The Future of the Past: Exploring the Implications of Authenticity and Multiplicity for Beijing Opera Today

Matthew Haywood1

1The Chinese University Of Hong Kong, Shatin, Hong Kong

Scholarly discourse on the future of Beijing opera is typically preoccupied with its past. Historically authentic performance is frequently acknowledged as necessary to maintain the ethos of the opera, whilst contemporary developments are deemed as needed and fraught over as a threat to the genre’s historicity. The regular invocation of history therefore constructs the genre as a narrow field of criteria which limits performer creativity to a binary standard of conformity or deviation. However, this vision of opera does not reflect the reality of present-day performance which instead exhibits the genre as locally constructed through a multitude of amateur and professional performance strategies and philosophies that provide alternative understandings of the meaning and relevance of Beijing opera in contemporary China. By exploring how authority is established, I argue that scholars must acknowledge Beijing opera as a site of multiplicity and the agency of its performers if we are to produce a more nuanced understanding of the historical, political, and aesthetic parameters of the genre. Approaching Beijing opera in this way can enable a more reflexive negotiation of our expectations and subsequently help further motivate the agency of performers rather than constrain them in a restrictive dichotomy.


Matthew Haywood is currently an Ethnomusicology PhD student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong supervised by Frederick Lau. His research explores contemporary amateur performances of Beijing opera. He has received an MMus in Ethnomusicology from SOAS and a BA in Music from the University of Cambridge.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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