Thomas Kelly takes questions during a CEAS Author Talk at the Seminary Co-op in Chicago, IL, on March 29, 2024.

Let Pre-modern China and Theater Sing: Spotlight on Thomas Kelly

It was Peony Pavilion — the masterpiece of Ming Dynasty opera, written by Tang Xianzu more than 400 years ago — that made Thomas Kelly, Assistant Professor of Pre-Modern Chinese Literature at Harvard University, fall in love with Chinese drama. “It’s not just some old piece of work, it was unlike anything I had ever read,” Kelly recalls. “It has beautiful poetry. And it also has vulgar humor and comedy. It has love, romance, and sex. It has every element of life in it.” After reading that play, Kelly decided to pursue a Ph.D in premodern Chinese literature.

And so it makes sense that Kelly, now a distinguished scholar of Ming and Qing Chinese literature, is convening a workshop on Chinese performance theory this month. Through this workshop, Kelly hopes to bring the Ming Dynasty theater scene — including Peony Pavilion — to life. Scholarship, in his view, “often fails to capture how vibrant and multidimensional premodern performance culture was.” The workshop will convene leading scholars from around the world to look at how theatergoers experienced plays during the Ming Dynasty.  

Kelly wasn’t always interested in the past. He began studying contemporary China as an undergraduate at Oxford and spent time studying contemporary literature in China. He took a special interest in a select group of these contemporary writers. “I always felt that the most interesting writers were engaging with premodern periods — they were connected to the past,” says Kelly. “I realized that there were certain questions about ideas and traditions, and that you need to go deeper to really understand Chinese culture.” His classmates at Oxford, he says, felt they had done enough studying after a couple of years and went on to become diplomats and businesspeople. “I always felt I hadn’t gone far enough,” Kelly adds. “I wanted to get past a superficial view of Chinese culture and society.”

Kelly’s first book, The Inscription of Things: Writing and Materiality in Early Modern China (Columbia University Press, 2023), explores the relationship between literature and material culture by examining inscribed objects from the Ming and Qing periods. “It’s a sort of curation of literati life,” he says. He is currently working on two new projects. The first, tentatively entitled The Unfinished Book, c. 1644, investigates the relationship between a poetics of incompletion and manuscript culture during a time of great upheaval for literati — the Ming-Qing dynastic transition. Kelly’s second new project is a critical study of performance theory in early modern China based on the life and essays of drama critic Pan Zhiheng (1566–1622).

“Thinking Through Performance in China” will run from Friday, April 12 to Saturday, April 13 and feature many major scholars in the field of Chinese performance studies today.

Kelly teaches a fascinating array of courses, including one on Chinese theater this semester. (His students will be attending the workshop!) Another course examines fakes in premodern China, where there was a longstanding tradition of copying the master calligraphers and painters — and also outright counterfeiting for profit. “We look at the question of when copying was considered learning vs. stealing,” Kelly says. “And of course that’s related to today, with the rise of “shanzhai,” [山寨, or counterfeit], having a fake phone, and such.”

Kelly, who received his Ph.D from the University of Chicago in 2017 and BA from the University of Oxford in 2009, is currently serving as the president of the Society for Ming Studies. In this brief Q&A, he shares his thoughts about the upcoming workshop, Thinking Through Performance in China, which will run from Friday, April 12 to Saturday, April 13.

Why did you want to organize this workshop, and why are you excited about it?

I’ve always been fascinated by the world of Chinese opera. When we teach traditional Chinese theater in the U.S., we tend to rely on translations of famous plays (Peony Pavilion, etc.), but I felt this often fails to capture how vibrant and multidimensional premodern performance culture was. For this workshop, I wanted to examine a wider selection of records to explore how theatergoers understood the experience of watching and listening to plays. These records (called quhua 曲話, or “remarks on opera,” in Chinese) contain fascinating information about performance practices, but they also shed light on bigger questions, such as the construction of gender and sexuality in premodern China. “Remarks on opera” might sound pretty niche, but the issues these sources address — voice, gesture, the nature of sensory perception, cross-dressing, and the ethics of spectatorship — are relevant to current debates in the arts and humanities more broadly.

How does the workshop relate to work you have done in the past? And was this in part inspired by questions you were trying to answer in your previous research?

If we want to understand classical Chinese drama, we need to know how the people who wrote and performed these plays understood what they were doing. My students are often familiar with canonical Western theorists of drama (whether Brecht or Stanislavski), but they may not know anything about the rich tradition of writings about theatrical performance in China. I want to introduce these voices to students and practitioners of the performing arts today. The workshop builds on a multi-year translation project I’ve been working on with colleagues across the U.S. and East Asia.

How did you choose the speakers and presenters for the workshop?

We invited a mix of senior scholars from across North America and up-and-coming researchers. We are excited that some Harvard graduate students will present their dissertation research. We’re also delighted to welcome back to Harvard some alumni who now teach at research universities around the world. The workshop aims to take stock of where the field of Chinese performance studies is at right now, and what future directions for research we might pursue.

Why is this workshop important?

I think the workshop is important because Chinese theater is important. Theater is one of the ways a society reflects upon itself. The central question our workshop explores —“what was the function of theater in premodern China?”—has important ramifications for students of Chinese history, the arts, and thought more generally. Classical Chinese drama (xiqu) is also very much a part of contemporary performance repertoires throughout East Asia and beyond. We hope the workshop will speak to aficionados and practitioners of the performing arts (and hopefully create some new fans too!)