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  • The Eternal Present of the Past: Illustration, Theater, and Reading in the Wanli Period, 1573–1619 by Li-Ling Hsiao
  • Anne E. McLaren (bio)
Li-Ling Hsiao. The Eternal Present of the Past: Illustration, Theater, and Reading in the Wanli Period, 1573–1619. China Studies, vol. 12. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2007. 347 pp. 107 black-and-white illustrations, appendix, glossary, and bibliography. Hardcover $161.00, isbn 978-90-04-15643-2.

The involvement of the literati class in drama during the late Ming period is a much studied trend of the era. The Chinese male elite, particularly those located in Jiangnan, took a keen interest in every aspect of dramatic production. Literati hired and trained their own drama troupes, composed plays for reading and performance, and were impassioned critics of the aesthetics and musicality of this operatic form of drama. Many of these printed dramatic texts contain exquisite illustrations and mark a high point in the illustrative art of the era. Li-Ling Hsiao’s The Eternal Present of the Past: Illustration, Theater, and Reading in the Wanli Period, 1573–1619 is the most comprehensive study to date of illustrations in dramatic texts of the Ming era.1 The author argues strongly for “the intellectual ambition of the medium” of illustration in contrast to those who would see illustration as merely decorative or aesthetic, or as the result of market competition to attract readers (pp. 14, 30–31, 37). She believes drama illustrations were “highly self- conscious and purposeful and fully complicit in the most important intellectual movements of the day” (p. 36).

Chapter 1 of The Eternal Present of the Past offers a synthesis for the main arguments of the book. The following chapters deal with the controversy among drama critics about the performability of the literati play (chap. 2), illustrations in [End Page 498] printed dramatic texts that adopted the visual imagery of the theatre (chap. 3), literati understandings of plays as bringing the past into the present through stage performance and printed renditions (chap. 4), the fruitful dynamic between illustration and painting (chap. 5), and contemporary notions of reading as a type of “theatrical experience” (chap. 6). In these chapters, Hsiao translates and discusses a large corpus of paratextual matter in Ming plays and relevant dramatic criticism. She is seeking to position her chosen dramatic illustrations within the broadest possible context of Ming literati preoccupations, including their understanding of the relationship between theatrical performance and printed text and concerns about whether excessive literary refinement detracted from the musicality and appropriateness of the operatic performance. Hsiao’s erudite discussion is often stimulating and insightful. However, the individual chapters tend to work as separate essays, and the synthesis of all these ideas, promised in chapter 1, appears somewhat elusive when one proceeds in detail through the evidence provided.

Chapter 3 is the most original contribution and adds significantly to our understanding of the theatricality of a certain type of illustration popular in dramatic texts of the Ming Wanli period (1573–1620). In this chapter, the reader is presented with a feast of illustrations from famous Ming plays and a detailed discussion of the way that these present a mimesis of dramatic performance. Hsiao argues for several modes by which this act of mimesis was effected: the use of stage design in illustrations, the use of theatrical gestures, and the inclusion of stage structures, name boards, curtains, valences, props, and so on. This chapter contains twenty reproductions from the history of Chinese illustrations, beginning with the Diamond Sutra, to assist the reader to assess the evidence.

While stage trappings can be found in earlier fictional illustrations such as pinghua (prose tales), chantefables, and novels, it is clear from Hsiao’s study that the use of theatrical imagery reached a new height in the Wanli era and was one of the most important illustrative trends of the era. Chapter 3 offers additional insight into how the poses and gestures of the characters in illustrations provide a mimesis of stage enactment. Hsiao treats gestures of entering and journeying on stage, greeting and speaking, crying and rejoicing, serving drinks at banquets, even the expression of feminine shyness. Some illustrations are...


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