Q&A: Profs. Judith Zeitlin and Wu Hung discuss Chinese opera, new exhibitions

UChicago’s five-month “Envisioning China” festival will open in February with two Smart Museum exhibitions focused on Chinese opera. Curated by Profs. Judith Zeitlin of the University of Chicago and Yuhang Li of the University of Wisconsin, “Performing Images: Opera in Chinese Visual Culture” looks at the ways in which characters, stories and images from opera were represented in other media, primarily during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). A concurrent exhibition curated by Prof. Wu Hung, “Inspired by the Opera: Contemporary Chinese Photography and Video,” examines the influence of opera on contemporary Chinese art.


Zeitlin, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor in East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Theater and Performance Studies, and the College, and Wu, the Harriet A. Vanderstappen Distinguished Service Professor in Art History, East Asian Languages and Civilizations and the College, discussed the traditions of Chinese opera, the connections between their two exhibitions, and what they hope visitors to the museum will learn. 

What makes Chinese opera different from Western opera?

JZ: People argue if “opera” is really the right term. There are similarities, and there are differences. Essentially, it’s a form of theater in which most characters sing most of the time and you need a lot of specialized training. So to that extent, I feel opera is a good analogy.

The single most important thing to know about Chinese opera is the system of role types. The four main role types in Peking opera, for example, are the male lead, the female lead, the  “painted face” role (which can be a villain, a general, a god)—and the clown role. It’s not based on vocal range the way Western opera is, so in principle, any role can be played by either gender.

Where I think it’s very different is the importance of movement. Although Chinese opera can simply be sung in concert form or recital form, in its main form, actors have to be trained in all sorts of different movements. If you’re in a martial role or one of the painted face roles, you may have to do really extensive acrobatic training, but every role has a lot of very specialized gestures to perform. There’s also a lot of mime involved.

The other thing about Chinese opera that’s really different is that, until recently, there was no composer. Instead, there are systems of tunes or preexisting tunes that new lyrics are written for.

Why were you interested in looking at the visual culture of opera in your portion of exhibition? 

JZ: By and large, if opera is represented at all in museum collections, it’s usually as opera costumes or they are treated as ethnographic objects, but not really centrally concerned with the role of theater as a visual language.

I had been using illustrations of plays in my own research, and I was struck by how many different media opera was represented in. That led me to pursue other places that images from opera were being in the late imperial period. I was really attracted to them because they’re so vibrant—they’re really exciting. It allows you to deal with popular materials and court materials and literati materials. It gives you a really good angle to approach Chinese culture.

How did you get interested in the role of opera in Chinese contemporary art?

WH: I was inspired by Judith and Yuhang’s project. Because opera was so important in traditional Chinese visual culture, as their exhibition demonstrates, working with them, I began to think, “So what’s happened now? If opera was so important in traditional China, did it or does it just stop?” No one had connected traditional opera and contemporary Chinese art. I began to do some studies and look through artists’ work and think about this work from a different angle. I did see the connections between opera and contemporary art and for me it’s very interesting.

Did you think about how you could put your exhibitions into conversation with one another?

WH: Very much. In terms of space, people see Judith’s exhibition first—it’s almost like walking from history to the present. There are some contemporary artists that use images and stories from the main exhibition. We did collaborate when thinking about those themes and connections. They are not a single show, but they are complementary. I hope they can create dynamic interactions through the idea of art, theater and performance.

What do you hope viewers will take away from the exhibitions?

JZ: I hope they understand how important opera has been in Chinese history, since it came into being as a full-fledged art form in the 10th century. There are so many stories that are basic to Chinese culture, and even today everybody knows them.

WH: This topic helped me to think about the connection between contemporary art and China’s traditional cultural heritage. There is tension, because contemporary art always reacts to the past; at the same time, this art grew in that environment, that’s their language. I hope the audience can see this work as contemporary expression, but also see the connection of these artists to their cultural history and cultural environment.