Rethinking Ritual: Chinese Performance in Asian Historical and Comparative Contexts

A workshop of the Asia Institute working group on Rethinking Ritual and Performance in Asia

In August 2013, the UCLA Asia Institute will host an international meeting organized by the working group on Rethinking Ritual and Performance in Asia, with a grant from the American Council on Learned Societies, funded by the Chiang-ching Kuo Foundation for International and Scholarly Exchange.


Anurima Banerji, World Arts & Cultures/Dance
William Bodiford, Asian Languages & Cultures
Andrea Goldman, History
Aparna Sharma, World Arts & Cultures
R. Bin Wong, History
Chao Chi-fan, Taipei National Univ of the Arts
Hua Wei, Chinese Univ of Hong Kong
Hsiung Ping-chen, CUHK Research Institute for the Humanities

Rethinking Ritual and Performance in Asia

The singular importance of the textual tradition in Asian (East Asian, Indic, Buddhist) cultures has long been acknowledged. Less appreciated, until recently perhaps, is the extent to which performance has been central to these cultures. Indeed, genres of performance in Asia were shared across high and low cultures, and they spanned the divide between literacy and orality, between text and theatricality. Whether understood in its broader implications of social or political role-playing or in its narrower meaning of theatrical display, Asian societies and cultures have been highly performative. Asian performance has blurred the boundaries between ritual and entertainment.  In many parts of Asia where theater has in the past been centered on physical performance, movement, and sung text, the introduction and adaptation of text-based spoken drama from the western tradition has opened opportunities for writers to engage with current social issues, to explore interpersonal relationships, and to question conventional social roles and identities in ways which had not previously been possible.

The Rethinking Ritual and Performance working group aims to interrogate the interrelated categories of ritual and performance in early modern and modern Asian cultures and examine how they have interfaced with broader political and technological regimes through time and space. Topics of research taken up by this project include, among potential others, opera, spoken drama, and film in China; Buddhist ritual performance in Japan; and classical dance and documentary film in South Asia.  In each instance, we will explore how these performance genres can be situated within a larger context of performance forms. Our discussions aim to bring new interdisciplinary and cross-cultural perspectives to the relationships between ritual and religion, performance and traditional culture, and native (historical) and global (modern) art forms in various Asian traditions. These interrelated topics will address the ways in which ritual as a category has been used (or ignored) in an attempt to rethink the ways in which theoretical discussions of ritual have reified East/West, tradition/modernity, and religious/secular dichotomies. The innovation of thinking both through time and across Asian spaces informs a larger sense of the humanities, both as practiced in Asian cultures and in academic institutions in the US and Asia.

Published: Thursday, July 25, 2013