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  • The Eternal Present of the Past: Illustration, Theater, and Reading in the Wanli Period, 1573–1619
  • Megan Evans
The Eternal Present of the Past: Illustration, Theater, and Reading in the Wanli Period, 1573–1619. By Li-ling Hsiao. University of Oxford China Studies Series 12. Leiden: Brill, 2007. 347 pp. Cloth, $186.00.

The Eternal Present of the Past is an elegantly and accessibly written examination of drama culture in late Ming dynasty China (1368–1644) by analysis of wood-block illustrations contained in published plays. Li-ling Hsiao’s background is in Chinese art and literature, with work also in sixteenth- to seventeenth-century theatrical practice in China. She skillfully weaves these three threads [End Page 176] of expertise, though performance practices receive significantly less detailed attention in the work overall. Chinese titles of plays and other primary sources are rarely translated, somewhat limiting the study’s accessibility.

The introduction frames the core research questions in vibrant terms: “[M]any literati rightly feared the overthrow of the theatre as the dominant cultural and moral institution, and they struggled on numerous fronts to uphold the status of the printed play as a medium rooted in the traditions of the theatre, and illustration became the primary field of ideological battle” (2). And yet, theatrical references in the Wanli illustrations are quite subtle—so subtle in fact, that many critics have assumed they depict the narrative content rather than its performance (87–89). While I was frequently persuaded by Hsiao’s vigorous arguments, my own viewing of the included illustrations left me with many questions about their performative influences.

In chapter 1, titled “Theatre, Illustration, and Time,” Hsiao articulates a three-phase development in published illustration: a pre-Wanli trend favoring “narrative illustration” that reproduced fictional content, the Wanli performance-inspired illustrations, and a post-Wanli phase that rejected published scripts as “mere handmaidens” to performance and returned to narrative illustration with new influences from landscape painting. Though fascinating, the chapter suggests a useful comparative methodology that Hsiao engages only intermittently in subsequent analysis.

Chapter 2, titled “The Stage or the Page,” maps the philosophical debate raging in the Wanli period over the function of drama as manifest in playscript composition and structure. The debate resulted in a bifurcation of drama culture: “Literati increasingly came to conceive drama as a literary genre divorced from the context of theatre, while performers increasingly found themselves having to adapt and simplify plays for their popular audiences, oftentimes retaining the plot but entirely revising the language” (40–41). Pro-performance literati urged a transcendent compromise: maintaining high literary standards while still being accessible to popular audiences. The illustrations’ subtle theatrical clues discussed in the chapter do not seem adequate weapons in the dire struggle Hsiao has outlined here.

Chapter 3 contains Hsiao’s core research: analysis of “performance illustrations,” which she defines as those “inspired by the stage or alluding to the stage” (87). She divides her analysis into four main categories of stage influence: internal arrangement of space, utilization of stylized theatrical gestures, orientation of the image toward an imaginary audience, and overt references to stage structures and props (87). She draws effective comparisons between earlier “narrative illustrations” that contain no framing titles and Wanli “performance illustrations” with titles often positioned at the top or side of the image in a manner similar to panels on stages announcing the content of the play or the participation of a famous performer. A number of nineteenth-century paintings are included as evidence for the usual placement of these panels. The paintings clearly depict performances, showing musicians and spectators, and raise the question of why the Wanli illustrators, if their goal was to promote the theatrical dimension of the texts, chose not [End Page 177] to represent such elements. On this point Hsiao might have made useful reference to the varied narrative and performative approaches taken in kabuki’s extraordinary visual history of woodblock prints. She does not address the question directly, though asserts that repeated illustration of the same stage would be too monotonous (117). She asserts that the figures that appear to be depicted in a natural setting are instead framed in a close...


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pp. 176-179
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