Book Excerpt: “Staging for the Emperors” by Liana Chen

Much scholarly attention has been devoted to understanding the dynamics between the Qing court theatre and the burgeoning popular theatrical traditions outside the court. However, the insights drawn from recent studies have only begun to be applied to the analysis of dramas commissioned by the Qing court for various ceremonial occasions. Treating Qing dynasty court theatre as a unique site in which to examine important but uncharted realms of Chinese theatrical experience, Staging for the Emperors examines two distinct and interlocking dimensions of the Qing court theatre—the vicissitudes of the palace troupe and the multifaceted functions of court-commissioned ceremonial dramas—to highlight the diverse array of views held by individual rulers as they used theatrical means to promote their personal and political agendas. Below, Liana Chen writes about how the “court theatre profoundly altered the cultural life of the Qing court community”:

The sounds of drums and clappers permeated every corner of the imperial compound and all aspects of its seasonal, life-cycle, and calendrical activities. It was on the stage of the three-tiered theatre—the imperial theatre known for its unique architectural design—that courtly entertainment and spectacles of imperial virtue and benevolence met. Theatrical performances were held both inside and outside the Forbidden City as an extravagant expression of the filial devotion of the emperor to his mother. They accompanied major ceremonial occasions, such as the emperors’ and empress dowagers’ birthdays, imperial weddings, and celebrations of military victories. They formed an integral part of the imperial bestowals granted to visitors on diplomatic occasions. Featuring elaborate costumes, props, stage sets, and advanced stage technologies, these semi-public stage productions were designed to impress visiting guests from near and afar. Since the early Qing, drama had been fully incorporated into court functions as a way to convey political messages to the participants—both domestic and foreign. On the stage, imperial subjects praising the emperor’s sage rule were the focal point of the dramatization. Stories about imperial favors witnessed by each character interlaced into a fabric of fantasies that, like propaganda elsewhere, projected an ideal image of the state and invited the audience to participate in this game of wish fulfillment. In the theatre compound, the physical presence of the material gifts to be given to theatre attendees formed a visual nexus connecting the fictional world onstage to the real world offstage. The rituals of banqueting and gift bestowal, two organic components that went hand in hand with court theatrical events, provided spectacular, ocular proof of the portrait of a powerful and munificent emperor that was painted by the actors and playwrights of ceremonial dramas.

As a result of all this, court theatre profoundly altered the cultural life of the Qing court community. Its significance extended far beyond the rulers’ pleasure or the achievements of the performers who graced the imperial stage. This book examines the Qing-dynasty court theatre as a cultural institution, drawing on archival materials from the administrative bureaus of the Qing court, playscripts written for court ceremonial occasions, and memoirs, diaries, and accounts by those who were involved in producing and performing ceremonial dramas. It tells the story of how individual Qing rulers established their roles as patrons of theatrical art, and it demonstrates that theatre, like other forms of tangible and intangible culture, was an essential component of the Qing’s empire-building project.”

Staging for the Emperors is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook editions.

Liana Chen is Assistant Professor of Chinese and International Affairs at The George Washington University. She holds a PhD in Chinese literature from Stanford University, and an MA in theatre and drama from National Taiwan University. Dr. Chen is the author of Literati and Actors at Work: The Transformations of “Peony Pavilion” On Page and On Stage in the Ming and Qing Dynasties (Taipei: National Taiwan University Press, 2013). She has published in several journals, including NAN NÜ: Men, Women and Gender in China and Asian Theatre Journal. Dr. Chen’s areas of teaching and research focus on late-imperial Chinese literature and culture, Chinese theatre and drama, and Taiwanese literature. Her research has been supported by the Foundation for Development of Chinese Culture (Taiwan), and the American Council of Learned Societies.

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