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Peking Opera Star Takes New York by Storm
by Birgit Schrumpf

On his tour across the United States in the 1930s, Mei Lanfang (1894 -1961), Peking’s opera star of female roles, took the hearts of American theater lovers by storm. He captured the large audience at Carnegie Hall with his songs and performance gracefully moving on an otherwise bare stage in elaborate Chinese traditional costume. The show had to be relocated from the 49th Street Theater to the larger National Theater, and the duration of the tour was extended from two to five weeks. In China and the United States, his tour was a media spectacle, hailed as a triumph of cultural exchange. During the course of his long career he received two honorary doctorates – one from Pomona College and the other from the University of Southern California – as well as numerous other medals. Whenever he delivered his on these ceremonies or even at private parties in his honour he humbly spoke of peace between countries, “If we want to protect real world peace, humanity must mutually understand, mutually tolerate and sympathize, mutually assist and not go into battle. To achieve this goal everyone must seriously study both art and science too.” To this day his words hold good.

He had made his stage debut when just 10 years old in 1904. His father, grandfather and uncle were already well-known by their theatrical skill. Throughout his 50-year career he maintained strong continuity while also working on new techniques to perfect his style. His most famous roles were those of female characters, and the beautiful portrayals won him international acclaim. Mei Lanfang was the first artist to take Peking opera to foreign countries. Famous western celebrities of his time admired his skill and he became friends with contemporaries like Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, who always welcomed him during his Hollywood visits.

After 1949 Mei served as director of China Beijing Opera Theater, director of the Chinese Opera Research Institute and vice-chairman of China Federation of Literary and Art Circles. Shortly after his death 1961 the Communist’s Cultural Revolution erupted and his family became their victim. The Red Guards declared them as being rightists; his wife’s hair was brutally shorn off. Peking operas were banned and replaced by Madame Mao’s “model” operas.

Today an effort is being made to renew an interest in the old tradition of Beijing opera. A modelled sculpture graces the Mei Lanfang Memorial Museum in Beijing. Besides his autobiography “Forty Years of Life on the Stage”, several of his articles and essays have been published in “The Collected Works of Mei Lanfang”. Recordings of his best known performances have been published and in 2000 the story of his life was filmed in a documentary entitled The Worlds of Mei Lanfang. In 2008 the new Mei Lanfang Peking Opera Theater opened. Acclaimed director Chen Kaige showed his film Forever Enthralled, based on the biography of Mei’s life, at the Berlin Film Festival 2009.

The review of the film Forever Enthralled can be read online at KinoCritics or