While living in Lebanon and without knowing I was going to live to China and become a spectator of its Beijing Opera (Peking Opera), I found, at a French Book Fair (1) in Summer 2004, a strange but interesting book published in 1926 by La librairie orientaliste Paul Geuthner: “Théâtre et Musique Modernes en Chine”. Written by the French Cultural Consul of France in Beijing,the book was an effort to depict the great theatrical moment China was living at that moment of its history, specially Chinese Opera.
In China, Mei Lanfang and other great Beijing Opera players were creating, since the end of the 19th century, a Theatrical Revolution, creating new ways to perform, new plays, and preparing the public for a new moment in Performing Arts; Chinese say they brought the acting technique to its highest level.
There were only few visitors back then, many of them tried to stay away from Chinese culture and, of course, their experience with Chinese opera was most of the time a disastrous one, misunderstanding everything they saw and listened. But people like Soulié de Morant, a real lover of Chinese culture, looked for different ways to make Chinese art understandable to western audiences: translations of many operas in text and music, brilliant descriptions of performances and their stars, and of course putting spectators as an important character for the success of this kind of theatre.
The Book I want to talk about is a jewel, I believe. Aside from having interesting descriptive texts by a real connoisseur of Chinese Performing Arts, many photographs from the beginning of the 20th century show the boiling-point Beijing’s theatrical ambiance was living: theatres, posters, performances, spectators, street players, musicians, their instruments; and we can read (in French, of course) parts of some Beijing Opera scripts. At the end of the book there is a special chapter about Music for Opera and many music scripts translated into western notation for piano (absolutely understandable if we remember that Chinese music and its notation came from different sources that western music).
Every time I see and read this book it’s a new experience and I get continuously surprised with new details of the photographs, descriptions or comments on them. This is, as usual, a very simple way to share it.
(1) Lebanon, which was a French colony, is considered a French speaking country. A big percentage of the population speaks and lives in French. Many of its schools and universities work totally in the French language. So, it is not strange to find a French Book Fair in this Middle Eastern country.
Photographs were scanned by me, and the slideshow video was produced and edited by me too.