Spatiality of Emotion Review

The Spatiality of Emotion in Early Modern China: From Dreamscapes to Theatricality, Ling Hon Lam (Columbia University Press, May 2018)

97802311879471Ling Hon Lam encourages us to think of emotions in terms of space; when we sympathize with a character in a play or feel something for another person, that emotion takes place, for it moves us outside ourselves. In Chinese this relation between space and emotion is described by the term qingjing; a scenery of feeling or in Ling’s translation an “emotion-realm”.

In Spatiality of Emotion in Early Modern China, Ling presents a critical history of Chinese theatre evolving from early religious performances without human audiences, through the introduction of sympathetic spectatorship to a new understanding of theatricality in a Chinese context. Through his “genealogies” of various aspects of Chinese theatricality—often described in relation to their European counterparts—human emotions are recast as external events that take place between individuals rather than within a subject.

As a preliminary, Ling seeks to reconceptualize the foundation of modern drama in ancient religious rituals involving dream travel by shifting the European focus on ritual dream theatre as “making present” another world to the Chinese focus on dreamscapes of “deliverance” and thus repairing the “reduction of spatiality to psychology, [which has] unfortunately shaped the way we understand theatricality.”

Ling introduces to Anglophone readers the concept of emotion-realm (qingjing 情景) to describe this external emotive situation. The word qingjing, when used in daily language, refers simply to a situation or a state of affairs, but by breaking up the term and translating each character literally as qing = emotion and jing = realm or landscape, the resulting concept of “emotion-realm” enhances the focus on human feeling in relation to space. Historically, Ling explains, the connection between emotion and spatiality in theatre was brought about through the introduction of spectatorship and the construction of sympathy in the spectator. Where ritual dream theatre was performed only for the gods or the diseased, the introduction of human spectators who could recognize and sympathize with the events on stage created an intermediate space or “emotion-realm” between the dream world of the drama and the experiential world of the viewer.

Due to its ambitious scope and serious engagement with previous scholarship as well as its insistence on linking concepts of theatricality to ontological philosophical discourse, Ling’s book is an extremely demanding read, which requires some degree of patience, especially in the non-specialist reader, with long convoluted sentences of highly abstract meaning.

The four core chapters are very well-researched and combine critical readings of classical Chinese dramas with contemporary theories and concepts from object ontology and affect theory to gender and performance studies. Chinese terms and models are introduced and used in dialogue with English and German terminology in innovative and enlightening ways, for example in the deconstruction of the phrase sheshen chudi 设身处地 (putting oneself in the other’s situation) in comparison with Einfühlung and sympathy.

The prologue and parts of the final chapter, however, depart from the historically informed genealogies of the core chapters to engage in semi-philosophical discussions, in which Heideggerian arguments are used as premises for conclusions without being themselves critically assessed. While the connection of space and emotion in the term “emotion-realm” is both interesting and pioneering when used in concrete analysis, the prolonged abstract discussion of it in terms of 20th century European philosophy, but without the internal logic of philosophical argument, seems less useful.

Spatiality of Emotion in Early Modern China is a heavy read with rewarding and informative rabbit holes into the development of essential aspects of Chinese drama in comparison with their European counterparts. The book combines an extensive knowledge of theatre history with a creative use of contemporary theory to critically re-examine the formation of spectatorship and theatricality in a Chinese context.

This review was first published October 2018 on asianreviewofbooks.com

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