Andrea Goldman (UCLA)
Title: “A Visual and Material History of the Thirteen Stars of Peking Opera”

Abstract: Shen Rongpu’s 沈蓉圃 late nineteenth-century painting, Thirteen Stars of the Tongzhi and Guangxu Reigns (Tongguang shisan jue 同光十三角), has become visual synecdoche for Peking opera, gracing book jackets of contemporary studies of Chinese opera, reproduced on walls of theaters and museums, and repackaged as opera-themed tchotkes. The work features collective portraits of the most renowned actors of late Qing Beijing. Typically, it is appreciated as a kind of “snapshot” of the early history of Peking opera. In fact, the painting is a composite, largely pieced together from images of performers produced for albums at the court in the late Qing. This paper explores the circulation and meanings of the images that make up the painting as well as its life over time, from its pre-formation in nineteenth-century court albums to contemporary popular use of its visual material. Some of the questions it asks are: what were the court uses of the images captured in Thirteen Stars? How did Shen’s painting repurpose those images? What has been the role of the painting in Peking opera canon creation? How is the history of Peking opera consumed and reproduced via the continued circulation of the painting? Preliminary findings suggest that much like the painting itself—a seeming seamless whole—the narrative of Peking opera produced by the image smoothes over ruptures and obscures the messiness of the genre’s history. That narrative, tied to a national project by the 1930s, continues to be reproduced and consumed in the proliferation of trinkets emblazoned with the image down to the contemporary era. At heart, this paper speaks to the work that a painting can do in the imagining and re-imagining of opera and its place in modern Chinese society and culture.
From Clipboard

Jonathan Hay (NYU Institute of Fine Arts)
Title: Theatrical Themes in Shanghai School Painting

Abstract: Shanghai School paintings of the late nineteenth century include many depictions of historical stories and legends. I would like to explore the possibility that some of these pictorial themes were drawn from contemporary theatrical practice. If time permits, I will also discuss some commonalities between Shanghai School painting and Haipai Peking opera as practiced down to the present day.

Sarah Kile (Brown University)
Title: False Bound Feet and Fake Paintings: Minor Props in Late Imperial Opera

Abstract: In late imperial China, it was common for southern romances (chuanqi) to feature a central object that would journey throughout the duration of the play, connecting characters in distant places and moving the plot forward. Building on recent scholarship on such consequential objects after which plays are titled, my talk will shift focus to two minor classes of prop: non-portrait paintings and muqiao, the wooden stilts worn by actors to simulate bound feet. Both of these less central props had an intimate connection with those actors or characters who wielded them: in the case of the paintings, with the purported painter, a character in the play; and in the case of the muqiao, with many actors who played the female huadan or wudan role-types. Both objects were also central to concerns about authenticity, whether of the painter’s identity and relation to a painting, or of the gender of the muqiao-supported actor.

I focus on Li Yu’s (1611-1680) chuanqi play, Ideal Love-matches (Yizhong yuan), which depicts the speedy and indecorous circulation of paintings as well as several instances in which small feet are exposed as proof or revelation of their bearer’s female status. While Li Yu’s play may have been written with female actors in mind, by 1779, when qinqiang performer Wei Changsheng, who is credited with developing the muqiao, arrived in Beijing, all-male troupes had become the norm. Whereas the journey of a central and circumstantial stage object such as the Peach Blossom Fan (Taohua shan) would culminate in the final grand reunion, the proliferation of paintings of Ideal Love-matches and the tiny feet of the muqiao-wearing actor call attention to other sorts of relationships between human actors and the material things with which they inhabit the stage. Considering these two types of objects together reveals the diverse ways in which material objects could signify in on-stage performance in late imperial China.

Dorothy Ko (Barnard College)
Title: Theatrical Inkstones in the Early Qing

Abstract: Scenarios and characters from the opera have found their way onto the surfaces of an impressive array of visual and material culture in late imperial and early Republican China, as this exhibition so amply demonstrated. Although ubiquitous, these images were introduced in a selective manner in terms of both the scenes depicted and the medium in which this occurred. They never appear on the surfaces of an inkstone, for example. The first goal of my paper is to investigate this logic of categories: Why paper, silk, porcelain, rhinoceros horn, ivory, and bamboo but not inkstone? Why table frontals, folding fans, dioramic boxes, pillow ends, new year prints, and playing cards but not inkstone? Is it materials, techniques, or use that determines the choice of operatic images?

The second goal of my paper is to show some of the ways whereby theatricality can be achieved on inkstones without indexical references to dramatic scenes and characters. The focus of my analysis is a group of inkstones attributed to the female maker Gu Erniang (fl. 1700-1722) and several male artisan-scholars known to her. Departing from Ming conventions that treat the front, back, and four sides of an inkstone as discrete surfaces, these early-Qing inkstones evince a different objecthood. Treating the six surfaces as related if not continuous, the artisan presents the inkstone as a sculpture in the shape of a flattened sheath of bamboo or a mushroom, for example. This reconceptualization of surfaces creates an illusion of the inkstone as a three-dimensional naturalistic object. The artifice invites the viewer/user to pick up the stone and to turn it over. Conflation of representation and presence, along with an invitation to a tactile spectatorship that is participatory in nature, characterizes this kind of theatricality on stone. The appearance of these inkstones in the early Qing can be attributed to a host of factors, including a heightened valuation of artisanal skills and the beginning of a trend of collecting contemporary instead of antique inkstones.

Yuhang Li (University of Wisconsin at Madison)
Title:Backstage as Spectacle

Abstract: The backstage is usually defined as an area behind the performing space in a theater and it is usually concealed from the public view. On Chinese visual representations, a corner of a backstage with signs of artificial beards is often used as a visual trope to define the performing space on the stage. Nonetheless, a new type of imagery that only represents the backstage appeared in the late Qing period. This paper will explore this phenomenon by focusing on two ink outline drawings designed as New Year Prints for the court by one of the printing shops in Yangliuqing. On these two paintings, on the one hand, unlike the theatrical images of stage performance in which one or multiple characters from the same play are depicted within single pictorial frame, these paintings assemble characters/actors from different plays on the backstage. On the other hand, different from the contemporary images of backstage that actors are represented in the process of putting on make up or dressing up, the figures from these two paintings are rendered in complete theatrical costume and theatrical gestures in a recognizable mode that can be linked to a particular play. On one of the paintings, the name of the theatrical troupe Yuchengban and the title of each play are inscribed. One way we can understand the spatial dynamics associated with such a representation of the backstage is to use the concept of “bleeding reality” into the stage. In general theatricality requires not only that one distinguishes stage space from real space, but also that each of these spaces retain certain integrity. Representing the backstage would be a clear example of bleeding, since by showing the process of producing stage-space, one shows the process of actors becoming characters, consequently making it difficult to identify with characters as such. However, these backstage drawings are particularly interesting, since they represent a type of theatricality within bleeding. Some actors/characters are rendered as facing the gaze of the audience, which theatricality usually presupposes. In particular, the intended viewers of these two paintings are for the imperial family. I would contend that we can understand this unusual phenomenon of theatricality within bleeding as related to the reestablished relationship between court and minjian xiban or commercial theatrical troupe in the late Qing, which would be a transitional period with respect to changing spatiality not only in Chinese theater, but also in terms of the late Qing more generally. In particular, the gaze of the Qing court wanted to penetrate the stage and focus on actions behind the stage, which implies the production of theatricality itself—not what we see on the stage, but the process by which the stage appears as such. In this way, in a period when the actual power of the Qing court was diminishing, the court attempted to affirm its symbolic power.

Mei Mei Rado (Bard Graduate Center, Art History)
Title: Raising the Curtain: Drapery and Theatricality in Eighteenth-Century Qing Court Arts

Abstract: This paper examines the motif of raised curtain – a newly developed pictorial device in eighteenth-century Qing court arts – and its role in bringing theatricality to the visual and sensorial experience. Although representations of lifted or drawn curtains long existed in Chinese religious and burial contexts, the eighteenth century saw the emergence of new representational modes associated with secular, living subjects and illusionistic imagery. Strongly influenced by European pictorial tradition, this new language of drapery evolved the idea of revelation and transition attached to curtains into the pleasure of the spectator and an ambiguity between reality and illusion. The term “theatricality” in this paper is used in its broad sense, including the evocation of theater experience grounded on the familiarity with cultural defined stage elements and a dramatic moment of self-display, encounter, and cognition.

In particular, two representational modes of drapery in Qing court arts will be discussed in detail: first, the overhead drapery that heightened a theatrical sense of presentation; second, the lifted door curtain associated with trompe-l’oeil beauties painted on doors and walls, which signified entering and appearance. I will situate these images in their specific architectural contexts and explore how represented draperies mediated between the viewer, the real space and the painted domain. Marking the threshold and permanently highlighting a status of in-between, these painted draperies also had a potential to reverse the relation between the spectator and spectacle and to assimilate the interior into an imaginary performance space.

David Rolston (University of Michigan)
Title: Comparing Paintings of Peking Opera Characters from the Qing Palace from the 19th Century and Selections of Characters of Beijing Opera (1999)

Abstract: Sets of paintings depicting individual characters in a certain number of Peking opera plays were made in the second half of the 19th century were made for the collection of the Imperial Palace. Some of these were preserved in the holdings of the Palace Museum in Beijing, while others appeared on the curio market with a caption of the first of each set that said “Costume and makeup should all be done according to this model” 穿戴臉兒俱照此樣. This led scholars to believe that these sets of paintings were prepared to be consulted by actors performing these plays in the palace, but it seems more likely that they were really prepared for the consumption of members of the imperial family. Not all of these paintings have been published, but enough for the present project. Selections of Characters of Beijing Opera is the English title of Zhongguo Jingju yishu renwu zaoxing 中國京劇藝術人物造型, a two volume collection of photographs of actors dressed as the main roles in a certain number of plays. In the paper I will use comparison of these two sets of representations of characters to throw into greater relief that particular characteristics of each of them. The two sets are separated by more than 100 years and were produced for very different consumers and methods of consumption.

Sophie Volpp (University of California at Berkeley)
Title: The Substance of the Stage in Honglou meng

Abstract:This paper examines the representation of the stage in Honglou meng, focusing on the space inhabited by the audience in chapter 53, perhaps best remembered for Grandmother Jia’s use of a pair of spectacles to view the actors. Most research on the Qing stage focuses on architecture; here I examine the interior decor of the arena of the stage, in particular the description of glass in the form of lanterns and lenses. The description focuses in part on the many lanterns that are hung about the stage on the occasion of the lantern festival, some made of western palace glass, some of horn, some of gauze; it is punctured by reference to the case for Grandmother Jia’s glasses and finally by her use of those lenses to view the stage.
I examine the representation of the stage in Honglou meng in part to explore its emphasis on technical description, which asks us to consider glass as substance, and as a substance that is not particularly marked or privileged because the technology for its manufacture is of western origin. The passage crystallizes a tension between an evocative metaleptic representation and thick descriptive denotation, which I believe is related to a tension between the invitation to interpretation and the strategic foreclosure of it in the novel itself. The focus on the technical description of objects asks us to pause before entering the reflexive critical assumption that the theater is necessarily related to theatricality. Ultimately, I hope that analyzing the oxymoronic tension between the technical and the metaphorical in Honglou meng’s description of the stage will help us to explore a tension that lies at the root of the project to examine the literary representation of material culture.

Shang Wei (Columbia University)
Title: The Story of the Stone and the Visual Tricks in the Art of the Manchu Court—1723-1796

Abstract:For students of The Story of the Stone, a lingering question is why it appeared in the mid-18th century. This paper seeks to answer this question by examining the extent to which the novel taps into the cultural reservoirs of the day. It argues that in addressing the interplays and intersections of zhen (real) and jia (unreal), The Story of the Stone draws so heavily on the art of interior decorations and architectural designs of the Qing court that it gives both a gripping expression to, and a sophisticated spin on the tastes and artistic inclinations of the Manchu royal house. More specifically, the novel’s representation of Grand Prospect Garden bears the trademark of the visual tricks — or what might be broadly described as the art of deceiving (zaojia) — that informs the paintings, interior designs, and more generally, the material culture of the imperial palaces and gardens of the time.

Catherine Yeh (Boston University)
Title: Dancing Pictures: “Mei Lanfang’s ‘The Goddess Spreads Flowers’ and the Inherent Ambiguity of Modernism”

Abstract:The insertion of dance into Peking opera with Mei Lanfang’s performance of “Tiannü sanhua” 天女散花 or ‘The Goddess Spreads Flowers’ in 1917 can be considered as a milestone in the history of Peking opera. It was an artistic tour de force: an opera newly written and choreographed by Mei’s supporters and tailored to him; a new kind of dance arrangement that integrated singing, together with a new types of costumes, a new makeup (including hairdo), and a new stage design and lighting. It was also an event of unprecedented social engagement of literati, politicians turned patrons, a new breed of newspaper theater critics, as well as photographers and eventually painters. Billed as a major event at the time it turned out to be a historical moment for Peking opera that also propelled Mei Lanfang to international stardom. The piece was the much discussed highlight of his Japan tour in 1919, and provided one of the advertising photos for his New York 49th Street theater performance in 1930.

My paper focuses on the dance in ‘The Goddess Spreads Flowers,’ which forms the center of the dramatic piece. In particular the role played by the pictorial representation on the same theme in earlier paintings, woodblock illustrations as well as Buddhist temple sculptures. By tapping into forgotten sources of creativity from China’s past, Mei Lanfang and Qi Rushan, who helped choreograph the dance, tried to ease the shock of the new and of dances that otherwise would have been understood as a complete break with Peking opera tradition. With the insertion of dance into Peking opera, the claim of Chinese authenticity based on a recasting of the Chinese cultural past, however, only served to highlight the inherent structural contradiction: Peking opera’s dance as part of the international modernist expression and its claim as representing the essence of the forgotten Chinese cultural tradition.