Mei Lan Fong – The Queen of Peking Opera’s Starring Role in the Tobacco History of China

Mei Lanfang was known as the "Queen of Peking Opera" and in the 1930s became China’s first global superstar.


The acclaimed male performer, famous for female lead roles, toured the world & even had his own cigarette brand as we can learn from this artefact in our collection.

Mei (梅兰芳) was born in Beijing in 1894 into a family of Peking opera performers.


In 1904, at age 11, he made his stage debut and by the 1920s was already considered one of the "Four Great Dan", male actors who specialized in impersonating women.


Just like celebrities today, his superstardom soon enabled him lucrative advertising deals with consumer brands. 

In 1923 he began a collaboration with China’s largest domestic tobacco producer Nanyang Brothers, endorsing their “Great Wall” and “Golden Dragon” brand cigarettes. Throughout the 1920s Nanyang Bros fought a fierce battle over market share with its main competitor, the foreign-owned British-American Tobacco (B.A.T.), which led them to bet even more on the acclaimed Opera superstar: In August 1926 the launch of the new high-end cigarette brand “Mei Lan Fong”, named after the famous “King of Actors”, was announced.

The packaging showed two images of Mei Lanfang, one portraying the “Goddess of the River Luo"《洛神》and one as the “Goddess of Heaven” in the opera “Heavenly Maidens Scattered Flowers” 《天女散花》. The cigarette brand was advertised and sold until 1930, but at the end of the decade Nanyang Bros lost its fight against the more dominant BAT and alas discontinued the Mei Lanfang collaboration. 

Mei, on the other hand, became even more successful in the 1930s. He was the first artist to spread Beijing Opera to foreign countries, participating in cultural exchanges with Japan and the United States, which he toured in 1930. This was followed by a tour to Europe in 1935, playing to appreciative audiences in Berlin and Moscow.


When Charlie Chaplin — then at the peak of his popularity — arrived in Shanghai in 1936, Mei Lanfang was on hand to greet him.

If you are in Shanghai and interested to learn more about Mei Lanfang, this weekend is the last chance to visit the exhibition “Plum Blossoms in the East – Mei Lanfang in Shanghai”, which is still held at the Shanghai History Museum until Feb 25. The 191 exhibits include opera scripts, costumes, props, famous paintings and calligraphy, letters, records, theatre artefacts, and other precious cultural relics including of course a reference to “Mei Lan Fong” cigarettes in the form of an advertisement. 

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