In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ming and Qing Drama

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works/General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Zaju
  • Kunqu
  • Palace Drama
  • Regional Opera and Jingju
  • Folk and Ritual Opera
  • Translations

Chinese Studies Ming and Qing Drama
Ariel Fox
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0216


Drama occupied a central place in the culture of the Ming and Qing dynasties. As a performance practice that traversed social strata and a textual tradition of composition and criticism, drama was enmeshed in the spaces and activities of everyday life. A secluded garden, a bustling temple market, a small pleasure boat, a rowdy teashop, or a serene palace could all be sites of performances either carefully orchestrated or impromptu, by household actors, traveling troupes, or enthusiastic amateurs. While the long-form genre of chuanqi 傳奇 (southern drama), dominated this period, the earlier form of zaju 雜劇 (variety play, or northern drama) continued to compel writers, audiences, and critics alike, as an entertainment in the early Ming court, a site of late Ming scholarly interest, and a living form for playwrights throughout this period. Chuanqi, predominately written to be performed in the kunqu 崑曲 (Kun opera) music system, circulated as elaborated published play texts of extraordinary length and were performed occasionally as complete works, though more frequently as excerpted scenes on mixed bills. Over the course of the Qing, mobile performance spaces gave way to more static venues such as the teashop, and kunqu declined in popularity as a number of regional opera forms proliferated in urban centers, foremost among them jingju 京劇 (Peking opera). Beyond the pages and stages of the plays themselves, drama so dominated the cultural imaginary that its modes and practices—theatricality, role play, spectatorship—provided late imperial subjects with a heuristic for understanding how the self was fashioned and performed in the world.

Introductory Works/General Overviews

While there are a number of excellent introductions to Ming-Qing drama in Chinese, such as Ye 1986, there are few English-language resources dedicated specifically to this history. Instead, chapters or sections of chapters offer coverage of Ming-Qing drama within larger surveys. Idema and Haft 1997 includes brief introductions to the major genres and works of Ming-Qing drama. The individually authored chapters in Chang and Owen 2011 introduce dramatic literature as part of a larger discussion of each period’s literature. Short introductions to Ming-Qing drama commentaries and anthologies can be found in Chen, et al. 2021. The essays in Sieber and Llamas 2022 focus on individual plays from the Yuan through the Qing. Volpp 2011, Lam 2018, and Schoenberger 2019 treat theatricality as a historical and epistemic phenomenon during the Ming-Qing period. On female-authored drama and drama criticism, see Hua 2003.

  • Chang, Kang-I Sun, and Stephen Owen, eds. The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature. Vol. 2, From 1375. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    Drama and performance traditions discussed as part of lengthy chapters surveying each period of the era: “Literature of the Early Ming to mid-Ming (1375–1572),” “The Literary Culture of the Late Ming (1573–1644),” “Early Qing to 1723,” “The Literati Era and Its Demise (1723–1840),” and “Prosimetric and Verse Narrative.”

  • Chen, Jack W., Anatoly Detwyler, Xiao Liu, Christopher Nugent, and Bruce Rusk, eds. Literary Information in China: A History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2021.

    Short chapters on “Drama Commentaries” and “Premodern Drama Anthologies.”

  • Guo Yingde, Wenbo Chang, Patricia Sieber, and Xiaohui Zhang, eds. How to Read Chinese Drama in Chinese: A Language Companion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2023.

    This companion textbook for Sieber and Llamas 2022 provides instruction for reading these dramatic works in Chinese.

  • Hua Wei 華瑋. Ming Qing funü zhi xiqu chuangzuo yu piping (明清婦女之戲曲創作與批評). Taibei: Zhongyang yanjiuyuan Zhongguo wenzhe yanjiusuo, 2003.

    Discusses the few extant dramatic works by female playwrights, like Fanhua meng 繁華夢 (A Dream of Glory), and works of drama criticism and commentary, like Caizi Mudan ting 才子牡丹亭 (The Genius’s Peony Pavilion).

  • Idema, Wilt L., and Lloyd Haft. A Guide to Chinese Literature. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.22826

    Chapters 17 and 19 consist of brief entries on zaju, chuanqi, and regional forms, along with major authors and works.

  • Lam, Ling Hon. The Spatiality of Emotion in Early Modern China: From Dreamscapes to Theatricality. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.7312/lam-18794

    An ambitious periodizing of theatricality characterizing that of the Ming-Qing as mediated by the print culture through which drama was largely consumed.

  • Mair, Victor H., ed. The Columbia History of Chinese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

    In Chapter 41, Wilt Idema provides an overview of traditional dramatic literature, focusing on zaju and chuanqi.

  • Schoenberger, Casey. “Storytellers, Sermons, Sales Pitches, and Other Deceptive Features of City Life: A Cognitive Approach to Point of View in Chinese Plays.” CHINOPERL 38.2 (2019): 129–164.

    DOI: 10.1080/01937774.2019.1698250

    Argues that the mental habits required by late imperial urban life, especially around commercial exchange, transformed modes of theatricality.

  • Sieber, Patricia, and Regina Llamas, eds. How to Read a Chinese Drama. New York: Columbia University Press, 2022.

    Edited volume with coverage of zaju, nanxi, chuanqi, and ritual dramas from the Yuan through the Qing. Most of the sixteen individually authored chapters focus on (and translate extensively from) one or two plays.

  • Volpp, Sophie. Worldly Stage: Theatricality in Seventeenth-Century China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2011.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1tm7fcx

    Chapter 1 covers the meanings and uses of theatricality in the seventeenth century, chapter 2 discusses the changes in performance practice and theatrical space over this period, and chapter 5 the homoerotic and homosocial circulation of actors.

  • Ye Changhai 叶长海. Zhongguo xiju xue shigao (中国戏剧学史稿). Shanghai: Shanghai wenyi chubanshe, 1986.

    Comprehensive survey of Chinese drama history from pre-Yuan traces to the end of the Qing, chronologically arranged with sections covering major forms, works, playwrights, and theorists.

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