This slim novel by author Bi Feiyu takes the reader inside the world of the Peking Opera, after the Cultural Revolution and at the dawn of capitalism in China. Xiao Yanqui rashly lost her place in the opera company just when her star was rising, but now, 20 years later, she’s been given a chance at redemption – a chance to return to the lead role in The Moon Opera. The novel follows Xiao as she attempts to control her body and contort back into the role of a much younger woman, despite the fact that she now has a teenage daughter of her own. Meanwhile, Xiao’s understudy and star pupil wants the stage for herself, so we’ve got some generational conflict thrown into the mix.
The thing I most liked about this book were the glimpses into women’s lives in Communist China – the spirit of egalitarianism in society, but still with relationships dictated by tradition and reproductive decisions dictated by the state. I’ve read about Chinese women in earlier centuries, but this book gave me a richer portrait of than the typical news coverage of city girls in nightclubs with cell phones. That said, I don’t think the author did a very good job of really getting inside his female characters psyches. Maybe it’s cultural or maybe it’s the slimness of the book (117 pages), but I felt like some of the motivations and actions weren’t very well set up. It’s hard to explain without going into too much detail, but it was a disappointing weakness for a book that revolves around women.
As I understand it, a large part of Chinese Opera is highly stylized, with actors showing supremely disciplined control over movement and voice. So there’s a really nice parallel between the necessary discipline of the women in their professional careers and the control they try to exert over their bodies and the rest of their lives. Overall, I enjoyed reading the book and I’d recommend it to readers wanting a peek into near-modern Chinese society and willing to spend some time reflecting on the connections between body and psyche.