J.L., an outstanding Santa Barbara resident, has traveled the world.
And she sends me a souvenir of the traditional Chinese opera, visited over 50 years ago when J.L. was a guest of the Chinese government. I am assuming that J.L. visited after the 1976 death of Mao Zedong, which would mean that the traditional Chinese opera she witnessed that night was a big deal, reserved for dignitaries.
That is because of the ideals of the Cultural Revolution, masterminded by Mao (and Madam Mao and others in the “gang”) that established the People’s Republic of China held high the aim of preserving Chinese communism by purging capitalistic ideas and traditional Chinese hierarchies.
To give you an example of how special a visit to the opera might have been about 50 year ago, in 1954 there were 2,000 government-specialized opera Troupes of 50-100 performers each, who told the stories of many operas. After 1965 only eight “model operas” were allowed to be performed and were sanctioned by none other than Madame Mao (Jiang Qing), who was once an actress herself.
Lest you think that the traditional Chinese opera is like the European-style opera, it is not for many reasons. Perhaps the best reason is its longevity.
The opera goes back to the dawn of Chinese culture, some say somewhere around the third century, when it was first performed as a combination of music, singing, dance, martial arts, acrobatics, elaborate costumes with secret symbolism and make-up of the highest artistry, not to mention poetry and literature. The artform is so ancient that it matured in the 13th century (Song Dynasty 960-1279).
So when J.L. was attending the opera in the 1970s, it was because it had been around for 2,000 years, and more than likely one revolution was not going to kill it. But it almost did. The Cultural Revolution had one knife in the back of traditional Chinese opera, and the other knife was fast coming when J.L. was witnessing this performance. That was called modernization, and the younger generation perceived it as a movement — from Chinese art forms to imported art forms.
By the time of JL’s visit, opera was not a young person’s theater. It was for the old, and it was on the verge of fading.
Today, however, opera is vibrant and thriving with some of the favorite productions performed all over China. Each region has its own flavor of opera, but it is widely considered that Beijing Opera is the national theater of China. Some of the classic operas are “The Poppy Pavilion,” “The Peach Blossom Fan,” “Journey to the West” and “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.”
J.L. would like to find a home for the costumes and asked me to mention their provenance. Going one step further, in each area of China, the costumes are slightly different. Due to the very bright colors and embroidery, I suspect J.L.”s costumes are from the Beijing Opera.
However, I do know that colors mean something nationwide. Costumes indicate social hierarchy and are a code to the audience.
Each class of people is represented by a certain style of clothing, and certain forms of clothing are reserved for certain types of performers. The graceful dancers will wear “water sleeves” — elongated flowing silk sleeves touching the stage floor, swirling around the body.
J.L. had the honor of attending after China was semi-opened to the West after the death of Mao. After the performance, she was taken back to the opera’s costume department, where she was invited to pick out a costume to purchase. She picked out a navy blue silk coat trimmed in royal blue, embroidered, and a matching tall, squared hat, set on top with a plume of the symbol for fire. The coat is lined with white silk.
And she picked a tall yellow-orange squared hat; the back with a drape of orange embroidered silk lined with blue, and two long strips of white silk hanging on either side of the face.
J.L.’s blue coat being blue represents characteristics of the character. Blue stands for ferocity and courage on one hand and cruelness and violence on the other. Yellow stands for a character who is clever, secretive, mysterious and evil.
I attempted to find the value of this era of opera clothing, and it seems that the coat should be worth $600 along with the matching hat, and the yellow-orange hat, worn so beautifully by J.L., would fall in a value range of $100-$200.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Saturdays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.