Dreaming With China: Chinoiserie and Musical Comedy

Dec 4, 2015 | 1:00 PM - 2:30 PM

Wendy Gan (Associate Professor, School of English, University of Hong Kong; HYI Visiting Scholar and Radcliffe Fellow in Residence)
Chair/Discussant: David Porter (Professor, English Language and Literature Department, University of Michigan)

Co-sponsored by the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies

Chinoiserie has been called many things but rarely and openly comic. The adjectives that are commonly attached to it – playful, amusing, whimsical, fantastic, droll – skirt round the idea but leave the comic strain in chinoiserie submerged. This talk suggests that what we see expressed in chinoiserie is a tension between disorder and an underlying order, a tension that is congruent with the structures of comedy where disruptions are ultimately happily resolved. 
This structural affinity to comedy makes chinoiserie particularly amenable to a comedic treatment, particularly on the stage. Though theatrical chinoiserie in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries tended to incline towards epic and heroic tragedy, my contention is that, on stage, chinoiserie’s natural home is in the genre of comedy, specifically in the musical comedy of the late nineteenth century. Musical comedy takes chinoiserie and spins creative, pluralising, desirable dreams of China from it, and in so doing, offers a vision of the possibilities of cross-cultural harmony.