Canton operas

15 September 2014

In almost four decades of work in the Library, unlike a number of my colleagues, I have never had offers of voluntary work.

But earlier this year, an undergraduate by the name of Cameron Henderson-Begg, who has just completed his first year of study in Oxford followed by a year in China, asked if he might join us during the summer for some work experience. He is contemplating a career in curatorship, whether in a library or a museum, and wanted a taste of what might be on offer. This, too, is a first among the students who have passed through Oxford during my time here. We children of the sixties did what we fancied without a thought for the future (and at the time, for China there wasn’t one – it was a third-world country in total chaos with no sign of an end to it). How different are most of the present generation of Thatcher’s children, who have studied venality from the cradle!

Cameron’s time was split between helping my colleague Joshua Seufert at the brand new China Centre Library which was officially opened by the Duke of Cambridge only last week, and helping me with my project to catalogue our special collections.


I gave him a very clearly defined corpus of material to work on from Piet van der Loon’s books – a large collection of Canton ballads. There was something rather shocking about how good his Chinese is after only two years of study, and how easily he got the hang of cataloguing this material with our newly developed browser-based allegro catalogue. In little more than a full week’s work, he had not only catalogued the operas, but had warmed to the theme sufficiently to write one of the better pieces in this blog. Here it is, exactly as Cameron gave it to me.

Piet van der Loon’s Cantonese operas

Cameron Henderson-Begg

Among the many items bequeathed to the Bodleian by the late Piet van der Loon are nine boxes of yueju 粵劇 (Cantonese opera) scripts with colourful printed covers, averaging around 30 pages long. In total Piet left us 459 of these, and they now occupy numbers 5241-5700 in our Sinica collection. For instance:

廣州 : 華興書局[印行], [1920或1930年代?]
平裝1冊(40頁) ; 19公分
Sinica 5251

The speculative date will be changed soon – more on that below. The vast majority of the items seem to have been published in Canton, with occasional interlopers from Hong Kong and a couple of intrepid outsiders from Shanghai.

Now in something of a decline, Cantonese opera enjoyed a heyday in the Republican era, with thousands of new scripts issued for purchase. Old favourites soldiered on, but many of the van der Loon scripts are striking in their modernity: a silhouetted female nude on the cover of Sinica 5326, for instance, reminds of nothing so much as a first edition Great Gatsby, with its famous nudes-in-the-eyes above Coney Island.


And these scripts seem very much aimed at southerners invested in the new Republican ideal. In the back pages of some, the cavalry carry the national flag proudly past copyright notices; in one, perhaps short of matter for their last two leaves, the publishers have copied the score of the Sanmin zhuyi, now the ROC national anthem, in both the traditional gongchipu system and the newer jianpu or numerical notation system. A notice informs the public-spirited reader that the score is placed there in case they should have need of the “Party song” but find themselves stuck without it (the likelihood of a reader so unprepared coincidentally having this particular opera to hand seems not to have been considered).



The presence of these scores brings us neatly to the matter of dates. The Sanmin zhuyi was the “Party song” (黨歌) of the GMD from 1928 onwards, only becoming the national anthem officially in 1943, so we seem to be dealing with the mid-Republican period. But very few of the scripts carry any kind of dating data. Of the 459, only one, Sinica 5657, carries an obvious printed date. Here a part of the colophon reads 民國十六年三月十日二版, that is, the item is a second edition from March 1927.



Happily all is not lost for dating the collection as a whole. A 1985 index of Cantonese operas, the 粵劇劇目通檢, lists 11,360 separate works from the very late Qing to the early years of the PRC. In a random sample of 20 of our items, nine were listed with year-of-publication ranges. (Of the remainder, six were listed with no known publication date. Five were apparently not known to the author of the index, but the rather cumbersome layout of the book, whose entries are listed not in a single body but as a main text with three large sections of addenda, means it is possible some slipped under my radar.) In the dated sample, all but one were from the years 1920-1936; the other was from the period 1937-1945. It seems reasonable, then, to take the majority of the collection as dating from 1920 to 1936, with the odd straggler up to the end of the Second World War.

Most all of the scripts carry printed ads, usually for medicines—Oujiaquan Pharmaceuticals seems to have felt it had found its target audience with these little books. Some of them bear the marks of previous owners: handwritten names are common, with a few more traditional seals thrown in along the way. The recurrence of a few names, plus the repeated presence of a stamp from a bookshop in the Petaling Street Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur, suggests that large parts of the collection come from bulk purchases. The most notable mark of provenance is a cartouche-style stamp in at least a couple of numbers with the name 梁醒波.



If genuine, this would link some of our items to Leung Sing-Bor (1908-1981), one of the greatest Cantonese opera performers of his time. After showing an early interest in performance, he went on to become one of the “Four Kings” 南洋四大天王 of the yueju 粵劇 stage. From 1950 he appeared in enormous numbers of films, and until his death he was a long-running host on TVB’s enduringly popular “Enjoy Yourself Tonight” 歡樂今宵, a kind of Hong Kong version of Saturday Night Live.

Away from possible connections to the stars, one of our numbers, Sinica 5690, has had its back cover used for calligraphy practice, and this along with the frankly flaky quality of the paper suggests that these were workaday books, certainly not treasures. That in turn brings us to the value of these items. They are probably not immensely rare. The size of our collection and the ability of an author to piece together over 11,000 separate titles in the 1985 index speak to that. Nevertheless, their very un-treasured status makes them a notable holding. Cambridge University Library possesses some, but Chinese libraries and collectors have rarely ascribed much value to such low-brow works. For what they tell us about the vitality of theatre in the Republican south, for their links to the long tradition of Chinese illustrated book printing and for their snapshot of the concerns of the opera-going classes in the new China, these are objects deserving of study.

One Response to “Canton operas”

  1. G. Says:

    Well done Cameron! 😀

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