poise, a beautiful falsetto trill, and a sharp jaw-line. He helped rework the genre of Peking Opera (or jīngjù 京剧) into what it is today, an intangible cultural heritage and source of national pride.

Who is Mei Lanfang?

He was born for this. Both his father and grandfather had been prominent nándàn 男旦, male actors who filled the roles of female characters (actresses were banished from the stage starting in the 1770s). Mei was initiated into the business in Beijing in 1899, aged 8. But his first teacher branded him hopeless, with an inexpressive face and, most damningly for a prospective performer, saddled with eyes that (according to Mei’s memoir My Life on Stage) “never managed to look lively.”

But Mei didn’t take no for an answer, managing to obtain a place at another courtyard school. Unlike other Peking Opera training schools of the period, beatings weren’t regular in this school, but Mei was trained to exhaustion. “We always had a big stack of coppers on the table,” he remembered in My Life on Stage. “Each passage had to be sung twenty or thirty times. Every time I went through a passage, a copper was removed from the stack…By the time all ten coppers were in the tray they were put back into a stack and we started all over again. Though sometimes I had learned the passage quite well by the sixth or seventh round, my teacher went on drilling me. Other times when I was very sleepy though I kept on singing my eyes would close against my will.” Traditionally, Peking Opera training was exhausting, and never ended throughout a career.

Mei threw himself into this hard work and obsessively watched the best performers of the day. He earned his fame early on, playing qīngyī 青衣 — dignified matrons with little expression and cold eyes — and huādàn 花旦 — lively young concubines with gentle tones and graceful gestures. Each twirl of his trailing white water sleeves had taken years to perfect, his birdlike glide onstage the result of years sliding across frozen lakes on stilts. He would introduce subtle variations to tunes which brought the house down. He was named one of the “Four Great dan” and was honored by the last emperor, Puyi, with the title of “Foremost of the Pear Orchard” (since Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty, pear orchards had been associated with acting academies).

Peking Opera enjoyed enormous popularity, shows playing to packed houses, shown vividly in Chén Kǎigē’s 陈凯歌 1993 film Farewell My Concubine:

But then the Qing fell, and modernization became à la mode. The May Fourth Movement rebelled against traditions that felt like they had become hollow ritual — Peking Opera’s rigid systems of hand gestures and posturing qualified, with some arguing there was little point to any of it. Prominent May Fourth writer Lǔ Xùn 魯迅 described a night at the opera thus: “Watch the flower dancer sing, watch the old student sing, watch some unknown character sing, watch a large class of people fight indiscriminately, watch two or three people fight each other, from nine o’clock to ten, from ten to eleven, from eleven to eleven and a half, from eleven and a half to twelve…”

Together with a group of writers educated in Western theatrical realism, Mei sought to modernize his art. He swapped the usual square stage for a Western proscenium, candles for spotlights. He wrote and starred in shows that were set in the modern day, dressed in the qipaos of Republican women, adopting the naturalism and detailed character development of Konstantin Stanislavski. He now allowed less time for singing, and none for the tradition of elaborate hand gestures. His new plays addressed the political and social issues faced by modern women of the day: Waves of the Karmic Ocean explored the exploitation of Republican-era prostitutes, while A Strand of Hemp described the horrors of arranged marriages.

Modern theater wasn’t without its challenges. “I don’t know where to put my hands,” he privately admitted to a colleague — still a classic problem for actors starting out. But the shows were a sensation, especially at a time when jingju-goers were used to the archaic stories and dignified older men (lǎoshēng 老生) being the stars of the show. 

But Mei wanted another challenge, one which updated Peking Opera in a way that synthesized old and new. So it was that he dusted off kūnqǔ 崑曲, a style of opera that had fallen out of fashion. Into the somber Ming dynasty robes and stiff movement of jingju, Mei injected the colorful archaic robes and acrobatic movements of this lesser-known genre. This merger was essential in creating the style prevalent today.

Modernized or traditional, his productions never went out of fashion. Prints of him hung in shops across China, managers paying him 10 gold bars per performance. One Shanghai newspaper, Shen Bao, had an entire column (“Mei news”) dedicated to his movements. He awed audiences with his interpretations of famous women of Chinese history: the flirtatious Yáng Guìfēi 杨贵妃 in his  production, The Drunken Concubine; the tragic Consort Yu in Farewell my Concubine; the ever-sickly Lín Dàiyù 林黛玉 in Lin Daiyu Buries Fallen Flowers. At the pinnacle of his career, a repertoire of 200 plays was said to be crammed inside his head.

He became a staple for foreign tourists, told by brochures to “go to the Great Wall, watch a Mei show, and visit the Mei residence.” This they did, in droves, with Mei reputedly receiving thousands over the inter-war period. Audiences admired his performances not just in China, but also in his tours across Europe, America, and Japan. In New York 1930, he took his Broadway audience (fed on a stodgy diet of realism) completely off guard. The most respected critic in the city, Brooks Atkinson, admitted that “although our own theatrical form is enormously vivid, it is rigid, and never lives so freely in terms of the imagination as this one does.”

Mei met Charlie Chaplin, Bertolt Brecht, and Konstantin Stanislavski, and was given two honorary doctorates during his tour of the U.S. At a time when actors were looked down on as uneducated and debauched, holding two Western PhDs was a profound status boost for Mei and his profession. As prominent playwright Qí Rúshān 齐如山 noted, this wasn’t just an honor for Mei, but “also an honor every Chinese should greatly enjoy, because it is an international honor.”

Mei’s fame made him a coveted prize for all sides during the Sino-Japanese War and Chinese Civil War, an embodiment as he was of China’s cultural heritage and international prestige. During their occupation of the country, the Japanese repeatedly asked him to perform for their commanders (as he had done privately on many occasions before the war). In response, Mei grew a mustache. No more female roles for him while the Japanese occupied his country.

But it was the Communists who earned his trust. He sided with them — one of the few Chinese with international fame who did — in response to the Nationalists’ poor handling of the war and domestic affairs. As Mei explained to the CPPCC in 1949: “Our local opera workers, in the old society, were never treated as human beings. Today we have turned over under the leadership of the Communist Party and become the masters of the new China.”

Having Mei onside made sense from the Communist perspective: Peking Opera was popular with the masses and well-known abroad. Mei himself had a good track record of using opera as a vehicle to explore contemporary social issues, and came from lowly acting stock. He even made it onto the rostrum when Mao declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. Although the new regime banned all male nandan, “Mei Lanfang was too famous not to allow to perform and play a role in diplomacy,” says Professor David Rolston of the University of Michigan, editor of the Journal of Chinese Oral and Performing Literature. Mei was urged by Zhōu Ēnlái 周恩来 to tour Japan again to heal wounds in the mid-1950s. He toured other socialist countries, including Poland and the USSR.

He proved a loyal servant. During the Hundred Flowers Period, Mei worked as director of the China Beijing Opera Theater and was vice chairman of the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles. He reformed operas to prevent them from being banned, erasing pornographic scenes from The Drunken Concubine, Yang Guifei now an innocent woman led astray by crooked feudal ethics. He dedicated his final opera, Mu Guiying Takes Command, to the Party for its 10th anniversary in 1959, becoming a party member the same year. Guō Mòruò 郭沫若, Zhou Enlai, and Mao all admired his work and attended his shows regularly.

His sudden death in 1961 was perhaps a mercy, allowing him to be titled “a perfect man of his generation,” according to Deputy Prime Minister Chén Yí’s 陈仪 eulogy. He was spared the Cultural Revolution branding traditional Peking Opera as decadent and feudal, Mao declaring in 1963, “The stage is now dominated by emperors, kings, generals, prime ministers.” Others were less fortunate: Mǎ Liánliáng 马连良, one of the so-called “Four Great Beards” (old-men roles), was branded a “poisonous weed” and died in 1966 from a Red Guard beating.

Today, the CCP has revived Peking Opera’s role as a cultural ambassador, promoting jingju abroad as part of soft power strategies. “The CCP has been trying to increase the international prestige of the PRC by presenting it as in favor of traditional Chinese culture, which Mei can be argued to be part of,” says Professor Rolston. Jingju was labeled an “intangible cultural heritage” by UNESCO in 2010, and even given its own exclusive channel on CCTV. Today, foreign language students at Chinese universities are taught how to say “I still haven’t been to see jingju.” Successes are trumpeted regardless of size — a Baidu Baike article on one of Mei’s operas jubilantly declares in the opening paragraph that it was performed in London in 2018, omitting that it was only on for two nights in an obscure off-West End venue far from the city center.

Aside from still being utilized in the quest for national honor, Peking Opera is nowhere near as popular in China as it used to be, an alien tradition watched mostly by tourists. For Mei, who dedicated his life to keeping jingju relevant, this would be a sad legacy.

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