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Ascending the Hall of Great Elegance: the Emergence of Drama Research in Modern China


This dissertation captures a critical moment in China’s history when the interest in opera transformed from literati divertissement into an emerging field of scholarly inquiry. Centering around the activities and writings of Qi Rushan (1870-1962), who played a key role both in reshaping the modes of elite involvement in opera and in systematic knowledge production about opera, this dissertation explores this transformation from a transitional generation of theatrical connoisseurs and researchers in early twentieth-century China. It examines the many conditions and contexts in the making of opera—and especially Peking opera—as a discipline of modern humanistic research in China: the transnational emergence of Sinology, the vibrant urban entertainment market, the literary and material resources from the past, and the bodies and identities of performers.

This dissertation presents a critical chronology of the early history of drama study in modern China, beginning from the emerging terminology of genre to the theorization and the making of a formal academic discipline. Chapter One examines the genre-making of Peking Opera in three overlapping but not identical categories: temporal, geographical-political, and aesthetic. It argues that it is within the context of emerging theatrical genres and heated debates on drama in early twentieth-century China that a “researcher mode” of theatrical appreciation became meaningful for Qi Rushan and his contemporaries.

Chapter Two and Three study the link between the urban theater and the emergence of modern drama research in China. Chapter Two examines from a material point of view how studies on China’s native theater were shaped by the local conditions of Republican Beijing. It investigates how the city’s well-established cultural market, unique thriving opera scene, and long-standing performing community fueled the collecting of theatrical materials, thereby providing a solid basis of research artifacts in the transnational competition for texts and things pertinent to Sinological studies. Chapter Three explores the urban theater from the production side and revises the assumption of a linear temporal sequence between theatrical knowledge and production with attention to the local conditions (audiences preferences and entertainment fashion) of the site where the theatrical art develops. It shows that Mei Lanfang’s signatures plays were responding to contemporary market trends rather than being the materialization of any pre-existing aesthetic ideas. It was not until these productions were translated to contexts different from the entertainment market in 1910s and 1920s China that they came to be identified as illustration of an aesthetic representing Chinese theatrical art.

Chapter Four examines the formation and transition of theatrical knowledge through discussion of two kinds of performer education: for career actors and for amateurs. The discussion on education for career actor uncovers a tension between aspiration for full-rounded preparation and the economic and social restraints encountered, while the controversies surrounding amateur performers were windows onto the identity-claims of insiders and outsiders to the performing business. This chapter shows that it was in the course of contemporaneous discussions on what and how to learn about opera performance that the scope and content of theatrical knowledge came into shape.

Chapter Five discusses Qi Rushan’s effort to stabilize an understanding of Chinese theatrical art by writing a history of Chinese opera with textual resources from Chinese antiquity and the early imperial dynasties. It shows how Qi theorized Chinese opera with the constructed gewu—song-and-dance—notion and how he depicted an unbroken genealogy of the Chinese performance tradition dating from the ancient period to recent times. For Qi, gewu was the guiding principle to connect the past and present of Chinese theater and to make an aesthetic that attested to the superiority of Chinese theatrical art.

The concluding chapter reflects the irony of knowledge production about an art form dislocated from its native place and ponders the links between the birth of a scholarship and the loss of the thing being studied. Reviewing Qi Rushan’s immigrant years on Taiwan after he moved there in 1947, it argues that the “geographical” rupture due to the Chinese Civil War engendered new incentives to nationalize the interest in opera in service of the party-state. When theatrical connoisseurs and researchers relocated to Taiwan because of the loss of their homeland, their indulgence in opera was finally accepted as “elegant.”

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