Performing Images: Opera in Chinese Visual Culture

February 13 – June 15, 2014

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.

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, 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.


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 on the Envisioning China website.

Related Exhibition

In 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.


The exhibition is accompanied by the first scholarly publication of its kind in English. Through essays and illustrated object entries, it offers new interdisciplinary perspectives on Chinese visual and performing traditions. 

Free public programs

February 13
At the Threshold
opening celebration

March 7, April 6, May 3, May 16
Film Series: Chinese Opera
Presented in collaboration with the Film Studies Center

March 1
Family Day: Domino Throwdown

March 14
Gallery Talk: Drama, Gardens, and Printing Culture
with Isabel Wong
**Registration is closed, talk is full**

March 20
Third Thursday: Bowling and Spooning

April 10–12
Symposium: Chinese Opera in Visual and Material Culture
keynote by Craig Clunas (Oxford)

May 3
Family Day: About Face

June 1
Pipa Recital
with Lan Weiwei

June 7
Snake Stories and Plush Puppets

June 7
Curator Tour
with Judith Zeitlin and Yuhang Li

SmartPartner+ Program

February 12
Exclusive Preview: Performing Images
Become a SmartPartner+ today to receive an invitation to this exclusive event.

UChicago student program

April 10
Party at the Smart: Be a Character