The qing court had a love-hate relationship with popular drama. From the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736–95) to the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908), several Qing rulers were renowned for their doting patronage of popular opera, yet the state was far from sanguine about drama's social effects, viewing public theaters with great suspicion. Theaters, in the eyes of the authorities, were notorious hangouts for ruffians, slackers, gamblers, and insurgents, providing these roustabouts with the ideal environment in which to scheme and swindle. In addition to waging campaigns to censor and weed out “seditious passages” from popular dramas (Guy 1987, 92), emperors throughout the Qing dynasty issued dozens of edicts regulating the construction, location, and clientele of commercial theaters. In rural areas, especially in times of unrest, local authorities often canceled scheduled performances for fear that such occasions offered gangs and secret societies prime opportunities for stirring up trouble (Mackerras 1972, 37). Urban theaters were no safer. According to popular lore, even the Kangxi emperor was cheated by hoodlums when he ventured into a public theater during one of his legendary outings disguised as a commoner (Liao 1997, 80). Yet in spite of their reputation for breeding disorder and moral vice, commercial theaters—commonly known as teahouses (chayuan)—increasingly thrived, and in this new social space, the genre of Peking opera came into full flower during the last century of the Qing dynasty.

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