Pingju (Ping Opera) Actresses in 1930s Shanghai from the Bottom Up

In my article in this issue of Theatre Journal titled “Pingju (Ping Opera) and the Politics of Celebrity in 1930s Shanghai,” I examine a two-year (1935–1937) boom of China’s northern folk theatre pingju in the southern city of Shanghai from the angle of celebrity studies. As Shanghai was the country’s media center, I focus on how mediatization and the celebrification of the star actress Bai Yushuang (1907–1942), together with her closest rivel Zhu Baoxia (1914–1951), sustained the form’s two-year sensational run in the city, in sharp contrast to its status as low-class entertainment in the north. In this brief essay, I want to complement that article’s celebrity focus with a look of pingju from the bottom up by examining the experiences of the form’s less glamorous performers during the same period in Shanghai. Specifically, I focus on the cases of three actresses: an anonymous performer trying to make ends meet, a leading actress struggling to sustain her own troupe, and a star who won high praise but lacked enthusiastic tabloid and literati support necessary to elevate her to the world of the superstars.

On October 10, 1936, the Double Tenth Festival (National Day), Shanghai’s prominent women’s magazine Linglong published a special issue on “Funü de chulu” (Women’s Career Paths). It included short articles on thirty-seven careers ranging from journalism to prostitution, mostly self-confessions by women holding these jobs but also including eight one-page “street sketches” of those whose livelihood relied on the street, from fruit and flower sellers to a singsong girl to a beggar. Titled “Shuangshijie de xianli” (A Gift for the Double Tenth Festival), the editor’s preface frames these self-confessions—“real people’s real stories without any fiction”—as a survey of the “reefs, obstacles, darkness, and pain” in “the women’s professional world.”1 One of the essays is by an common pingju actress—the only theatrical actress in the issue—from the northern Hebei province, where pingju originated, who had been trained by her father and was recently recruited to perform in the south, just like “almost all Hebei actors with adequate looks and artistry.”2 In contrast to the wild success of the celebrity superstars, this actress’s self-confession paints a drastically different picture of the life of lower-level actresses amidst the boom, who relied on private performances (tanghui) for extra income, often spiced with suggestive scenes to garner further tips.3 What is notable, though, is the fact that with a monthly pay of less than 100 yuan plus private performance income of ten yuan or more each time, the actress was earning much more than almost all other professions featured in this special issue. Such income, while nowhere comparable to that of the superstars, nevertheless afforded her private living and food arrangements away from communal company living, a testament to pingju’s popularity in the city in those two years.

Looking at pingju’s Shanghai boom from the viewpoint of an anonymous pingju actress published in a feminist magazine’s special issue on women’s professions extends my article’s examination of Bai’s and Zhu’s celebrification and its effect on the subsequent direction of pingju’s growth as an emerging folk form—whether it would maintain its folk roots supported by antifeudal leftist intellectuals, or to aesthetically evolve toward jingju (Beijing opera) with the backing of tabloid xiaobao (“small-format newspaper”) writers, the literati, and theatre insiders. These issues, however, were mostly remote from the daily concerns of the majority of pingju performers trying to make a living such as the anonymous actress, or even some of the stars struggling to hold on to their troupes while securing and maintaining performance venues during the two competitive years of the industry’s boom.

One such case is the actress Zhang Cailan (1920–1979), who came to Shanghai in March 1936 from the northeast with her own troupe and two other leads, Hua Yanqin and Ya Lijun, and performed at the top entertainment complex Da Shijie (The Great World), as we learn from two short promotional articles on March 8 and 9 of that year. Published in separate xiaobao newspapers, they nevertheless use similar phrasings that obviously came from the same promotional bulletin. Supposedly based on personal viewing, they tout her performance in several traditional pingju plays, and praise her “mellow and melodious voice, delicate and unique dance-acting, . . . and naturally beautiful face.”4 A month and half later, near the end of what turned out to be their two-month run at The Great World, Jingbao (The Crystal), one of the two xiaobao that carried the original promotional pieces, seems to make an attempt to drum up attention to her troupe that, while ultimately proved futile, is notable for its xiaobao-style ingenuity. On April 22, the paper inexplicably printed a one-liner that reads entirely as: “In The Great World, the bengbengxi (Bengbeng opera, commonly used term for pingju in Shanghai) actress Hua Yanqin is better in singing and dance-acting than Zhang Caixia [sic], but for some reason Yanqin’s status is inexplicably under Caixia [sic].”5 This line only makes sense in light of a follow-up piece three days later in the same xiaobao that judges the three leads of the troupe—together with Ya Lijun—as each having virtues and weaknesses. As good partners, the piece concludes, the actresses would benefit from better programming and coordination, which “will make them really worth a visit.”6


Figure 1. Zhang Cailan in The Peach Blossom Nunnery. From Jingbao (The Crystal), March 9, 1936.

Apparently, this attempt failed to achieve the desired result because the next article about Zhang, published on May 17, reports that her troupe was moving that day to the ballad-singing hall of Xiao Guanghan (Small Far-Reaching Cold) with a two-week contract. Her troupe had vacated from The Great World for Zhu Baoxia, who had been to Shanghai the previous spring as the first pingju star in the city, thus largely credited for bringing the form to this southern metropolis.7 Having returned to the city in April 1936, Zhu had been looking for a permanent venue until settling in The Great World on May 16, which she would occupy until the following spring during pingju’s overall retreat from the city. For Zhang, though, as we learn from another article only a week later, her move to the Small Far-Reaching Cold turned out to be a raw deal as it was already hosting the ballad-singing Qunfang Huichang (Joint Concert of Numerous Flowers), a format that started as courtesans singing mostly jingju (Beijing opera) arias, gradually adding intermittent costumed plays with invited actresses. Unable to buy out this existing show with the price of thirty yuan a day, Zhang’s troupe could only perform after the ballad singers. As a result, they could only net thirty-five fen (cents) for every yuan of the box-office income, driving Zhang to sigh in tears: “It’s the same bengbengxi; people just don’t sympathize with us.”8

Consequently, this unpleasant experience ended Zhang’s brief career heading her own troupe. The next time she appeared in the media, in October, was only as a statistic, mentioned as a key supporting actress for the star Yu Lingzhi (1913—unknown) at the Leyuan (Pleasure Garden) theatre in the Xianshi (Sincere) Department Store9—one of the so-called “four great department stores” (sida gongsi) with performance venues. Zhang last appeared in the xiaobao newspapers in November 1936 in an article with one-word evaluations of twenty-four pingju actresses that starts with the word dang (raunchy) for Bai Yushuang. As I discuss in my article, it was the xiaobao world’s sensational focus on Bai’s supposed raunchiness that started her celebrification process critical to pingju’s boom in Shanghai. Coming in number seventeen, Zhang received the word ping (flat or smooth), suggesting average but dependable artistry fit for a strong supporting actress.10

One rung up the ladder from Zhang was the star actress Xiao Yufeng (1919–2004), who was considered by several critics as the best of the younger generation of actresses, right after the superstars, with some even contending her artistry rivaling that of the latter.11 As a testament to the competitiveness of the pingju market in Shanghai at this time, however, Xiao also had difficulty holding onto sustained contracts in performance venues as the leading star of her troupe.

Figure 2. Xiao Yufeng. From Fu’ermosi (The Holmes News), June 29, 1937.

Xiao made her first, two-month foray to Shanghai in late 1935, as a key supporting actress for Ai Lianjun (1918–1939), one of the so-called Four Major Dan (female role) superstars, generally performing her own piece before Ai’s grand finale. She returned to Shanghai in August 1936 during pingju’s peak popularity with her own troupe, but was met with two months of rumored but ultimately unfulfilled engagements with a couple of smaller venues, the story-telling hall (shuchang) of the Yuegong (Moon Palace) Hotel and the Small Far-Reaching Cold. She finally succeeded in securing a month-long contract in October at the Xinxin (Sun Sun) Department Store,12 the last of the “four great department stores” that succumbed to pingju’s drawing power and opened its rooftop garden to Xiao. During the month, Xiao was featured in an article (as discussed at the end of my essay) that contrasts her performance in the traditional play Ma Guafu kaidian (Widow Ma’s Inn) favorably to two new jingju-based adaptations by the superstars Bai Yushuang and Zhu Baoxia respectively. Faulting the two pieces as inharmonious admixtures of the two different genres, the writer praises Xiao’s performance as an “unexpected reward” as this “most exciting work from bengbengxi’s early era still retains its inherent premise and delight.”13 Indeed, Xiao’s performance in this popular piece would continue to win her high praise, at times rivaling or even beating the superstars.14 Another testament to her rising stardom appeared in the previously mentioned article of one-character evaluations of twenty-four pingju actresses, in which Xiao ranked eighth, the first among the younger generation, with the character mei (beautiful).15

Possibly thanks to such welcoming attention, after the month’s contract at the Sun Sun ended, Xiao moved on to the Sincere where she performed for four and half months, between November 15, 1936 and March 31, 1937.16 However, while Xiao attracted several laudatory articles, she notably performed as the second lead, under another star Hua Jinshun. The reason behind this arrangement was finally revealed in late March, toward the end of their engagement at Sincere; the decision was made by Xiao’s father, who owned the troupe, although Xiao actually earned more than Hua.17 There was also a report that Xiao was more popular than Hua, as many audience members would leave the theatre after Xiao’s performance, before Hua’s grand finale.18 While this phenomenon seems highly possible given the general appreciation of her artistry, it is hard to ignore Xiao’s father’s calculation of headlining Hua instead of his daughter, which most likely strengthened the troupe’s drawing power, as Hua was older and had more experience back in the north,19 and sustained it in the Sincere for as long as the pingju boom lasted in Shanghai.

Figure 3. Xiao Yufeng in Widow Ma’s Inn. From Xi shijie (The Theatre World), December 11, 1936.

As I discuss in my article, pingju in the city was in decline by March 1937, largely triggered by Bai Yushuang’s escape to the north that February, right before the Lunar New Year, to protest her stepmother’s high-handed tactic to thwart her love affair with a drummer in her company. Top stars such as Zhu Baoxia and Furong Hua subsequently left the city that spring and lucrative contracts became hard to find, which helps to explain Xiao’s two-month hiatus in April and May, until she joined the troupe of Xin Cuixia,20 a young actress who had just arrived from Tianjin, pingju’s base in the north. Xin’s attraction largely derived from the fame of her adopted mother Liu Cuixia (1911–1941), the only Four Major Dan star who had not come down to Shanghai. The lure of Liu’s unique style served to slightly slow the demise of pingju performance, with Xin’s troupe opening on June 1 and running at least until mid-July when media reports on the troupe ended,21 possibly due to the impending Japanese attack on Shanghai that would begin on August 13.22

During this period, several xiaobao pieces were published on Xiao’s artistic merits, including her elegant performance style, beautiful stage appearance, finely delineated characterization through dancing-acting, affective singing despite a slightly hoarse voice, and her refreshing and rhythmic speech delivery.23 These articles also advocated for allowing her to perform independent pieces during evening shows instead of only playing supporting roles for Xin.24 A few of the articles even attempted to analyze her lack of a superstar status despite her outstanding artistry, blaming the absence of enthusiastic support from the media and the lack of a strong supportive cast, as well as critiquing the dearth of new scripts which prevented Xiao from distinguishing herself, leaving her with a consequently limited conventional repertoire.25 Such deficiencies, therefore, offer a clear contrast to the celebrification of Bai Yushuang and Zhu Baoxia discussed in my article, who received enthusiastic—and at times sensational—media and ideological support in addition to a successive supply of new plays that expanded pingju’s repertoire (and, for better or worse, brought pingju closer to the supposedly more evolutionarily advanced form of jingju). While the impact of this movement towards jingju on pingju is debatable, there is no doubt these new plays significantly enhanced the celebrity status of Bai and Zhu, largely to the disadvantage of other actresses such as Xiao in the highly competitive Shanghai theatre and media market.

The next time we hear about Xiao was mid-April 1938 when she performed in another ballad-hall.26 By this time, news about her in Shanghai was notably sparse, until a final peak in August with reports that she had received invitations from Bai Yushuang, Ai Lianjun, and Xin Cuixia, who had all returned to Tianjin where they each needed her support in their own troupes,27 a clear signal that pingju’s retreat from Shanghai was complete.

Examining the fate of pingju actresses other than the celebrity superstars, who were the focus of media attention, offers a wider spectrum of pingju artists’ experiences in Shanghai from the bottom up, during a two-year period that involved “almost all Hebei actors with adequate looks and artistry.” Undoubtedly, the celebrification and mediatization of the superstars help us understand some of the key contributing factors behind pingju’s two-year boom, including the pros and cons of pingju’s evolution to jingju. At the same time, by focusing on these less renowned performers in this piece, I hope to illuminate the trials and tribulations of the vast majority of the genre’s other actresses in order to reveal (in the words of the Linglong women’s careers issue) the “reefs, obstacles, darkness, and pain” in “the women’s professional world” in China in the mid-1930s.



1. “Shuangshijie de xianli” (A Gift for the Double Tenth Festival). Linglong: Nüzi de chulu (1936): 2–3.

2. Sai Zhuxia, “Yiwei bengbeng nüling de zibai” (Confessions of a Bengbeng Opera Actress). Linglong: Nüzi de chulu (1936): 160.

3. Ibid: 162–63.

4. Mingming, “Da Shijie pingju chang ji liang huashan” (Two Actress in The Great World’s Ping Opera Theatre), Xi shijie (The Theatre World), March 8, 1936; see also Yiyun, “Bengbeng youjian Cailan Zhang” (Bengbeng Opera Also Meets Zhang Cailan), Jingbao (The Crystal), March 9, 1936.

5. Zhenkai, “Zai Da Shijie yuyi bengbengxi nüling Hua Yanqin . . . ” (In the Great World, the Bengbeng opera actress Hua Yanqin . . . , Jingbao (The Crystal), April 22, 1936. Caixia is a typo for Cailan, corrected in the follow-up article.

6. Lianshi, “Ping Da Shijie bengbeng san can” (On the Three Bengbeng Opera Charms at the Great World), Jingbao (The Crystal), April 25, 1936.

7. Laoxiu, “Zhang Cailan Hua Yanqin quanban renma bengbengxi zai Xiao Guanghan” (Zhang Cai lan and Hua Yanqin’s Whole Troupe is Performing at the Small Far-Reaching Cold), Xi shijie (The Theatre World), May 17, 1936.

8. Weiwei. 1936. “Kelian de xiao nü’er Zhang Cailan chuyan Xiao Guanghan zhi jingguo” (Poor Little Woman Zhang Cailan’s Experience at the Small Far-Reaching Cold). Xi Shijie (The Theatre World), May 24.

9. Kuaijishi, “Bengbengxi de zhengge tongji” (Complete Statistics of the Bengbeng Opera), Xi shijie (The Theatre World), October 9, 1936.

10. Zheng Jianying, “Pingxi kunling yizi ping” (One-Word Commentaries on Ping Opera Actresses). Xiju Zhoubao (Theatre Weekly) 1: 5 (1937): 24.

11. Liuhe, “Ji Xiao Yufeng” (On Xiao Yufeng), Xi shijie (The Theatre World), April 29, 1937; Yang Naiwu, “Xiao Yufeng,” Xi shijie (The Theatre World), May 18, 1937; Zhou Jichang, “Ji Xiao Yufeng” (On Xiao Yufeng), Xi shijie (The Theatre World), May 21, 1937; Weilan, “Cong zuofeng banxiang zuogong changbai gefangmian . . . tan Xiao Yufeng yishu youdian” (On Xiao Yufeng’s Artistic Merits from Her Style, Stage Appearance, Dance-Acting, Singing, Speech Delivery . . . .), Xi shijie (The Theatre World), July 21, 1937.

12. Xiaoqu, “Xiao Yufeng yingpin Xinxin” (Xiao Yufeng Engaged at the Sun Sun), Xi shijie (The Theatre World), September 26, 1936; Yizhen, “Xinxin jiaojiao zhi bengbeng” (Outstanding Bengbeng Opera at the Sun Sun), Jiangbao (The Crystal), October 3, 1936.

13. Ibid.

14. Songlin, “Xiao Yufeng zai Shen zhi xingdong” (Xiao Yufeng’s Actions in Shanghai), Xi shijie (The Theatre World), November 27, 1936; Qiangke, “Pingxi zai Shanghai de tongji” (Statistics of Ping Opera in Shanghai), Xi shijie (The Theatre World), February 16, 1937; Weilan, “Zhi Xiao Yufeng” (For Xiao Yufeng), Xi shijie (The Theatre World), June 29, 1937.

15. Zheng, “Pingxi kunling yizi ping”: 24.

16. Chengqing, “Tantan pingxi kunling Xiao Yufeng” (On Ping Opera Actress Xiao Yufeng), Xi shijie (The Theatre World), December 11, 1936; Waihang, “Xianshi Gongsi Leyuan bengbengxi Xiao Yufeng ban yuedi dazhu” (Bengbeng Opera’s Xiao Yufeng Troupe to Stop at Sincere Department Store’s Pleasure Garden at the End of the Month), Xi shijie (The Theatre World), March 28, 1937.

17. ———, “Xianshi Gongsi Leyuan bengbengxi Xiao Yufeng ban yuedi dazhu”; Sishi, “Hua Jinshun chuoyan Xianshi hou” (After Hua Jinshun Stopped Performing at the Sincere), Xi shijie (The Theatre World), April 13, 1937.

18. ———, “Tantan Hua Jinshun” (On Hua Jinshun), Xi shijie (The Theatre World), February 23, 1937.

19. Bingfu, “Hua Jinshun”, Dagong bao (Shanghai) (Ta Kung Pao (Shanghai)), January 30, 1937; Sishi, “Tantan Hua Jinshun”; ———, “Hua Jinshun chuoyan Xianshi hou”.

20. Zheng Ying, “Xin Cuixia pingxi rinei shangyan Zhongyang” (Ping Opera by Xin Cuixia to be Staged at the Central Theatre), Xi shijie (The Theatre World), May 25, 1937.

21. Di Xiuzhi, “Daxin ting pingju ji” (Watching Ping Opera at the Sun), Xi shijie (The Theatre World), July 16, 1937; Weilan, “Cong zuofeng banxiang zuogong changbai gefangmian . . . tan Xiao Yufeng yishu youdian”.

22. Japan launched full-scale invasion of China on July 7, 1937.

23. Weilan, “Zhi Xiao Yufeng”; ———, “Cong zuofeng banxiang zuogong changbai gefangmian . . . tan Xiao Yufeng yishu youdian”.

24. Yang Xiuzhi, “Xianhua Daxin Xiao Yufeng” (Random Thoughts on Xiao Yufeng at the Sun), Xi shijie (The Theatre World), July 10, 1937. She did stage her own play in matinee performances.

25. Jichang, “Mian Xiao Yufeng” (Encouraging Xiao Yufeng), Xi shijie (The Theatre World), April 13, 1937; Yunchang, “Xiao Yufeng zhi yishuguan” (Xiao Yufeng’s Artistry), shijie (The Theatre World), May 31, 1937.

26. Yinhuang, “Ji Xiao Yufeng” (On Xiao Yufeng), Dongfang ribao (Eastern Daily News), April 16, 1938.

27. Tianxia, “Xiao Yufeng xingjiang qu Tianjin” (Xiao Yufeng to Leave for Tianjin), Shibao (Eastern Times), August 2, 1938.