Interview with Hsiao-Chun Wu

This interview is with Hsiao-Chun Wu, the author of “Collecting Theater in Republican Beijing: Research Methods and the Birth of Chinese Opera Studies in Early Twentieth-Century China,” which appears in the January 2021 issue of Twentieth-Century China. Hsiao-Chun Wu (PhD, History, University of California, Los Angeles) is an independent scholar of modern China. Read the article here

Before we start into the article and your research, could you tell us a bit about your academic background?

I majored in physics in college but decided to study history for my master’s degree to explore my interest in the humanities. After that, I worked as assistant editor of the journal EASTS: East Asian Science, Technology and Society, gaining some invaluable practical experience in academic publishing before starting my PhD study. I then did my PhD at UCLA, studying the cultural and intellectual history of modern China with Prof. Andrea S. Goldman.

Your article focuses on Qi Rushan and Zhang Cixi and their work as collectors studying the history and development of Peking opera. How did you choose to focus on these collectors and their work?

I first came across Qi Rushan’s name when I was rambling in the library, looking for ideas for writing my PhD application essays. As I was skimming the titles on the bookshelves, Qi’s collected writings somehow caught my attention. Specifically, his approach to understanding Chinese opera through a kind of serious research intrigued me, leading me to explore other theater connoisseurs and critics of the same period, and this was how I learned about Zhang Cixi, among others. From my reading of their writings and contemporary comments on their work, I gradually realized that collecting was a focus for people engaging in the study of Chinese opera at that time. This is why I set collection as the main theme of my article and focused on Qi Rushan and Zhang Cixi as “collectors” to examine their work in the early stage of modern Chinese opera studies. 

In this article, you focus on several historical contingencies that led to the creation of modern Chinese opera studies. Can you talk more about your views on contingency in terms of historical developments?

I first learned about the idea of historical contingencies in Professor R. Bin Wong’s course on the comparative social history of modern China at UCLA. Back then, we were tackling the common teleology that understands the development of Chinese history through the contrast between the dominating West and a weakening China. I learned that different combinations of a set of historical factors might lead to similar or drastically different outcomes. A historian’s job is to make these contingencies intelligible by uncovering the underlying structures and contexts, refuting simplified, linear narratives. I adopt this thinking in my research, investigating the local and even global contexts that explain Qi’s and others’ collecting endeavors.

This article is set in Republican-era Beijing; how did these temporal and spatial dimensions impact and inform your work?

Every city has its charm, but Republican-era Beijing is one of a kind. As the former Qing capital, it entices me to investigate how its residents survived and perceived some of the most significant political changes in modern China. In the article, I integrate temporal flow with spatial changes in the discussion of discovering theatrical materials in the city. Through the lens of collection, I show that theatrical researchers resident in Beijing saw the changes in their living environment as opportunities rather than harms.

Given that your article explores the collection of materials for the curation of history, can you tell us more about your research process (or collecting) for this article? How would you compare your activities to those of Qi Rushan and others?

I began my survey of historical materials with Qi Rushan. From his writings, I decided on some “keywords” that would guide me to exploring related materials in common categories of modern Chinese history, such as newspapers, magazines, and personal jottings, among others. Benefitting from databases and reprints and edited volumes of historical publications, I was able to collect a considerable number of book and article titles for further examination. 

Given the difference in information media and systems, my collecting process is essentially different from that of Qi Rushan and his contemporaries. In my search, I relied heavily on metadata such as library categories and database keywords. None of this existed for Qi and his fellow collectors. However, they possessed a unique advantage: the intimacy with their research subject, or a kind of innate knowledge of the cultural products that had been part of their cultural upbringing and which they then turned to studying.

Having studied the work of opera history collectors and historians, what elements of their methodologies could assist cultural historians working in China today?

I’d say their boldness in setting research agendas and the breadth of research materials they collected are inspiring for the study of what we call cultural history today. For the opera collectors and researchers I’ve studied, I appreciate their attempt to study the “history” of a contemporary form of performance arts that has been constantly evolving. Equally helpful is their inclusion of multimedia and interdisciplinary materials as research objects. While we nowadays utilize mostly textual materials, and sometimes visual materials, in studying cultural history, I think it is possible to expand the scope to include more non-textual materials in diverse forms to present a fuller picture of the cultural experiences of past and present. 

In this article, you argue that collecting is an activity that creates meaning. How did you experience this in your own work researching this article?

In the article, I investigate the “meaning” that the opera collectors created through their collecting activities and collections. This way, I created the “meaning” of this history. In other words, I intended to make sense of why, in a specific period of time, there emerged a trend of collecting theatrical materials for research purposes. This means for me the historical significance of first-generation modern opera researchers and their impact on how we perceive the Chinese popular culture of the past. 

In this article, you remark on the clashing messages of nationalism and imperialism in Chinese and Japanese studies of Peking opera. How has this research shaped your view of Republican-era nationalism?

It requires caution to examine nationalism in the cultural realm in a period of high imperialism, since the cultural representation of nationalism is in no way simple or straight propaganda. As the article shows, the promotion of nationalism often appears under the name of history and scholarship. What further complicated the situation was that scholars involved took different positions on nationalism. There were people such as Wang Zhizhang who set the caliber of good scholarship based on racial distinction, essentializing what it meant to be authentic research. There were also people such as Wang Gulu who took a more cosmopolitan stand to appreciate the research on Chinese culture done by “non-Chinese.” It is challenging yet intriguing to capture these nuances amid the overarching tension between nations. 

How does your research into collecting and the history of Peking opera fit into the greater historical narrative of Republican-era China?

My research fits into the growing intellectual interest in the popular in the Republican period, when intellectuals started to collect and study vernacular literature and endowed the artistic creation of the people with value. It also echoes the call for adopting a scientific and systematic approach to studying culture at that time. In addition to contextualizing with these larger historical trends, my research expands the discussion from well-studied intellectuals in cultural history to lesser-known theatrical connoisseurs and critics, showing that the engagement with popular culture studies was in fact shared by a larger group of educated elites across society. 

Do you think that the work of these collectors helped transform Peking opera from an imperial art form into a cultural symbol of Beijing consumed by tourists today? How so?

I doubt if there is any direct connection between early Republican collectors’ work and Peking opera as a commodity for mass tourism today. For the collectors, the Civil War came as a major interruption to their work. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, politics decided the fate of the collectors and their collections. For instance, Qi Rushan moved to Taiwan preceding the retreat of the Nationalist Party, and his collection that remained on the Chinese mainland was mostly lost or dispersed. 

During my archival research in Beijing, I did visit “teahouses” and “guild halls” to see Peking opera performances for tourism. What I saw were fragmented selections from longer plays, and the artistic quality of the performances was less than satisfactory. I could hardly observe the historical depth or continuation of Peking opera that the early Republican opera collectors wanted to uncover with their collections. 

How does your research into collecting and the historiography of Peking opera complicate the transnational history of Chinese studies as a discipline?

In my view, both the history and historiography of modern China is transnational. The history of a transnational scholarly community across China and Japan informs modern Chinese historiography, from the collection of research materials to the choices of research topics. I hope my research demonstrates this point by studying cross-cultural translators and transmitters such as Wang Gulu, whose writings and translation show the two-way flow of knowledge and intensive scholarly exchange between China and Japan. Also illuminating was the link between the recent works of Japanese sinology and Chinese opera collectors’ emerging interest. In other words, the interpersonal relationships and intellectual inclinations of a group of scholars from different countries, taken together, shape Chinese studies as a discipline. 

Can you give us a bit of background on this project? Is it part of a wider research project?

The article is revised and expanded from a chapter in my dissertation (UCLA, 2016), which studies the knowledge-making of Peking opera as one of the most popular performing arts in China at the turn of the twentieth century. In my dissertation, I approach this topic from various aspects, including the naming of the genre, the theorization of Chinese stage arts, stage productions, and historical reflection. With my study, I hope to answer a larger research question on the interaction between popular culture and knowledge-making in early twentieth-century China. 

In what ways would you like your research to change the field of Chinese history as a whole?

I hope my research introduces an intellectual dimension to cultural history studies by showing the close interplay between the intellectual and cultural realms. By shifting attention from high intellectuals or thinkers to everyday cultural production and consumption, it is possible to explore more opportunities for studying how ideas about culture are generated, disseminated, and practiced.

Where do you see your research going in the future?

I’m planning to extend my research to post-1949 Taiwan to study the travel of Chinese theatrical arts in the Cold War period. I am also interested in studying related concepts such as meishu (美術) and wenyi (文藝) in the Republican period and afterward. 

What historiography shaped this project? For further reading, what historiography would you recommend?

I built my knowledge of late imperial Chinese popular theater from Andrea S. Goldman’s Opera and the City: The Politics of Culture in Beijing, 1770-1900 (Stanford University Press, 2012). Joshua Goldstein’s Drama Kings: Players and Publics in the Re-creation of Peking Opera, 1870-1937 (University of California Press, 2007) introduced me to the multifaceted formation of Peking opera as a national drama. My understanding of Beijing was enriched by Madeleine Yue Dong’s Republican Beijing: The City and Its Histories (University of California Press, 2004). Shana Brown’s Pastime: From Art and Antiquarianism to Modern Chinese Historiography (University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2011) guided me to study the transitional period in the study of Chinese material culture in modern times. Andrew Jones’s Yellow Music: Media Culture and Colonial Modernity in the Chinese Jazz Age (Duke University Press, 2001) fascinated me with the transnational nature of the cultural realm in the twentieth-century world. Otherwise, my research has benefitted from scholarship on modern Chinese intellectual history (especially on the May Fourth/New Culture movement) and Japanese sinology. 

Do you have any closing comments for our readers?

I’d say thank you for reading my article and this interview. As a performing arts lover myself, there is nothing more fulfilling than to have conducted and published research on a theatrical art that has seized the heart of a large audience and intrigued some of the most creative minds of the times. Thanks for joining me on this wonderful intellectual journey.