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  • Wang Guowei and the Beginnings of Modern Chinese Drama Studies
  • Yuming He

It has become a well-established academic convention to trace the beginning of modern Chinese drama studies to Wang Guowei (style name Jing'an, 1877–1927), one of the most renowned intellectual luminaries of modern China. This view can, in fact, be partly traced to Wang's own preface to his Song Yuan xiqu shi (A History of Song and Yuan Drama) where he quite emphatically stakes just such a claim:1

All the materials here were collected by me; and as for the interpretations given, these also were for the most part first arrived at by me. Scholars in this field of study throughout the world begin with me, and the results that have been achieved in this field are represented most abundantly in this book. It is not that our talent surpasses that of the ancients, but rather simply that the ancients never engaged in this field of study.2

Wang Guowei's claim has subsequently been affirmed by generations of scholars, and his founding of modern Chinese drama studies has taken on [End Page 129] the status of a defining moment in the modernization of Chinese humanistic scholarship. Numerous studies have appeared offering thoughts on just what it is that makes Wang Guowei's work on Chinese drama particularly "modern." These studies focus, for example, on Wang's conceptual framework, a hybrid of Chinese and western intellectual traditions, on his promotion of a previously underesteemed vernacular literary form, on the impact of theories of evolution (especially Yan Fu's translation of Huxley's Evolution and Ethics), on his view of history, or on his sense of a changing world order. Whichever of these elements is foregrounded, the basic picture that emerges is of Wang Guowei single-handedly arriving at a radically new way of viewing and of studying traditional Chinese drama.

Any claim of a historical "beginning" necessarily involves a degree of arbitrariness. The purpose of this article is not to prove or disprove Wang Guowei's status as the founder of modern Chinese drama studies but, rather, to attempt to recapture the complexity of the historical forces that contributed to shaping this particular foundation narrative, and perhaps to suggest how this particular shaping process might be emblematic for other aspects of the formation of modern Chinese humanistic studies. In other words, I investigate the historical conditions that made this particular arbitrary claim sensible, or even necessary, at the time, focusing on the reconfiguration of an increasingly transregional institutional framework of scholarship, the relationship between modern Chinese scholarship and nationalist sentiment, and the often under-explored dimension of personal relationships.

Wang Guowei decided early on to give up his ambition for success in the civil service examinations and instead pursue a career path centered on "new learning" (xinxue), a late Qing socio-intellectual orientation that promoted Western scholarship. With this goal in mind, he went to Shanghai in 1898. The period in his career most relevant to his emergence as a scholar of traditional Chinese drama dates from this time up to the appearance of Song Yuan xiqu shi in 1913–1914. During this period, Wang Guowei's development was shaped by the distinctive cultural environments of three metropolises: Shanghai, Beijing, and Kyoto. In Shanghai, Wang became deeply engaged in the powerful new media of newspapers and journals that dominated that city's cultural landscape. While in Shanghai, Wang also met Luo Zhenyu (1866–1940), who was to become his lifelong patron. Through Luo, he obtained an appointment in 1906 to the Qing Board of Education in Beijing where he gained his first extensive firsthand access to drama collections, published several of his foundational studies of drama, and formed many of the institutional and personal connections that were later instrumental in his emergence as a preeminent authority in the field. It was by drawing on these connections that Wang, in his self-imposed exile after the 1911 revolution, was able to find an intellectual [End Page 130] and professional niche in Kyoto, where his status as a scholar of traditional Chinese drama was affirmed and solidified.

The following discussion is divided into two parts. The...


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