UCSC seminar–part 6

The sixth set of readings includes Andrea Goldman's Opera and the City and Stephen Roddy's "Toward a Buddhist Cosmopolitanism" and "Cultural Solidarity in Troubled Times."

In this section we examine the contested and moving lines between China's elite and popular cultures as well as between center and periphery in the nineteenth century. Goldman's Opera and the City can be read along four lines of inquiry. (1) The difference between urban and rural experience. She lists three kinds of venues for theatrical performance in Beijing–commercial playhouses, temple fairs and salon. Only temple fairs were available in rural market towns, depending on the economical scale of each town. (2) Grey area between elite and popular cultures. The entertainment values of sex and violence came largely from popular imagination based up some historical anecdotes or fictions like Water Margins. What was considered high brow (Yabu) or low brow (huabu) could be attributed to the evolving tastes of court patronage, urban consumers (including both merchants and scholars) and the cultural import from Jiangnan. (3) Gender transgression in theatrical performances. This was discussed at the level of performers (boy actresses), audience (female fans and male connoisseurs), writers (improvisation of scripts for performances) and political control (state intervention on gender norm). It was quite a dynamic process for gender roles to be shaped and reshaped. (4) The intersection of political power and elite (or popular) tastes. In this line of inquiry, I think Goldman could make more explicit claims on how court patronage and/or regulations could or failed to change the theatrical performances in all three venues. Many examples and concrete analysis of patronage are provided. Perhaps Goldman could reach a stronger conclusion?

Roddy's both essays touch upon the elite perception of what constituted heretical, alien or marginal belief systems. Intellectual and political elites in nineteenth century China did not homogeneously agree on what imperial orthodoxy should be and debates only took place on how heresy could threaten orthodoxy. Roddy's cases on Buddhist cosmopolitanism and Japanese exchange provide an interesting interpretation to this issue.


  1. Both of Roddy’s chapters suggests that the danger of restricting oneself to the nationalistic narrative of history, and to remind us that there were scholars during the late Qing who took the world order differently. For Yi Yue, his world order was based on on the Confucian ideology; he was able and willing to communicate with scholars from both Japan and Korea, even when they took on the opposite of politics. The same case was true between China and Japan, even when politically and nationally they were enemies. Through studies of scholars who believed in cosmopolitan ideas based on religious unity or ideology, both readings remind the readers or Chinese historians to consider the alternatives framework of history independent of the nation-state. My questions then, are as follow: First of all, how many Yi- Yue and like-minded intellectuals were there at the cusp of the First Sino-Japanese War? Were there a significant number of these scholars who followed Yi Yue’s teaching and idea of orthodox confucianism? Also, How does Yi Yue’s confucian cosmopolitanism compare with the Buddhist Cosmopolitanism of Gong Zizhen? Did exclusivity played a role in their versions of cultural order?

  2. Goldman argues that the basis for social complaint or criticism was often founded in tales of heroes or heroines, whose suffering at the hands of authority figures formed a general critique of the Qing state. Consequently, empathy for the suffering on stage was a necessary component of state criticism and was enabled by a larger "politics of feeling" or sentimentally.

    What I found most fascinating in this text, is Goldman's argument that the criticism-driving sentimentally is cultivated not only in audience appreciation for the pathos of the actors' performance but in a recognition of the hardships of the actors' private lives. In other words, Goldman argues that the precarity of boy actresses' lives is read into their performance on stage and enhances viewer empathy.

    This seems to me to be a radical aesthetic practice. Instead of ignoring or concealing the suffering and exploitation required to produce the opera -- as is often the case in a variety of mediums -- the recognition of of suffering is utilized to elevate the pathos of performance.

    I wonder, then, how the necessity of hardship and the sentimentality it produces was related to the understanding of gender in the case of the boy actresses, and whether or not this can help us understand the cultural difference between Qing-era boy actresses and the onnagata of Japan.

    1. Drew, I looked up the story I was telling you about in class, It's from a collection called 萤窗异草 by 长白浩歌子. Anyway, the story about a Miao boy who is beautiful and poor, so he gets sold into an opera troupe. When two customers attempt to have illicit sex with him, he strikes them dead and runs away. Later, he gets lured into this nunnery, where ten salacious nuns seduce him. However, he gets fed up with their insatiable sexual desire, kills 9, leaving the most beautiful to flee with him. To evade detection from the officials, the couple decide to cross dress, the man as the woman and the woman as the man. Their cover was eventually blown by a nanny; they get caught and were executed.

      Anyway, it's unfortunate that the story isn't translated into English. Given the multiple instances of cross-dressing in this story, it's clear that cross-dressing or performing femininity is not the sources of humiliation, it is rather the constant sexual harassment that boy actresses lived through that lent them their pitifulness.

  3. Considering Stephen Roddy’s chapters in Cosmopolitanism in China, what are the advantages and shortcomings of conducting microhistory that places an individual as the primary unit of analysis? As with all other microhistories, I am fascinated with Roddy’s reasoning behind writing on Gong Zizhen and Yu Yue. Why write about them rather than any other official? Is it more productive to write about an apparent ‘outlier,’ somebody who ‘should not’ exist at their given historical moment, or somebody who ‘makes sense?’ Yes, this question implies an ahistorical approach; I do not suggest that any historian has asked or should ask “should I write about an individual who further confirms what scholars understand about a given historical moment or study an individual who confounds it?” Nevertheless, I am intrigued with the selection process. When asked why we believed Roddy chose these individuals, I answered “because they’re a product of their time, we can learn about Qing China by studying their lives.” However, can we not argue that about any individual at any given time? Although I am actually a strong proponent of microhistory, Roddy’s work has left me grappling with a myriad of questions about the approach.

    The role of gender transgression and homoerotic contact in Beijing opera society proved a vibrant topic of discussion. What should historians make of intimate contact between presumably masculine-presenting men and male-bodied individuals who played women in theater? The answer, in part, is to consider the views of our subjects of study. How did these historical actors (no pun intended) gender one another? Did they view it as same-gender contact? What qualified as intimacy, eroticism, and sex for them? While I understand a scholarly wariness toward labeling this as ‘homosexuality’ for it differs from our modern conceptualization, I also caution against jumping to claim this phenomenon was definitely ‘not homosexuality’ to avoid the queer erasure so rampant in all fields of historical scholarship. Further, we must consider the role of individual identity; after all, gender and sexuality are matrices in which an individual constantly negotiates their individual wants and needs with the social, cultural, and economic forces surrounding them.


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