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  • Staging Personhood: Costuming In Early Qing Drama by Guojun Wang
  • Tan Jing
STAGING PERSONHOOD: COSTUMING IN EARLY QING DRAMA. By Guojun Wang. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020; pp. 312.

Taking costuming as a central object, Guojun Wang seeks to explore the sartorial significance embedded in dramatic texts in his monograph Staging Personhood: Costuming in Early Qing Drama. Under an interpretive framework posed by the interplay between onstage costume and offstage clothing, Wang explores multiple tensions between texts and theatre, onstage performance and offstage social context, and literary writing and individual person-hood during the period of Ming/Qing transition in Chinese history.

In his introduction, “Costuming as Method,” Wang carefully defines terms central to his conceptual framework and methodology. Clothing and clothes refer to “items of apparel in society,” while costume refers to “pieces of clothes used in drama and theatre” (3). Costuming is used in reference to “the theatrical appropriation of body and clothing in drama texts, performances, and different types of visual representations” (3–4). Costuming may be understood in a narrow sense as production and stage use of costumes, and in a broad sense that includes dressing, undressing, and cross-dressing in theatrical practices (10).

In the period covered by Wang’s monograph, this distinction between clothes and costumes marks the space of a heated sociopolitical struggle over the nature of the self. In classical Chinese drama before the Qing dynasty, onstage costumes were the same as social clothes, except for those adopted in historical plays. Under the nascent Manchu regime, the newly out-of-power Han Chinese, whose traditional culture placed great value on the intactness of the body to present filial piety to parents, were forced to shave their heads and change to Manchu clothing. However, theatrical costume retained the Han style of the recently collapsed Ming dynasty rather than Manchu clothing, while plays depicting current events were banned. Thus the sartorial discrepancy that motivates Wang’s study, that between Han-style costumes onstage and Manchu-style clothes offstage, was formed. To better understand this discrepancy and to interpret how early Qing dramas were presented as a result is Wang’s chief critical and historical concern. In the process, he reveals how the anxiety of “personhood,” generated from inevitable incoherent roles, identity crises, and political and cultural oppression experienced by the Han Chinese under the changing regime, may be exposed by the historian of costuming. [End Page 578]

Chapter 1 explores how different audiences experienced and interpreted the sartorial discrepancy that appeared onstage and offstage in the early Qing period. Records left by spectators, including Korean envoys, Japanese officials, British diplomats, Ming loyalists, and Qing literati, are used to describe the effects of the spectacle in relation to segregation and political edicts enforced by the Manchu reign.

In chapter 2, Wang delineates the complicated cultural and political dress codes across genders and ethnicities embodied in the early Qing drama Lovebird Reversal (Dao yuanyang倒鴛鴦), which depicts a young male scholar and a young lady who exchange clothes with each other to survive the Manchu invasion, before they finally redeem their original genders years later when their parents, coincidentally, arrange for them to be married. Wang argues that the disruption and restoration of social order corresponds with the destruction and restoration of gender relations in this play of cross-dressing, and the playwright structures the play within a philosophical and cosmological view of balance between the binaries of the opposites—for instance, genders and social order.

The analysis of A Ten-Thousand-Li Reunion (Wanli yuan萬里圓) in chapter 3 reveals how the Confucian ethics of filial piety (paid only to parents) and political loyalty (paid exclusively to one master or one regime) were split among Han Chinese males as the orthodox Han regime was replaced by the invaded Manchus. Wang explores in depth the production history of this drama to delineate the fragmentation of theatrical costuming in relation to the identity crisis of Han Chinese as simultaneously members of a family and subjects of changing states.

Chapter 4 takes up two early Qing dramas based on the historical event of Lady Hai, who committed suicide after suffering an attempted sexual assault. The plays focus...


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pp. 578-580
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