China has over three hundred distinct styles of music drama, from exorcism theatre to farce, historical romance, and shadow puppetry. This study considers one of the newer operatic forms. Established just two centuries ago, huju (Shanghai opera), is renowned for its portrayal of ordinary people, not the emperors, courtesans, and heroes of older forms. Acting and make-up aim for realism rather than symbolism, and stories deal with contemporaneous themes: the struggles of lovers to marry, women's rights after the Communist revolution (1949), and life under the new social order established by Deng Xiaoping's reforms in the 1980s. Music ranges from local folksong to syncretic adoptions of Western popular music. Jonathan Stock is an authority on Chinese music, with previous books on Chinese flute and violin solos and Abing, a twentieth-century composer.
Adding to his extensive research on Chinese music, Stock's eighteen months of fieldwork in Shanghai allows him to interweave material from historical reports, sound recordings, live performance, and the first-hand accounts of three generations of singers into a study of a unique Chinese opera form seen equally as historical tradition, venue for social action, and forum for musical creativity. Assessing first the roots of huju in local folksong and ballad, he looks at the enduring role of emotional expressivity. He next focuses on the rise of actresses, laying out a specially 'musical' reading of gendered performance. Further chapters reverse conventional ethnomusicological arguments that music constructs place by looking at how Shanghai's institutions before 1949 shaped the environment within which troupes developed new dramatic materials and competed for work. In considering reforms post-1949, the author shows how the infusion of explicit political content actually weakened the expressive impact of these dramas. Finally, developments since 1980 are reviewed. The book includes songs and illustrations of performance styles.
An innovative combination of urban and historical ethnomusicology, the book's findings will engage the historian of China and general scholar of music alike.