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Art & artists

Hitting a high note: opera in Chinese art

— January 2015

Article read level: Undergraduate / student

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Chinese, Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), Late Tongzhi (1862–1874) and Guangxu (1875–1908) Periods, leaf from Half-Length Portraits of Opera Characters, ca. 1870s–1900, Album paintings on bi-fold leaves, ink and gilt on silk. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art,

A catalogue full of ‘thoroughly engrossing and educational essays’ will introduce many Westerners to the visual impact of Chinese opera

Performing Images: Opera in Chinese Visual Culture edited by Judith T. Zeitlin and Yuhang Li

Don't bother looking for Chinese art among the permanent collections of the great art museums of the West,as you won't find any! The National Gallery here in London, the Louvre, the Uffiziand El Prado are virtually uncontaminated by anything produced by the largest nation on the planet. Of course you will find an abundance inethnographic collectionswhere 19th-century loot is presented for scholarly scrutiny, for example in our own British Museum, or among the Victoria & Albert Museum's decorative arts. There we are encouraged tokowtow tothe ingenuity of an exotic and distant people. But the Chinese were dealing with aesthetics and art production, oftenon a mass scale,while we in the West were still in the dark ages.

Art history and its stifling discourse continues even in these enlightened times to dictate the canon of great works and artists and, moreover, those objects to be judged as art: usuallypainting and sculpture. In China a different discourse existed where, while painting, poetry and calligraphy reigned supreme, the so-called minor decorative arts were still held in high esteem while relegated to a lower place here in Europe.

A similar situation exists withChinese theatre,in particular opera – not elite ‘highbrow’ entertainment, as it remains in the West, but urbanstreettheatre. This has a long history of performance and interaction with society at all levels, but not always a happy one. Indeedmore recently, having adapted to the demands of the post-1949 Communist leadership in presenting opera that celebrated MaoZedong'srevolution, performers were soon denounced as counter-revolutionaries, beaten and even driven to suicide during the Cultural Revolution.

What this indicates is that opera in China mattered and has been a part of popular consciousness for centuries. This fact is demonstrated through the research and the resulting exhibition at the Smart Museum of Art in Chicago and in the accompanying catalogue.
The exhibition ‘Performing Images: Opera in Chinese Visual Culture’at Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art, was curated by Judith T. Zeitlin and Yuhang Li in 2014. It brought together for the first time a diverse collection of objects, covering the greater part of a thousand years,all sharing images taken from and inspired by Chinese, or more specifically, Peking opera. Traditional Chinese theatre (Xiqu) always contained both song and instrumental music.While travellingthrough the Qing Empire, a  missionary,Évariste Huc,observed that no people equalled the Chinese 'taste and passion for theatrical entertainment'.

Even from our own perspective, anyone who has seen Chen Kaige's 1993 award-winning filmFarewell My Concubinewill be familiar with the colour, costume, and cacophony accompanying the telling of stories from China's gloriousyet turbulentpast.This passionand vibrancyis evident in the representation of scenes from theatre upon a multitude of items brought together in this exhibition, ranging from scrolls, books and prints to ceramics, fans, textiles and personal everyday objects in the possession of all classes.

What is clear from the curators’ research is that so little of whatthey have identifiedcomes from Chinese fine arts alone. Instead, the enormously wide range of surfaces used demonstrates the power of opera in infiltrating the imagination of so many people viathe things they used every day.As an academic research project Zeitlin and her former student Yuhang's exhibition was a tour de forceandthe catalogue stands as itslegacywith thoroughly engrossing and educational essays, which are never didactic and are written by both local and, pleasingly, not wholly Western authors. In fact those with south-east-Asian pedigreescontribute the most insightful contributions and those mostappealingto a non-academic audience.

Previous research on Chinese musical theatre has focused upon such cultural relics as architecture and archaeology but never on the impact of opera on everyday life. Of course as the most recently demised dynasty but also as the one in which operaclearlyflourished,the Qing era provides the majority of artefacts. These were all sobright and beautiful that many soon made their way via the Western-occupiedtrading ports into European and American homes and collections.This may account for the enormous range of material made available to the curators, ranging from national holdings in Beijing and other Chinese cities to private collections a long way from home.

The seven essays filling half the catalogue adopt a different perspectivefrom whichto view these objects: for example from city, village and court, which evidencesthe authors' case for theuniversality of opera.Another contribution examines textiles, not costume worn by theatrical players but clothing that reveals the transfer of theatrical images beyond the stage. Yet the chapter on woodblock prints, a medium available and exploited on a vast scale before we Western arrivistesdiscovered it in the  15th century, lays bare the truly popular nature of this subject. Scenes from popular operas were pasted on windows and walls during New Year celebrations and then torn down once the festivities were over. StillNi Yibin concentrates on just two scenesfrom the Romance of the Western Chamber, a famous opera depicted numerous timesthroughout the catalogue, exploring the manner of representing thesescenesrestricted by the objectsurfaceonto which it is fashioned, be it a musical instrument, a ceramicoreven a rhinoceroshorn!

Catalogues can quickly become coffee table books and then find their way into car boot sales: this one ought not to. It is perfectly illustrated throughout each of its essays and followed by over 50 colour images of individual exhibits with considerable detail. A map, chronology and a glossary ensure that readers can settle back and lose themselves in his volume without needing to reach for explanatory references. For those who want to read on there is an excellent bibliography and even a synopsis of the ubiquitous Romance of the Western Chamber. Consequently this book ought to open up to students not only a specific area for research, that of popular cultural imagery in Chinese art, but also the seemingly limitless field of art in China as a rich source for further art historical research. For both scholarly and general interest in the art of this great nation is currently being fuelled not only by the recent  British Museum blockbuster ‘Ming: 50 Years that changed China’;  but also BBC TV programmes such as the recent China in Six Easy Pieces and Art of China. Long may this interest continue.


Louis Byrne
Open University, UK

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