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Thinking through Performance in China – A Workshop on Chinese theories of Acting, Singing, and Theater (c.1200–1850)

April 12 @ 9:30 am April 13 @ 5:30 pm

This workshop reconsiders the significance of critical writings about acting, singing, and theatrical performance in China (c.1200–1850). How did artists, intellectuals, and critics reflect on experiences of watching or listening to live performance? How did the act of writing about spectatorship become an artform in and of itself? What might these texts offer for theater and performance studies across the world today? The central question these texts address —namely, “what is the function of Chinese theater?”—has ramifications for students of Chinese history, literature, and thought more broadly.

Theatrical artforms flourished in China from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries. While current scholarship largely focuses on playwriting and surviving play-texts from the Yuan to Qing dynasties, this period also bore witness to a boom in writings about performance, from manuals on aria composition to poems on the operatic voice to epitaphs for actors. Rather than treat these materials (often referred to in Chinese as quhua 曲話, qulun 曲論,or julun 劇論) as supplementary evidence for a general history of playwriting, this workshop approaches the act of writing about performance as a vibrant field of artistic expression. Texts about theatrical performance not only shed new light on the social history of acting during this period, but they also speak to broader issues such as constructions of gender and sexuality, the politics of patronage, the place of allusion, and conceptions of artifice and naturalness in Chinese aesthetic thought. In as much as these texts struggle to document the evanescence of live performance, they also reflect on the purpose and limitations of writing itself.

In general, the workshop will ask what it means to speak of “performance theory” in the premodern Chinese context. At the same time, the workshop seeks to uncover valuable perspectives from premodern China for teachers, students, and practitioners of the performing arts today.


Friday, April 12

9:30 AM: Introductory Remarks

10:00 AM: Panel 1 – Thinking through Performance
Chair: David Wang, Harvard University
Thomas Kelly, Harvard University, “Writing Evanescence: Pan Zhiheng’s Essays on Acting”
Ling Hon Lam, UC Berkeley, “In Search of Bad Singing: A Disarticulation of the Automaton, or a Mathematical Critique of ‘Self-So’ Cosmology”

12:00 PM: Lunch

1:00 PM: Panel 2 – Performance as Method in Song and Oral Storytelling
Chair: Si Nae Park, Harvard University
Patricia Sieber, The Ohio State University, “Surprise as Method: Performance Aesthetics in Yuan Sanqu Songs”
Canaan Morse, Boston University, “The Image of the Book and the Performance of Reading in The Drunken Man’s Talk and the Early Huaben

3:30 PM: Panel 3 – Performing Spectatorship
Chair: Wai-yee Li, Harvard University
Yinghui Wu, UCLA, “The Passion for Performance and Performers in the Late Ming: Between Therapy, Obsession, and Bad Karma”
Ming Tak Ted Hui, Oxford University, “Vocal Imaginaries: Connoisseurship of the Operatic Voice in the 16th Century”

Saturday, April 13

9:30 AM: Panel 4 – Translation Workshop
Judith Zeitlin (University of Chicago), Yiren Zheng (Dartmouth University), and Tom Kelly will lead a group discussion of essays by Pan Zhiheng 潘之恆 (1556–1622) on acting, singing, and theater.
Zheng: 蘇舌師;馬手樂 (9:30–10:20)
Zeitlin: 獨音;敘曲;李紉之 (10:30–11:20)
Kelly: 仙度;原近 (11:30–12:20)

12:30 PM: Lunch

2:00 PM: Panel 5 – Theater and Theatricality   
Chair: Catherine Yeh, Boston University
Guojun Wang, McGill University, “Bibliography as Critique: Cataloging and Categorizing Drama in Premodern China”
Kangni Huang, Harvard University, “Rethinking Meta-Theater: From Wu Bing to Jiang Shiquan”

4:30 PM: Roundtable – New Directions

For more information, contact Thomas Kelly at thomas_kelly@fas.harvard.edu.


April 12 @ 9:30 am
April 13 @ 5:30 pm
Event Category:


Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies


Common Room, 2 Divinity Ave.

2 Divinity Ave.
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138 United States

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