2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 194

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Stage, Space, and Page in Early Modern China, 1100-1900

Organizer: Paize Keulemans, Princeton University, USA

Chair: Cuncun Wu, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Discussant: Yuming He, University of California, Davis, USA

This panel investigates the boundaries of the Chinese theatrical stage from the Song-Yuan to late-Qing periods, subjecting spaces produced in and around early modern opera to various conceptual and disciplinary readings (literature, history, anthropology, and architecture). Bringing together operatic performances, social interactions, and textual productions staged on and beyond the stage, this panel rethinks theatrical space as site of social transaction, textual production, imagined soundscape, eroticized playground, and urban marketplace. How did the conceptual boundaries of the stage and the imagination of opera as a physical space allow the movement and mingling of cultural forces, the definition and interaction of social classes, and the enactment and formation of distinct personal identities? Opening up these questions, Ling Hon Lam re-examines archaeological findings of theater architecture to show that, rather than being a universal notion, spectatorship was a historical phenomenon at the turn of the seventeenth century made possible by modifying the spatial structure of Song-Yuan dreamscapes. Paize Keulemans focuses on early-Qing “contemporary operas” to investigate how on-stage rumors and off-stage voices imbue the action on stage with a sense of immanence, thereby co-opting the theater as a space for imagined social activism. Wu Cuncun reads Li Ciming's nineteenth-century Beijing diary to explore how the city, the theater, the private apartment, the stage and the page all positioned contemporary literati identity. Mark Stevenson reads the homoeroticism of Beijing flower-registers (huapu) as a response to nineteenth-century ambivalence regarding social status, public-private distinctions, and sentiment.

From Backstage to Balcony: Transformations of Theater Architecture and the Birth of Spectatorship, 1100-1700
Ling Hon Lam, University of California, Berkeley, USA

Counterpoised against the nineteenth-century Western proscenium theater, the traditional Chinese theater has been characterized as a nosy, distractive, and socially multifunctional space. The vocal presence of the audience, we are told, shatters the fourth wall with bravos, boos, and chitchats. From this perspective, archaeologists envisage a continual development from the earliest temple theaters to late Qing teahouses, all allegedly embodying progressively the “subjectivity” of the audience. Refuting such teleological accounts of the Chinese theater, this paper contrasts two different spatial logics underlying theater architectures before and after the turn of the seventeenth century. I argue that Song-Yuan to mid-Ming theater was spatially organized as a “dreamscape,” stressing not role-playing in front of the audience but invocation of characters and attendants across thresholds marked by the invention of backstage and sub-stage gateways. In contrast, the spatial logic of “theatricality” at the turn of the seventeenth century put the dreamer “in front of the dream” (The Peony Pavilion). The signature architectural feature was the balconies, giving rise to a new sense of distance from the stage and from other audience members, which was not inherent to theatrical performance but marked by the sway of print. A historical study of spectatorship therefore requires interlacing archaeological materials, sounds, and textual transmission. A comparison between Li Yu's 1661 romantic play Bimu yu (The “Sole” Mate) and its novella adaptation Xi zhong xi (A Play within A Play) concerning their visions of theatrical architecture will provide us with a case in point.

Acoustic Connections, Off-Stage Voices, and the Evocation of Immanence: The Spatial and Temporal Dynamics of Rumor in the Opera of Li Yu
Paize Keulemans, Princeton University, USA

Much scholarly work on the literary culture of the early Qing dynasty has focused on notions of memory, trauma, and nostalgia. In contrast, this paper will focus on the “contemporary operas (shishi xiqu)” of the seventeenth-century Suzhou playwright Li Yu to argue for the importance of the notion of “the present day.” How is this notion of the present day given dramatic form in Li Yu's operas and what implications does this interest in the present day have for the broader cultural scene of the early Qing dynasty? This paper will answer these questions by investigating two dramatic techniques favored by Li Yu: the inclusion of snippets of rumor on-stage and the projection of sounds from off-stage. Combined, these two elements produce an aesthetics of immediacy, a dramatic sense of events drawing ever more near both in a temporal and spatial sense. Moreover, the dynamic interaction of on-stage and off-stage elements not only generates a constantly evolving sense of the present, it also projects this sense of immediacy beyond the fiction of the stage into the “reality” of the audience, creating a form of opera eminently suited for both reflecting and producing public opinion and social activism, as evidenced in Li Yu's most famous work, Qing zhong pu (Registers of the Pure and Loyal), a work chronicling the popular Suzhou protests of the mid-1620s.

Official Life: Homoerotic Self-Representation and Theater in Li Ciming's Yuemantang riji
Cuncun Wu, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

As many have noted, homoerotic play was central to the recreational culture of theatergoing from the mid-Qing to the beginning of twentieth century, especially in Beijing. Theatergoing literati in particular played an important role in the production and reproduction of a theater-based homoerotic discourse, heavily investing themselves in maintaining a homoerotic sub-culture centred on social distinction. Though it is important not to underestimate the importance of lower-status audiences in the popularisation of jingju, the literati class doubtlessly considered themselves the aesthetic vanguard in terms of both the judgment of staged drama and the literary promotion of romances between themselves and the boy-actors offstage. Drawing on the diary of the influential late-Qing scholar-official Li Ciming (1830-1894), this paper will seek to establish a way forward in interpreting the significance of this doubling of the theatergoing experience for literati men in their movement between theaters and boy-actors' private-apartments (siyu), a movement mirrored in the space created between dramatic spectatorship (stage) and literary performance (page). To that end I will focus on the question of how Li's diaries structure his presentation of romantic relationships with boy-actors within his wider experiences of the city, examining to what extent his self-representations inform us of Qing literati ownership of homoerotic sensibilities and spaces, which is to say, how he saw himself as presenting to others and how that self-presentation is (re-)presented in his writing.

One as Form and Shadow: Theater and the Space of Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century Beijing
Mark J Stevenson, Victoria University, Australia

Read as a form of social document, one of the most interesting areas of life illuminated by huapu (“flower-guides”) is what they show us in relation to literati leisure in nineteenth-century Beijing. A series of changes that took place across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made the theater and its extracurricular nightlife essential for the self-distinction of the literati, but for many simply attending theaters and nightclubs was not enough. The popular roots (in terms of language, musical style, and prosody) of Beijing opera confronted literati men with a certain ambivalence. Reflecting their physical segregation in the best seats, the huapu literature of the nineteenth century divided the theater experience one step further as it produced a parallel world accessible only to those who considered themselves paragons of refinement. In this paper I employ the spatial/relational tropes of parergon, ekphrasis, and heterotopia to consider how huapu texts are positioned as supplement in relation to the staging of dramatic works, to the boy-actors' performance and embodiment of erotic fantasy, and to performance and play among aspiring paragons of gentlemanly refinement. The problem is in part the old one of finding a space/place for/of sentimentality. Doubly turned away from the stage and from public events, huapu celebrate several levels of subjective taste and deploy varying tropes of friendship, and it was by playing with these things that they also recorded and reproduced their need to play with contemporary confusion around the place of private and public discourse.