The Spatiality of Emotion in Early Modern China:
From Dreamscapes to Theatricality

By Ling Hon Lam

Reviewed by Haiyan Lee
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright September, 2018)

Ling Hon Lam, The Spatiality of Emotion in Early Modern China: From Dreamscapes to Theatricality New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. ix-xiii + 339 pp. ISBN: Hardback (9780231187947)• $60.00 • (£47.00)

In the field of Chinese literary studies, it is rare to see names like Zhu Xi, Tang Xianzu, and Li Yu sharing the same pages with Heidegger, Foucault, and Lefebvre. It happens in The Spatiality of Emotion in Early Modern China: From Dreamscapes to Theatricality, thanks to its author Ling Hon Lam’s vaulting ambition to retell the story of just about every topic near and dear to the heart of a literary scholar: representation, fictionality, theatricality, emotion, and performance, among others. Amazingly, this tall order is pulled off via an even taller order—a counterintuitive thesis that Lam presents at the outset and defends strenuously and successfully throughout the book: that emotion is less an inside-out psychological or neuro-chemical process than an outside-in spatial process.

This is a book that requires patience, stamina, and an effortful suspension of deeply-ingrained assumptions, and the reader who rises to the occasion will be richly rewarded. To begin with, instead of taking the familiar route of admixing literary historical accounts of intellectual lives, connections, and influences, on the one hand, and textual exegeses, on the other (with or without explicit reference to so-called “theory”), Lam begins with a Chinese puzzle and moves across genres, periods, fields, and disciplines with a boldness and verve that’s truly breathtaking. The puzzle is this: The root word for emotion in classical Chinese, qing 情, is the same word for reality, situation, or circumstance. Thus in the same word the subjective and the objective are yoked together and the odd marriage has perdured into the present day, with ganqing 感情, aiqing 愛情, and qingxu 情緒 still cohabiting with qingkuang 情況, qingxing 情形, and shiqing 事情 in the lexicographical house of modern Chinese.

This puzzle has been noted by other scholars, but only under Lam’s alternately relentless and coaxing scrutiny does an alternative ontological, epistemological, and affective universe unfurl itself. Stepping into this universe can be dizzying, but with Lam’s steady guiding hand we learn to train our sight on the vanishing point: the way in which we moderns experience a play, a movie, and for that matter any kind of performance is premised on a mode of theatricality that has only been around for a few hundred years—since the Renaissance in Europe and the turn of the seventeenth century in China. So what came before theatricality? William Egginton proposes “real presence,”[1] and it is akin to what anthropologists and performance theorists have also termed “ritual” or “social performance.” In a nutshell, real presence designates a heightened, coordinated experience that involves an entire community, in which the actors, audiences, and scripts are fused by virtue of shared myths, values, and goals. It serves to define membership and belonging and clarify authority and hierarchy. It creates order and civilization out of chaos. Not to be part of the ritual performance is tantamount to excommunication. Theatricality breaks apart this fusion by separating actor from role, audience from actor, offstage from onstage. Thus is born the proverbial “fourth wall” that gives us the proscenium stage, the illusionist theater, and what I have elsewhere called the representational aesthetics of cinema.[2]

Roughly speaking, a similar transformation also took place in early modern China (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries). But Lam is not content in simply transposing Egginton’s chronology to China–for reasons that go far beyond the usual alibi of “it does not fit the Chinese case.” He has a bigger bone to pick with Egginton (and other theorists of similar stature and influence): to wit, the latter’s account is premised on a psychological model of emotion that prioritizes interiority and posits emotion as an intra-psychic energy that is either released or contained or otherwise managed according to social norms. Lam relocates the locus of emotion away from the ego in what he calls “emotion-realms,” which is his preferred translation of qingjing 情景 (whereas “landscape” carries a post-Enlightenment connotation of unspoiled nature). “In its exteriority,” he writes somewhat cryptically, “emotion is the structure of space as an ontological condition without which we cannot even be outside in the world getting along with one another” (5). Having spatialized, decentered, and indeed socialized emotion (or, shall we say, having scattered emotion to the winds), Lam constructs a genealogy of emotion-realms that accounts for both the sea changes as well as the eddies and flows of historical processes that gave rise to theatricality.

To tell the story, Lam delves deep into the Chinese canon while taking extensive excursions into long-standing metaphysical problems as well as the latest breakthroughs in performance studies, affect studies, and cognitive psychology. The genealogy proper begins with the cosmic emotion-realm of “winds” or vital forces, which governed the ancient Chinese world of ritual and social performance, moves to the oneiric emotion-realm of “dreamscapes,” which prevailed in medieval China and persisted in the early modern and modern periods, before arriving at modern theatricality. Once placed within this genealogy, theatricality is revealed to be a historically contingent modality that has for too long been taken as the default and thus smuggled into texts and contexts where it obscures or distorts the winds and dreamscapes of the past. Lam’s vigilance against such anachronistic inclinations enables him to not only challenge Egginton et al., but also take issue with received interpretations and established approaches to well-known Chinese texts ranging from The Journey to the West to The Peony Pavilion. It is “reading against the grain” at its best.

It would be futile for me to try to squeeze this recursive, longue durée history of emotion-realms into a paragraphs-length summary. To give the reader a sense of the sheer scope and conceptual reach of the individual chapters, let me zoom in on my favorite chapter called “What Is Wrong with the Wrong Career? A Genealogy of Playgrounds.” The Wrong Career is a fourteenth-century play that concerns the lives of theater actors—a setup ripe for the quintessential theatrical trope of “a play within a play,” except that it stops short of giving us that bit of meta-theatrical thrill. Li Yu’s 李漁 “Bimuyu” 比目魚 (seventeenth century), cleverly translated as “Sole Mates,” in contrast, does just that, hence marking the birth of the self-aware spectator and setting in motion the centrifugal dynamics of theatricality. Lam further illustrates this process of differentiation by turning to the evolution of theater architecture and ushering us across a changing landscape of three-sided stages, backstages, passage stages, ghost doors, balconies, as well as the larger environs of temples, marketplaces, and teahouses. A good deal of the winds and dreamscapes still lingered in the teahouse-vaudeville entertainment venues as well as in drama discourse of the twentieth century, but their eclipse by the proscenium stage is a foregone conclusion especially with the coming of Western-style theater.

An astonishingly original work like this will inevitably have some rough edges and ill-combed clumps. The chapter subtitles, for one, tend to be ponderous and promise more than is delivered. Chapter 2, for example, is subtitled “A Genealogy of Morals.” There is, however, little discussion of what conventionally falls under the rubric of morals: good/evil, virtue/vice, ought/ought not, principles/conventions, ends/means, and so on. Instead, it tells the story of the emergence of the spectator in the late sixteenth century. Chapter 4, subtitled “A Genealogy of Knowledge,” presents a cross-cultural reading of the seventeenth-century novel The Fortunate Union (好逑傳) through the categories of order-disorder and norm-expediency that is less than compelling, at least to this reader. I would have liked to see a greater engagement with the scholarship on the cult of qing, gender relations, and the history of marriage in order to make sense of the main protagonists’ maddening refusal to consummate their marriage.

The author’s propensity for intellectual gymnastics gets a full workout in the final chapter where lengthy, at times plodding, philosophical disquisitions make it rather top-heavy. One can go too far in trying to demonstrate one’s theoretical chops. But such measures may be necessary in order to engage with non-China experts and convince them that Chinese materials can and should be part of scholarly conversations that have for too long been unabashedly—or, in recent decades, (merely) apologetically—Eurocentric. In other words, it is not enough to hold up Chinese texts as exceptions; one has to able to turn theory inside out—with the kind of zeal usually associated with apostates—in order to provincialize it.

The final chapter systemizes in more detail (and to a higher degree of abstraction)  the methodological approach Lam presents in his introduction and applies in the intervening chapters. It also demonstrates that framework’s applicability to twentieth century Chinese literary production, with a radical reconsideration of Lu Xun’s preface to his first short story collection Call to Arms. Looking askance at the “iron house” allegory, Lam asks why the house should be iron-clad and indestructible in the first place. In medieval dreamscapes, sleepers (or their souls) may fall through layer after layer of dreams, but no one dream is a final entrapment. It only becomes so when viewed through the lens of modern theatricality, when a spectator (the already awakened) can look on with horror at the sleepers (do they even dream?) and feel helpless to intervene. This is truly, head-spinningly brilliant. I would have liked the author to parlay this insight to further consideration of Lu Xun’s notorious unease with the passive and yet predatory form of spectatorship (weiguan 圍觀) that he depicts compulsively in his fiction. Here Richard Sennett and Hannah Arendt’s work on the “fall of the public man” and the rise of bourgeois domesticity and privacy would also be relevant. But perhaps that is a job for specialists of the twentieth century, who can now stand on Lam’s shoulders and reckon with “the gravest nightmare of theatricality: a spectatorship incapable of and in no need of fellow feeling” (240).

It is common to think of theater as merely one arena in which our emotions are evoked and exercised and perhaps elevated. Lam’s most important insight is that theater has played a fundamental role in how we organize our emotional and moral life. Take sympathy for example. Much of the contemporary debate about its nature, benefits, and limits is predicated on an interior model of emotion, which presupposes the existential abyss between individual minds that must strain to break out of their skulls, as it were, in order to “feel another’s pain.” In Chinese, this is called she shen chu di 設身處地—putting oneself in another’s place—a formulation that dates back to the sixteenth century and coincided with the rise of the spectator, the cornerstone of theatricality. As Lam explains, “sympathy [is] an emotive structure made possible by spectatorship. Being sympathetic means that I become a distanced viewer of another’s feeling, which cannot be felt by my natural senses but is shared only when I put myself in that person’s position” (215, emphases added). This is also why theatricality was inherently bound up with the spread of print media, which further entrenched the problem of distance. Whereas in the historical regimes of emotion-realms that either embed us in a cosmic whole (via the winds) or transport us into other people’s dreams, the entire agonistic problematic of sympathy is moot. It is no wonder that affect theory, experimental theater, and political movements have all sought to revivify the ritual or dreamscape dimension of theater so as to rethread the tissue of affective bonds forever rent by modernity.[3] But Ling Hon Lam is historian enough to resist the lure of overcoming modernity.

Haiyan Lee
Stanford University


[1] William Egginton, How the World Became a Stage: Presence, Theatricality, and the Question of Modernity (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003).

[2] Haiyan Lee, “Chinese Feelings: Notes on a Ritual Theory of Emotion.” The Wenshan Review of Literature and Culture 9, no. 2 (June 2016), 1-37.

[3] Jeffrey C. Alexander, The Drama of Social ife (Malden, MA: Polity, 2017).