Enchanted Masculinity: Modern Magic and Gender Politics in Early Twentieth Century China

May 7, 2018


Thanks to Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, a Parisian illusionist, stage magic attained its status as a performing art and became a key cultural expression of modernity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (During, 2004). In grand theatres, magicians wore elegant black suits and combined scientific discoveries, craft and design with showmanship to amaze their audiences. This style of presenting magic in the persona of an urbane gentleman has defined ‘modern stage magic’ as a genre right through to the present (Jones, 2011). Meanwhile, the performance of stage magic, informed by patriarchal norms and Euro-centric ideas of race and culture, often glorified inequalities in gender, race, and class. Stage magic thus offers an excellent site for exploring social rules and hierarchies. In parallel to the European history of modern magic, how did the Chinese people perceive and perform stage magic in their encounters with modernity? In this blog post, I sketch out the interplay of stage magic and China’s gender politics under the influences of colonial capitalism, urbanization, the development of public education, and the rise of Chinese nationalism. I also discuss how stage magic contributed to the reinventing of patriarchal culture, and how stage magic offered Chinese practitioners opportunities of empowerment.


Beginning in the mid-1870s, China witnessed an influx of foreign magic troupes amidst a flourishing semi-colonial economy, especially the expansion of English and French concessions in the urban districts of treaty ports. At first, European and American magicians only performed for the expatriate community at venues like international clubhouses and upscale theatres. Stage magic was marketed as an imported high-end entertainment, unavailable for an ordinary Chinese audience. It was not until the 1910s that more and more urban middle-class Chinese began to participate in a cultural economy of stage magic.


At this time, a group of educated young men committed themselves to establishing professional careers as stage magicians. Many of them took advantage of their western-style education and family wealth to creatively break into the magic world, dominated by European and Japanese magicians. For example, from a well-off family, Wu Enqi (吴恩琪) studied stage magic through partaking in correspondence courses offered by a Japanese magic school. In 1914, Wu founded the first Chinese magic school, the Suzhou Magic Society, dedicated to popular education of stage magic. Within five years, this organization’s membership had reached over 30,000. Others, such as Mo Wuqi (莫悟奇), who had an artisanal background and later became one of the most famous magicians in Shanghai, would hide in the theatre attics or backstage to ‘steal’ the secrets of magic acts, performed by foreign magicians.


The acceptance of stage magic by the educated urban Chinese corresponded to the concurrent ideological trends, such as the critique of ‘traditional culture.’ In their publications, the supporters of stage magic described the homegrown magic art, xi fa (戏法), as a lowbrow entertainment and despised xi fa practitioners for their poverty and low social status. By contrast, they perceived stage magic as a means of crafting a modern self, especially in the cultural and economic domains.


Stage magic was especially appealing to educated young men, likely because the conventional aesthetics of stage magic celebrated a form of masculinity and rational subjectivity that was compatible with new societal expectations and economic demands for elite men. With the abolition of the imperial examination system, the opening of ‘modern’ schools, and the increasing participation of women in public education, the Confucian ideal of manhood was in crisis. Constructing new male identities demanded self-reflection and new investment. It was not surprising that a generation of young men would be attracted to the image of a Victorian male magician, who was proficient in science and technical knowledge, and was leading a ‘crusade’ against superstition.


Onstage, Chinese stage magicians imitated their European counterparts by donning black tuxedos and tall hats. They favoured dramatic numbers, such as disappearing a large animal, sawing a woman in half, and escaping from various traps. In each of these performances, carefully arranged hidden spaces, props, and women assistants reinforced the fetishisation of male bodies and prowess.


Offstage, these pioneers formed their own magic associations, founded magic theatres, published books and news articles on stage magic, and even opened business enterprises to make and sell magic props. Meanwhile, the expanding urban entertainment industry offered Chinese magicians a variety of employment opportunities. For example, Mo Wuqi established himself as an in-house magician at a Shanghai amusement complex, called the New World (新世界), which consisted of multiple theatres, simultaneously staging a variety of shows. Other performance venues included large shopping arcades, cinemas, and theatres. Shanghai’s four largest department stores, the Sincere (established in 1917), the Wing (established in 1918), the Sun Sun (established in 1926), and the Da Sun (established in 1936), all featured indoor entertainment, including magic shows, to attract buyers. As well, cinema owners, to increase ticket sales, often recruited magicians to entertain audiences during intermissions. Thus, urbanisation and modern consumerism fostered the proliferation of stage magic and enabled Chinese magicians to establish economically viable careers.


Furthermore, stage magic, which relies on performers’ secret knowledge as well as technical competence, became a public arena for Europeans and non-Europeans to compete for status and power. In the summer of 1930, American stage magician, William Mozart Nicol (a.k.a Nicola), publically criticised Chinese indigenous magic. In response, Zhang Huicong (张慧冲), a film actor and amateur magician, produced a magic show, featuring all the acts that Nicola claimed impossible to replicate. In the end, Zhang’s successful performance caused a sensation in Shanghai. Subsequently, he was invited to perform at the 1000-seat Olympic Theater, one of the city’s most prestigious cinemas. To impress his audience, Zhang not only restaged Nicola’s numbers but also showcased his original tricks. Local newspapers enthusiastically praised Zhang’s bravery and talent.


I argue that stage magic offered Chinese middle-class men an opportunity to exercise what Michael Taussig (1993) called ‘the mimetic faculty’ to express their nationalist aspirations. According to Taussig, colonial encounters entailed not simply the colonisers’ power of turning the natives into the primitive or inferior Other to justify violence and conquest. Under specific circumstances, the West was as well objectified, embodied, and made (magical) by the colonized to control the processes of cultural communication and/or economic exchange. In this context, angered by foreigners’ incursions and racism, educated middle-class Chinese men, like Zhang Huicong, used stage magic not only to mimic European masculine ideals but also to ‘exoticize’ the European male performing body for a native audience. Their ability of copying as well as creating ‘original’ tricks exhibited these men’s creative agency and also reflected a tension in these elite men’s pursuit of modernity and desire for asserting difference.


In early twentieth century China, stage magic was a masculinist project that contributed to the reinvention as well as the continuation of a Chinese patriarchal culture. Homosocial activities facilitated the social reproduction of the Chinese magic community. Although books and manuals on stage magic were widely available for men and women, the secret knowledge of the most prized magic acts and magic props were passed on from man to man through real or fictive kinship ties. In fact, similar to the teaching of Peking opera, novices often performed the practice of ‘ban shi’(拜师), or paying respect to an established magician to enter the professional world, and to gain recognition from their peers and audiences.


Although men dominated stage magic, women were indispensable actors in the performances. They were often magicians’ wives, daughters, or hired women assistants, playing supportive roles such as human cannon balls and floating beauties. Just before the founding of the People’s Republic of China, a small number of exceptional women learned the secret of magic trade and moved centre stage, creating celebrated magic shows of their own. Then, in the second half of the twentieth century, a generation of women magicians flourished under the influences of socialist feminism and cultural policy, and these women’s artistic success marked the end of men’s monopoly of stage magic in China.   

Tracy Ying Zhang is a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Film and Media at Queen’s University. Her research engages with feminist cultural studies and political economy literatures and has generated publications on cultural marketing, creative labour, the politics of value, cultural export, and Cold War cultural diplomacy. Tracy’s ongoing research examines the transnational production of circus arts, investigating the postcolonial politics of difference, the hierarchy of performance labour, and the contradictions of cultural nationalism. Tracy is also the co-producer of a documentary entitled: The Flip Side: A Global Circus Story. Image credit: Tracy Zhang





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