Class lecture at the University of Chicago

I will give a lecture titled “Authentic Selfies: Posing, Portraiture, and Self-representation in Late Imperial China” on April 24 for the class “The Real and the Fake in Early Modern China” at the University of Chicago. Thank Ariel Fox for the invitation!

2018 AAS presentation on Kong Shangren


Friday, March 23, 2018 | 12:45 PM – 2:45 PM

My Abstract: Dressing the World of Kong Shangren (1648-1718)

Different genres maintain different distances from the social world, creating a matrix in which an author positions him/herself and the persons in his/her works. This paper revisits the relations between persons, literary writing, and the social world through the perspective of hairstyle and clothing in early Qing China. It asks: in the context of the Ming-Qing transition, how did the theme of dressing help create a literary world in tension with the social world? The paper studies the representation of hairstyle and clothing in three types of writings by Kong Shangren: poetry, essays, and dramas. It shows that different genres afforded spaces with particular dress codes, some real, others imagined. The paper argues that the theme of dressing allowed Kong to probe the boundary between the literary and the social worlds, and to represent different dimensions of being a man of letters in early Qing China. Materiality and literary writing, the paper shows, are mutually conditioning and enabling.

Session Abstract: 120. Sensory Pleasures and Perils in Premodern China

Organizer | Nicholas Morrow Williams | University of Hong Kong

Confucius said that he had never met anyone who loved virtue (de) as much as sensual pleasure (se), tacitly admitting that virtue and pleasure are not easily dissociated. Ever since, the pleasures of the senses have been fraught with profound moral and political ramifications in Chinese cultural tradition. Drawing on the insights of previous scholarship by Ronald Egan, Craig Clunas, Jonathan Hay, and others, our panel sheds new light on the cultural meaning of sensory pleasures. How were the pleasures of the senses––whether tactile, olfactory, gustatory, visual, or auditory––both regulated and also defined by political concerns, and how could cultural norms and ideals be represented materially?

We examine the representation of sensory experience in various literary genres from different periods of imperial China, using both interdisciplinary readings of received texts and also newly discovered or overlooked materials. David Knechtges examines the early discourse of the “perils of immoderation” via a newly discovered Han manuscript, but Hsiang-lin Shih shows how the allure of swords and feminine beauty were used for political ends in the early medieval period. Nicholas M. Williams analyzes the allegorical implications of floral fragrances in Southern Song ci lyrics, while Guojun Wang unveils the materiality of genres via a close study of clothing in the writings of Kong Shangren. By restoring the broader cultural contexts of tangible and mundane experience, our papers offer initial forays toward a history of both the pleasures and perils of the senses in premodern China.

2018 MLA presentation on front matters of Chinese drama prints

Panel info: No. 486. The Power of the Margins: Rethinking Center-Periphery Relations in Premodern Chinese Literature


My Title: The Margin for Reality: Problematizing the Prefatory Space in Traditional Chinese Drama Prints

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Abstract: Theatrical texts are not purely theatrical. Instead, drama prints in traditional China consisted of space for the theatrical (e.g. the script proper) and space for the social (e.g. the front matter and the eyebrow commentary). Scholars have long pointed out the conversational relation between the main text and the paratextual materials in traditional Chinese books. Beyond conversation and contestation, how do different modes of representation in the two types of spaces influence the nature of traditional Chinese drama as a genre of literature and performance? By focusing on one type of paratextual margin––the front matter, this paper explores the relation between the social and the theatrical within the material constitution of traditional Chinese drama prints. In particular, it studies the biographies, authorial prefaces, and portraits of a group of dramas that responded to the historical changes from late imperial to modern China. It shows that whereas the theatrical tradition maintained a relatively consistent way to depict the characters, the space for the front matter incorporated changing representations of reality––most saliently seen through the changing clothes of different characters from the late Ming to the late Qing eras. The paper argues that the different, and occasionally contesting ways of representation in the two types of spaces allowed traditional Chinese drama to bridge the apparent disparity between theatricality and reality, and to reconcile the theatrical tradition with historical changes.

Book Manuscript Workshop

I am extremely grateful to Stephen West, Mark Stevenson, Andrea Goldman, and Tracy Miller, who discussed my book manuscript on costuming in early Qing drama at Nashville on June 1, 2017!

The encouraging and insightful comments will definitely help the book materialize!

Historicizing Spectacle–presentation at 2017 ATHE Las Vegas

Panel: “Embodied Spectacles: Poses, Costumes, and Voices in Asian Theater”

Through the bodily dimension, this panel explores the relation between theatrical spectacles and some significant social-political, gender, and linguistic issues in pre-modern and modern Asia.

8/4/2017 7:30-9:00 PM

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My paper: “Historicizing Spectacle: Clothing and Costuming in Seventeenth-century Chinese Drama”

Abstract: Spectacle has generally been defined as the public display of things, which is based on a spatial relationship of viewing and being viewed. This paper challenges the spatial understanding of spectacle by discussing the historical dimension of the sartorial landscape in the seventeenth-century China. During the Manchu invasion into central China around the mid-seventeenth century, the Manchu rulers forced male Han Chinese to shave their heads and change into Manchu clothing. Meanwhile, they allowed the use of Han clothing to continue in drama performances. The Manchu hair and dress regulations produced a sartorial landscape divided by the stage: off stage, Manchu clothing prevailed; on stage, costumes in the Han style remained and Manchu clothing became a taboo. In addition to the stage, drama scripts and visual materials further complicated the sartorial landscape by introducing different modes to represent clothing. Consequently, clothing and costuming in the seventeenth-century China together created a sartorial spectacle which mediated the negotiations between ethnicities, genders, and political powers. Through examining a body of theatrical materials (scripts, illustrations, performance records) in the seventeenth-century China, this paper argues that theatrical the spectacle is inherently historical: it is a “historical effect” rather than the mise-en-scène of a play.