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Yue Opera: Traditional Forms of Chinese Opera

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The Yue Opera is a popular theatrical form that is performed by female actresses and for a female audience. The opera became well known in Shanghai during the late 1930s and 1940s and its influence spread throughout China. The progression of the Yue Opera is shaped by traditional forms of Chinese operas. One of the most important aspects and differences of the Yue Opera is the entrance of women into the opera market, audiences and actresses.

This unique development from all-male to an all-female cast has revolutionized the traditional Chinese Opera since it drawn public attention and questions about women’s culture and gender identity in Shanghai during the Republican Period in1913.

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This paper studies the impact of the Yue Opera’s plays on women’s status in China. Women in China have suffered due to gender inequality, low status and the philosophical system of Confucianism.

These three subjects are the most important issues in the Yue Opera since they are a way to attract and reflect women’s concerns about their personal freedom, education and status in society.

The Yue Opera allows the female audience to change and fight for their rights. For centuries, China has gone through major changes in the reform of women’s culture and movement. In the traditional Chinese society, males were the dominant actor in the family where sons are preferred to daughters and women are expected to be subordinate to fathers, husbands, and sons.

Women were taught to be restrained and were expected to be faithful and modest. The concept of feminism was defined as “a set of attributes, behaviors, and roles generally associated with girls and women. Behavior traits that are considered feminine include gentleness, empathy and sensitivity” (Class note). These characteristics of feminine are well portrayed and demonstrated in the Chinese society. In the article “Woman as Other,” Beauvoir studies the relationship between the role of a woman and a man.

Beauvoir describes that “man is the subject” while “woman is the object” since women are always depending on men and they are often treated as slaves. Men are more superior in the Chinese society since they are more valued and respected by parents and society. Historically, the Chinese women had no power and no legal rights in society since they were held in a lower position than men and Confucianist thought has greatly influenced women. Discrimination in education and employment has a huge impact on women since it leads them to rebel for their freedom.

During the 20th Century, the women’s movement had a huge impact in changing women’s status in China because it led to uprisings and reforms of Chinese women. Confucianism has played an essential role in the Chinese culture since the value of Confucianism was taught in school, tested in the imperial civil service examinations and used to shape social relationships and moral thought (Li, I). Confucius emphasizes and examines the complex system of moral and social thoughts, educational system and religious belief in the ancient Chinese tradition.

The goal of Confucianism is to stress the importance of education, moral development and the behavior of the individual. Confucianist thoughts have a great influenced in women and it discriminated against women because women are placed at the bottom of the Confucian hierarchy. According to filial piety, Confucianism stipulated that women must obey her father before marriage, her husband after marriage, and her son after her husband dies. These three rules of obedience helped to maintain the patriarchal order for women in the Chinese culture.

However, the role of conduct was directed towards men since parents paid all the respect to their son whereas a woman must not only be devoted to her parents but also to her husband, parents in law, sons, and husband’s relative. Women do not have the freedom and the potential to defend their rights and their own goals since Chinese’s society had been influenced by the moral and intellectual codes of Confucianism. Women were treated as lesser and inferior to their male counterparts.

Confucianism has placed an important mark on the Chinese culture since it has lasted for centuries. The collapse of the Qing dynasty altered the entertainment and opera industry since women were then allowed to perform on stages and go to opera shows. The Beijing Opera was the most popular opera in China since it is the biggest and the most important form of the traditional Chinese theatre that arose in the late 18th Century. The theatre is a highly politicized form of art in which the notion of social, political and historical issues influenced the performances.

The theatre played an important role since it was a way to bring concerns and questions to the audience about society. The Beijing Opera was performed by male actors. Unlike the Beijing and regional operas, the Yue Opera became very popular and mainstream in Chinese culture since actresses were contributing new kinds of idea and art to the opera. The Yue Opera became famous after changing to an all-female cast in the 1920s. This transformation to an all-female cast raised concerns and conflict about the value of Confucianism.

The actresses would borrow and reform styles from regional operas and the West. This new and unique style of the Yue Opera had drawn the audience’s attention. This allows the advantages and the capability of the Yue Opera to nurture these different artistic styles. This contributed to the great success of the Yue Opera. One of the great successes of the Yue Opera is women’s entrance into the opera market since it challenged the gender stratification of Chinese society and led women to protest and fight against the Confucianist system.

In the reading, The Rise of Feminine Opera, Jin Jiang examines the rich cultural history of the Yue Opera’s actresses that underwent a process of reform and growth. The Yue Opera actresses were living in a transitional historical period where actresses are fighting and improving their freedom and rights. For example, the actress, Yuan Xuefen, was fighting for her rights by “[rebelling] against what they deemed to be humiliating performances, and in 1942, Yuan turned this spontaneous resistance into self-conscious theatrical reforms” (Jiang, 74).

Yuan mentioned that women do not have the rights to speak for themselves or the rights to change the lyrics of the plays. Instead she felt very condemned when she sang the lyrics and performed the subject matter that ridiculed women. Thus, in the late 1930s, Yuan and her partner, Ma, agreed not to sing obscene lyrics and they tried to cleanup plays that humiliated women. Yuan’s reform and transformation of the Yue Opera was to clean away the “lower-class crude eroticism” and remake “a shabby peasant form into a dazzling urban spectacle” (Jiang, 75).

The concept of purity and cleanliness (qingbai) has played an important role in the Yue Opera since the notion of qingbai is the moral value that is derived from the rule of Confucianism. The phrase Qingbai is to “[restrict] a woman’s rule to provider of reproductive and sexual service to men, while a corollary concept of chastity valued female bodily purity as opposed to promiscuity” (Jiang, 61). The term “Qinghai” had become the actresses’ motto since it described the actress’s morality and became a crucial point to an actress professional career.

It also required the artists to restrict her sexual conduct in her life and perform the idea of qingbai onstage. The actress’ social status was determined by her public persona. When actresses failed to perform the idea of qingbai, it could sometime lead to death. Performing the idea of qingbai onstage was a way to show the audience the actresses’ status. However, marriage was also a way to demonstrate the actresses’ status since most of the actresses found spouses among the staff members while popular actresses became concubines of rich men.

In the Yue Opera play, Two Actresses, Chunhu plays a child bride who runs away from home due to an arranged marriage and joins with a traveling opera. She becomes close with the teacher’s daughter, Yuehong, and they will perform together as a couple. After the death of the teacher, the troupe master Axin sells them to Tang who is a Shanghai opera theater manager. Yuehong and Chunhua become famous and that leads to Tang to forsake his former lover and senior star Shang Shuihua. Yuehong becomes more materialistic and she is sick of singing on stage that she agrees to Tang’s proposal because then she doesn’t need to sing on stage.

However, Chunhua objects to the marriage because she distrusts and dislikes Tang. Tang lies to Yuehong since he already has a wife and kept Yuehong as a servant. One day Shang commits suicide by hanging herself in the backstage after Tang abandons her and the concept of qingbai has been destroyed. Chunhua who believes that Tang is responsible for Shang’s death but Tang claims that he has nothing to do with her death. Chunhua starts to perform progressive opera as a way to engage the audience about Tang’s action.

However, Yuehong’s decision to marry Tang is a way for her to have a better life but it also leads her to understand the mistake and the decision that she made. Shang’s suicide causes Chunhua to reform and perform on operas that raise questions about the role of women for the audience. The Yue Opera highlighted and illustrated women’s ability to work publicly but they were still judged by the Confucian rules of conduct and behavior during the 20th Century. Confucianist states that women were only allowed to stay at home to take care of their family and they were not allowed to work in the market (Class note).

Women begin to question about their rights in the society as they worked on stage and as they watched the stage. This is shown in the Yue Opera where artists search their own independence by performing on stages that reflect women’s struggles and concern in the society. An all-female theater provided the Yue Opera the advantage of performing themes that reflect actresses’ love and desire. But it also demonstrated that women have the ability to perform on stages that reflect their intelligence and capacity to perform on stage. This indicates that women have equal intellect to men.

In the Yue Opera version of The Butterfly Lover, the play presents a tragic love story of the two lovers, Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yintai. The play depicts that a young woman, Yingtai, is pursuing personal freedom and education by challenging the norms of Confucianism. Yingtai breaks the social rule by convincing her father to let her go to school by dressing up as a boy. She falls in love with Shangbo and proposes a marriage to him without the consent from her father. On the other hand, Yingtai’s parents tell her that they already arranged a marriage for her with another guy.

Yingtai refuses to follow her father’s will by protesting and using her death as a way to convince her father. The character Yingtai is portrayed as a woman who chose her own decision for education, love, and marriage. It also depicted that women are as smart as men since Yingtai’s intellect demonstrated that women are equal in men in education and intelligence. The Yue Opera performers “were seeking measures by which to cater to the tastes of an emerging urban middle-class audience, of which women composed the fastest-growing sector” (Jiang, 75).

This is also demonstrated in Yuan’s life, where she joined opera school at age eleven but Yuan’s father objected her decision because of the traditional views about female performers. However, her mother supported her and hoped that Yuan will bring some income home for the family. The Yue Opera has become increasingly popular especially as more women begin to attend and perform. Most of the Yue opera actresses came from poor peasant families. The reason that most of the young peasant girls decided to join the opera was to bring cash home even if their parents rejected their decisions.

Economic reasons are one of the issues that cause young peasant girls to join opera because it is the only way that they can earn money to provide support for their family. The Yue Opera actresses joined training school at a young age and received a small stipend. After the trainings, actresses would be hired from company and the company owner would still pay them only a small amount. The Yue Opera actresses do not live well and pay well since earning a living was hard for them because most of the actresses came from poor peasant families.

Unlike the Yue opera, the Beijing Opera actors have family support and connections in the opera circle that help them to earn more. The lack of social support, economic resources, and low literacy has limited the actresses’ power and maintenance. In order for the actresses to gain more support and power, they often secretly tied relationship with their theater bosses or married rich men. However, many Yue Opera actresses that became the secondary wives or concubine of rich men have suffered with “varying degrees of abuse and exploitation at the hands of their husband” (Jiang, 71).

Despite of the financial comfort, actresses have suffered in their personal lives and faced personal tragedies. The reforms of the Yue Opera were not only a change in the artistic form of Chinese Opera but also a change and impact in the women’s lives. The Yue Opera worked and collaborated with each other to change the old styles of Yue Opera to a new style in order to improve women’s living and working conditions. The Yue opera actresses started to form sisterhood that tried to fight for their rights and work together for common goals and interest.

The reform was very successful since it was collaboration between performers and theater staff and many progressive male writers and professionals would participate in the reforms. The goal of the sisterhood is to search for independence and to improve their living conditions. In the summer of 1947, ten famous female Yue Opera actresses performed on stages to establish their goals and to promote their messages to their audience. However, the performance was banned by the Shanghai municipal government but the performance demonstrated the actresses’ courage and desire to modify and improve women’s lives.

The Yue Opera has played an important role in women’s lives since it is a way for them to express their emotions and a way for them to search for independence. Unlike many other regional operas, the Yue Opera shows women’s entrance into the opera market and demonstrated women’s intelligence. The progression and transformation of the Yue Opera is shaped by traditional Chinese Operas and women’s status in Chinese culture. The reform of Yue Opera sends out a message to the society about women’s roles.

Cite this Yue Opera: Traditional Forms of Chinese Opera

Yue Opera: Traditional Forms of Chinese Opera. (2016, Sep 27). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/yue-opera/

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