Sitting at an intersection in Beijing, not far west from the bustling tourist traps of Prince Gong’s mansion and the shores of Houhai lake, is a small courtyard where China’s first truly global superstar performer, Mei Lanfang, lived out his retirement from 1951 until his death a decade later.
Born Mei Lan in Beijing on October 22, 1894, Mei Lanfang spent over a half-century on stage, most of the time performing as a woman. He was famous for his portrayal of the dan role, the elegant female archetypes. His 1930 performances in New York introduced America to the dazzling costumes and exquisite artistry of Peking Opera. Popular demand forced promoters to find a bigger venue to accommodate all of the people who flocked to see Mei Lanfang.
Mei Lanfang (the name he adopted for the stage) came from a family of actors. Both his father and grandfather had been in the theater. Orphaned at the age of 15, he was raised by family members, including a musical uncle. He began his training early and made his professional debut in 1905. His first taste of international stardom came when he toured Japan at just 25; he then returned to the country for another tour five years later in 1924. He was a sensation. Selling out halls and becoming something of a sex symbol, a 20th-century prototype of the xiao xianrou (“little fresh meat”: fresh-faced, young male celebrities), adored by Japanese girls.
Seeing Mei Lanfang perform became as essential for visitors to Beijing as walking the Great Wall or taking in the Temple of Heaven. He was a pre-modern superstar commanding high performance fees (and, like today’s stars, wasn’t above doing corporate appearances if the price was right.)
He dined with fellow international A-Listers like Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. When Charlie Chaplin — then at the peak of his popularity — arrived in Shanghai in 1936, Mei Lanfang was on hand to greet him. In one recorded anecdote, the two forty-something performers compared hair color with Chaplin complaining about his greying temples and Mei Lanfang’s still youthful appearances. (You work harder than I do, Mei was reported to have replied.)
In 1937, the Japanese occupation dramatically changed the performance landscape of Beijing. Mei Lanfang did his part in the resistance… by growing a dapper mustache. As Henry Cavill proved in Justice League, even millions of dollars of CGI can’t erase a mustache when it’s not supposed to be there. No matter if it’s on a famously clean shaven superhero or on the upper lip of a man pretending to be a coquettish maiden.
After the Communist Revolution, Mei Lanfang remained in China. He served in a variety of advisory roles for opera and the performing arts.
He was married for over 50 years, although to a slightly less than tidy and overlapping series of three wives, and his children followed Mei Lanfang into the “family business.” In particular, his son Mei Baojiu, born 1934, was a celebrated performer who succeeded as head of the Mei Lanfang Opera Company upon the death of his father in 1961. Forbidden from performing for nearly 15 years during the Cultural Revolution, Mei Baojiu revived the company in the late 1970s and, along with his sister Mei Baoyu, continued as an advocate for the arts and Peking Opera in particular into the 21st century. (Mei Baojiu passed away in 2016.)
Back at the old courtyard in Beijing, there’s a museum of Mei Lanfang memorabilia and photographs. A video screen shows clips from his performances, and there’s a section that dutifully highlights his “patriotic mustache.” Other parts of the yard feature reconstructions of his personal effects, art, calligraphy, and furniture.
Mei Lanfang remains one of the most successful global Chinese stars of the early 20th century. He brought an art form that hasn’t always had success on international stages — many people feel that Peking Opera, like the bagpipes, is best appreciated as outdoor performance art — to a broader audience. His use of pantomime, costume, and overall style influenced artists as diverse as Chaplin and Bertolt Brecht. Today as China occasionally stumbles to project soft power, it’s worth remembering a time when Mei Lanfang, born in Beijing 125 years ago this week, was the toast of New York and the artistic world.
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