GJS SeminarRyūkyū Play-ing China against Japan: Paintings of Theatrical Diplomacy in the British Library

Time: December 18, 2014 (Thu) 5:00-6:00 pm
Location: Ground Floor, Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, University of Tokyo
Speaker: Patrick SCHWEMMER (Ph. D candidate, Princeton University)
Language: English
GJS Seminar

Throughout the early-modern period, the small island kingdom of Ryūkyū was putting on diplomatic shows for its two tributary masters, China and Japan: cultural pageantry was essential to most exchanges. Kumi odori, a theatre developed in Ryūkyū’s vernacular from a mix of Japanese and Ryūkyūan legends and performance traditions to entertain Chinese investiture missions, remains an important part of Okinawan culture today. However, a previously-undiscussed picture book in the British Library provides the most complete textual and pictorial record yet known of a roughly opposite phenomenon: a Ryūkyūan performance of Chinese theatre for a Japanese audience. Personnel lists, synopses, and lyrics accompany colorful paintings of orchestral and choral music, Ryūkyūan songs, fan dances, and sanshin performance, the Chinese plays—even the menu of the banquet served. Based on correspondences with records preserved by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I identify the occasion as the 1796 tributary mission to Edo, situate this object as the most complete record of this event yet known, and argue that Chinese performance was as important as Japanese and local forms to Ryūkyū’s theatrical diplomacy, whose basic move was to preserve Ryūkyūan independence by playing the domesticating and exoticizing gazes of Japan and China against one another.