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Worldly Stage: Theatricality in Seventeenth-Century China (review)
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Sophie Volpp’s Worldly Stage is a recent addition to the growing body of scholarship on the concept of “theatricality” in classical Chinese literature.1 The term “theatricality” has been widely applied in previous scholarship and has garnered a wide range of meanings. Volpp’s employment of the term centers on the idea of the “worldly stage.” She argues that parallels could be drawn between world and stage, especially because social and theatrical roles became increasingly inseparable in seventeenth-century China. Her study of the social space occupied by the stage presents a thoughtful reflection on the significance of theater to our understanding of the literary and cultural world in seventeenth-century China.

As used by Volpp, the term “seventeenth century” refers to the long seventeenth century (roughly 1570–1720) that represents a period of social continuity from the late Ming to the early Qing. During this period, commerce expanded and anxieties regarding social imposture intensified. The Ming-Qing transition also called for a dispassionate aesthetic mode. Volpp argues that two modes of thinking about world and stage, or what she terms “two conceptions of theatricality,” are particularly relevant to the cultural world in the seventeenth century. The thinking in the first mode likened theatrical roles to social ones to the extent of turning theatrical role-playing into a metaphor for social imposture. Here, the function of theatrical spectatorship is to recognize social imposture and inauthenticity. In the second and more complex mode, the “stage becomes a space that allows the spectator to apprehend the illusory nature of all forms” (p. 8) and where the spectator is asked to engage with illusion. Whereas a vulgar spectator would usually seek to distinguish between illusion and reality, a refined spectator is expected to maintain illusion and disillusion in tension simultaneously. Spectatorship is central in Volpp’s discussion of theatricality, for she argues that the larger discourse on social spectatorship in seventeenth-century China was indebted to theatrical models.

Although Worldly Stage devotes Chapter 2 to “performance practice” and “stage architecture,” and each of the three subsequent chapters to discussion of a specific play (respectively, Mudan ting 牡丹亭, Nan wanghou 男王后, and Taohua shan 桃花扇), Volpp’s project is not primarily about Chinese theater history, the evolution of dramatic genres, or the literary merits of individual playwrights and their masterpieces. Rather, Volpp is concerned mainly with how the theatrical world interacted with, and was relevant to, the social-cultural world, and particularly with the resemblances between social and theatrical roles. In her own words, the book is “a consideration of the ways in which concerns regarding the relation between world and stage suffused all aspects of literary culture—poetry, fiction, drama, casual essays, jokes” (pp. 7–8). The scope of Volpp’s discussion is impressive. In addition to three dramatic texts, she includes a rich variety of writings broadly related to theater and spectatorship. Among these are Zhang Dai’s 張岱 (1597–1684?) requiems for actors and his essay “Xihu qiyue ban” 西湖七月半 on spectators and spectacle; a scene from Chapter 63 of the novel Jin Ping Mei 金瓶梅 that depicts the performance of a play; a classical tale from Pu Songling’s 蒲松齡 (1640–1715) Liaozhai zhiyi 聊齋志異 about a licentiate who sees his own life acted before him as though it were a spectacle on stage; and two biographies of the storyteller Liu Jingting 柳敬亭 (1587–after 1668), written by Wu Weiye 吳偉業 (1609–1672) and Huang Zongxi 黃宗羲 (1610–1695) respectively.

Chapter 1, “The Significance of Theatricality in Seventeenth-Century China,” can be read as an extension of the introduction. Together they lay out the structural and theoretical framework of the book. In Chapter 2, Volpp examines the changing conceptualization of the relation between world and stage by discussing how performance practice and stage architecture developed over the course of the seventeenth century. She proposes that two different models existed: the late Ming model, represented by the intimate style of salon-style private performances, which allowed permeability between world and stage and encouraged mobile and participatory spectatorship; and a later, contrasting model, represented by plays like Taohua shan, which presented spectator and spectacle as two distinct realms and increased the distance between them. Volpp speculates that the second model might have...



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