Performing Images: Opera in Chinese Visual Culture

February 13 – June 15, 2014

Mask Designs for Court Opera Characters

During the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, opera lay at the heart of Chinese social and ritual life, from the village to the court, and the spectacle of theater was enjoyed not only on the stage—in costumes, props, and face painting—but also across the full spectrum of Chinese visual culture, from scroll paintings to popular prints.

One of the first major exhibitions of its kind in the West, Performing Images focuses on the vibrant imagery, rather than ethnographic artifacts, of Chinese opera. The exhibition showcases how operatic characters and stories were represented in pictorial and decorative motifs in a wide array of media including ceramics, illustrated books, painted fans, prints, photographs, scroll paintings, and textiles. Featuring nearly eighty remarkable objects on loan from major museum collections, the exhibition and its catalogue reveal how Chinese visual and performing traditions were aesthetically, ritually, and commercially intertwined.

Related exhibition

LiuZheng_OperaActor_240px.jpgIn a gallery adjacent to Performing Images, the Smart Museum presents the concurrent exhibition Inspired by the Opera: Contemporary Chinese Photography and Video (February 13–June 15, 2014).

This concise exhibition reveals the continued relevance of opera, both within contemporary Chinese society and within the experimental work of individual artists. It includes photography and videos by Liu Wei, Chen Qiulin, Liu Zheng, and Cui Xiuwen.

Together, the works help illuminate the relationship between contemporary art and China’s cultural heritage.


Judith T. Zeitlin, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor in East Asian Languages and Civilizations the College and faculty committee member of Theater and Performance Studies at the University of Chicago, and Yuhang Li, Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, in consultation with Richard A. Born, Smart Museum Senior Curator.


The exhibition and catalogue have been made possible by the Smart Museum’s Pamela and R. Christopher Hoehn-Saric Exhibition Fund and its Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Endowment; the Office of the Provost, The University of Chicago; Mary Smart and the Smart Family Foundation; Janis Kanter and Thomas McCormick and the Kanter Family Foundation; the Walter E. Heller Foundation; Gay-Young Cho and Christopher Chiu; the Confucius Institute at the University of Chicago; and Furthermore—a program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund. Support for related programming is provided by the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry, the Office of the Deputy Provost for the Arts, the Franke Institute for the Humanities, and the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Chicago.

Presented in the Richard and Mary L. Gray Gallery for Special Exhibitions.

Top: Chinese, Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), Qinglong Period (1745–1795), Marvelous Tunes for Festivals (Jiejie haoyin): The Second of the Four Crab Generals, from Mask Designs for Court Opera Characters, ca. 1745–1795, Album leaf, ink, and color on paper. © The Field Museum, Photographer John Weinstein.

Above: Liu Zheng, An Old Peking Opera Actor Playing a Female Role, Beijing, 1995 (negative, this impression printed 2007), from the series My Countrymen (Guoren, alternately translated as The Chinese), Gelatin silver print. Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, Purchase, The Paul and Miriam Kirkley Fund for Acquisitions, 2013.25.
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Envisioning China

  • UChicago Arts presents a diverse selection of art, film, music, conversations, and performances connected to the arts and cultural history of China during a five-month festival.

    From the magnificent art and spectacle of Chinese opera to rarely screened silent films and world premiere performances, the Envisioning China festival opens a window on the rich cultural heritage of China, past and present.

    Learn more at

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