Lecture "Animating Ten-Thousand Longevity through Papier-Mâché, Wood, and Fabric: Materiality and Visuality of Props in Late Qing China" by Yuhang Li
Empress Dowager Cixi’s indulgence in her jubilee of her 50th, 60th and 70th birthdays can be measured through exhaustive lists of stage props, backdrops, furniture, costumes, headdresses, beards, and masks in the imperial archives, an established material practice inherited from her predecessors. Among them, a type of three-dimensional props was made with mixed media including papier-mâché, wood, and fabric in the shape of animals, plants and objects. Historians of Chinese imperial theater have discussed the socioeconomic and aesthetic significance of these objects in relation to court stage production. Nonetheless, most of the discussions were based on textual sources. In this paper, I investigate these props from the perspective of stage craft-making and argue that these objects constituted imperial spectacles through concrete object making and visual strategies. As part of the imperial celebrations, animated tableaux were a powerful method to evoke supernatural signs. Such a process of materialization not only conveys messages of festivity, but also creates a picture of privileged imperial longevity through borrowing the vitality of myriad materials, fantastic creatures, and religious figures in late Qing China.
Yuhang Li (PhD, University of Chicago) is Associate Professor of Chinese Art in the Department of Art History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research interests cover a wide range of subjects and mediums of visual and material cultures in late imperial China. She is the author of Becoming Guanyin: Artistic Devotion of Buddhist Women in Late Imperial China (Columbia University Press, 2020), which was awarded the 2021 Religion and the Arts Book Award by the American Academy of Religion. She also co-curated and co-edited with Judith Zeitlin the exhibition and resulting catalog Performing Images: Opera in Chinese Visual Culture (Smart Museum and University of Chicago Press, 2014). She has published various articles on hair embroidery, Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) dressing up as Guanyin, theatricality and narrative robe, paper as an efficacious medium, artisanal reproduction of Chinese landscape painting on stones and other essays.
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