Disciplining the Problematic Genre: Buddhist Regulations of Theater in Late Imperial China

February 4, 2019 - 4:30 pm to 6:00 pm (already occurred)

Mengxiao Wang of Yale University will give a talk titled "Disciplining the Problematic Genre:
Buddhist Regulations of Theater in Late Imperial China."

Existing scholarship on religion and theater in China has regarded religious drama as a medium for transmitting doctrines and spreading cults. Scholars have largely neglected the tensions between the Buddhist value of asceticism and the function of theater as entertainment. These tensions created a dilemma for Buddhist playwrights engaging in both religious and literary practices. This talk examines the strategies adopted by Chinese Buddhist playwrights to reconcile this dilemma through converting the theatrical genre into a sacred medium.

Summary by Mengxiao Wang:
I chose Guiyuan jing (歸元鏡, Mirror of the Return to the Origin)—the only extant play composed by a Buddhist monk, Zhida (智達, circa 1650), in Chinese history—as a case study. Zhida presented his play as a scripture-like text and stipulated a ritualized manner of performing and watching it. His ambition to transform his dramatic work into a sacred text has been realized on the page and defeated on the stage in the historical reception of Guiyuan jing. On the one hand, the text was published and circulated in a similar manner as Buddhist scriptures within a monastic network from the seventeenth century to today. On the other hand, performance adaptations of Guiyuan jing at the Qing royal palace and modern commercial theater diverged from the author’s aesthetic preferences by using lavish stage props to create spectacles.

A comparative reading of multiple editions illuminates how texts and paratexts construct a discursive space for the playwright, readers, publishers and actors to communicate their interpretations of the interplay between Buddhism and theater. This interdisciplinary study proposes a new way of reading drama—not just as a transparent medium for religious teachings, but as a source of anxiety for monastic playwrights and a problematic genre that both invited and challenged Buddhist regulations in late imperial China.

Contact Info

Timothy J. Van Compernolle
(413) 542-2269
image of e-mail address@amherst.edu