Seeing the World Through Xianqing ouji (1671):
Performance, Visuality and Narratives of Modernity

By Patricia Sieber

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 12, no. 2 (Fall 2000), pp.1-43

The essay seeks to find out whether modern forms of visuality in China had any pre-twentieth century antecedents. To that end, the essay explores elite writings on one possible form of popular visuality, dramatic performance. It examines when elite writers conceptualized traditional Chinese dramatic performance as a visual experience, and if so, for what audiences. In particular, the essay focuses on Li Yu’s Xianqing ouji (1671) in the context of late imperial critical writings on drama and performance. It argues that earlier elite writings had focused on musical, prosodic, performative, or textual aspects of performance. A purely visual understanding was often attributed to the sensorily-inclined lower strata of society. By contrast, Li Yu discusses drama as a strongly visual experience for all audiences. The essay discusses possible reasons for this shift, including the convergence of seventeenth century elite interest in performance as well in other forms of material culture. The essay proceeds to tease out the particulars of the visual contract Li Yu imagines. In defining the relation between performance and audience, Li Yu presented new drama as the object of refined, yet expressly eroticized consumption. The essay argues that Li Yu’s appeal to the senses sought to position new drama as a way to reach the largest possible audience through the manipulation and management of desire. In conclusion, it raises the question as to whether this form of imagined audience participation anticipated modern forms of visual consumption.