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Opera Stage 01 (Xitai 戲台) Taubes, Hannibal


Village name and precise coordinates concealed to protect potentially vulnerable sites from looters; the temple is located in Yu County, Hebei Province 河北省蔚縣. The opera stage is located just outside the now-vanished west gate of an old fortified village. According to villagers, it was originally faced to the north by a temple to Lord Guan (Laoye miao 老爺廟), also now destroyed. In 2018 the stage was being used as a storage shed. The stage opens towards the north and would originally have been divided into front-stage and back-stage areas by a wooden scaenae frons or ‘screen-wall’ (geshan qiang 隔扇牆) with two doors at left and right for the actors to enter and exit. This wall has been removed, but the slots by which it would have fitted into the walls and pillars are still visible in the photographs. The western front-stage wall depicts a scene from the novel “Full Tale of the Pavilion of Gazing in the Four Directions” (Siwangting Quanzhuan) or one of the dramas derived from it, identified by the image of a young woman pursuing a monkey along the gables of roof. For an analysis of this motif, see Taubes, Hannibal, “‘Gaze Upon Its Depth’: On the Uses of Perspectival Painting in the Early-Modern Chinese Village,’ East Asian History 43 (2019): 56-59. The western front-stage mural depicts a scene of martial-arts combat taking place on a raised platform outside of an opulent palace. Both of these depictions draw heavily on nineteenth and twentieth century Western-influenced popular prints, with European-style spires and attempts to indicate receding pictorial space by setting background buildings on a distant horizon line. The central north-facing wall of the back-stage has life-sized paintings of three actors. Surrounding this is a copious scrawl of performers’ graffiti, mostly from the late-19th and early 20th centuries. Other than graffiti recording performances, much of this is exorcistic, consisting of the phrase ‘The Great Lord is here - all spirits return to their places’ (Taigong zaici / zhu shen tuiwei 太公在此 / 諸神退位). As is common in many stages in this area, there is one area of the backstage where ink has been splashed across the walls, creating a dense area of splatter and writing; this may relate in some way to stage consecration or some other type of performers’ lore.

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