Dress-up officials

The 1915 edition of 戏迷传 “Opera Fanatics” by 海上漱石生 “Hermit of Shanghai” (Sun Yusheng 孙玉声 1862–1939) has some of my all-time favorite cover art: colorful, lively poses that turn ridiculous the moment you discover the novel has nothing to do with opera.

It’s actually a satire of corrupt officials into which Sun, a huge opera fan, embeds more than 700 opera titles as names for characters, places, and scenarios, “Because bureaucracy is like theater. Officials seem like they’re play acting rather than serving their office.” There’s a similar show-offy cleverness in Sun’s 1927 wuxia novel 嵩山拳叟 “The Old Fighter of Mt. Song”, whose chapter titles are apt lines from Tang poems. A storyteller’s trick, rather than the sort of plot device Jin Yong 金庸 would later use in 连城诀 “A Deadly Secret”.

戏迷传 was first published in 1903 under a different acting-related title, 优孟衣冠传 “In Costume” or “Playing Dress-Up”; a reprint in the ’20s used the more direct 如此官场 “Officialdom!”

There’s no signature visible, but an advert in Sun’s magazine 繁华杂志 “Prosperity” promises “two comic watercolor covers by Shen Bochen 沈泊忱.” Shen (沈泊尘, 1889–1920) was a prolific political cartoonist also known for illustrations of actors and modern women.

The official singing while playing a tennis racquet like a pipa reminds me of one particular Thangka image of Dhṛtarāṣṭra 持国天王. Would that make the hatless, bearded official Virūḍhaka 增长天王? A mustache comb for a sword, sure, but is he ever shown with a mirror?

It’s probably just fanciful thinking, but I do like the possibility of an additional layer of symbolism: actors playing officials who are themselves just sham guardians of the realm.

Originally posted to Twitter, 2021.09.18.