Getting into Texts by Getting into Character: Reacting to the Past Pedagogy, Chinese Opera Theatre, and Ming Dynasty Confucianism

Will Schuler, Postgraduate Tutor, Drama and Theatre

College Postgraduate Teaching Commendation 2015

Each year in the course Theatre and Culture One, seminar leaders decide upon a four week case study to apply the theories of the course we have explored thus far. For my case study I decided to examine Kunqu Chinese Opera Theatre and Ming Dynasty Governance and Confucianism. My aim was to help students understand the strict and precise performance style as well as the controversial themes of performance by juxtaposing the plays with research into Ming decorum, adherence to Confucian teaching, and the tensions between this top-down governance and social and religious tradition, specifically regarding the issue of succession. To achieve this second part of the equation, students read Ray Huang’s 1587: A Year of No Significance, which positions Emperor Wanli’s desire to name his third born son as heir, instead of following with tradition and naming his first born, as the beginning of the decline of the Ming Dynasty, and also The Analects of Confucius. In class, instead of discussing these texts in a traditional seminar style, we play a game.


The role-immersion game

“Confucianism and the Succession Crisis of the Wanli Emperor” is a role-immersion game in the Reacting to the Past series, developed by Mark C. Carnes at Barnard College in New York City. Like all Reacting games, the Confucianism game is to be played over the course of several classes and is intended to get students to debate the ideas found in primary sources through the perspective of characters from the time. In this case, all of the students are given dossiers of Grand Secretaries of the Emperor Wanli, with the exception of one student who is the Emperor. Each dossier contains victory objectives that each character needs to achieve in order to win the game. For example, the follower of Hai Rui’s victory objective is to get the Emperor to name his first born son as successor before the midway point in the game, and if not, become a martyr for the cause by being so outspoken before the Emperor, that Wanli has no choice but to execute him. Wanli’s dossier, however, emphasises how much he is already rocking the boat and warns him not to execute any of his Grand Secretariat for fear of causing even greater distrust of his rule. The effects of executing a Grand Secretary in the game are decided by the role of a die. Wanli and his supporters win the game if the majority of memorials delivered by the Grand Secretaries sanction the naming of his third born son as heir. If not, he must dismiss his First Grand Secretary, banish his favourite wife from the Forbidden City, and begin his first born son’s schooling for becoming Emperor. In this case the Confucian purist faction wins the game. There are also indeterminate characters who are given personal dossiers and advised to consider the arguments of both sides before coming to their own conclusions.



When debating ideas, especially ones as foreign as Ming Dynasty Confucianism, students may feel apprehensive about sharing their opinions on the topic in front of their peers, and especially debating different sides of arguments pertaining to them. Through the use of character, students get to debate the ideas not as themselves, but as someone else. As such, their character creates a safety net for espousing ideas on the topic. Their peers cannot criticise their words, because it is actually their character’s words. Because the character dossiers have specific victory objectives, it gives students a clear angle to approach the material with. The characters in the game often have a foil character who has opposite objectives. The intention behind this is to foster discussion—for example one character feels that the Jesuits should be allowed to remain in China and another who feels they should be banished from the land. In the book Minds on Fire: Role Immersion Games Transform College, Mark C. Carnes demonstrates how the use of character and the competitive element of the game can help overcome the silence of students and foster life skills such as developing persuasive techniques in speech and connecting with an audience (124-150). Carnes also explains how role immersion learning teaches leadership through teamwork, explaining that good leadership involves leading through consensus and conciliation (228-245). In negotiating the political debates of China in 1587, the students begin to see how progress can be achieved through reciprocity and compromise.   


The classes

I have structured the four three-hour classes as half game mode and half examination of Kunqu opera theatre.

In our first two classes we saw memorials from every Grand Secretary on issues such as the Civil Service Examination System, flooding of the Yellow River, Japanese pirates, and role of eunuchs at court. Although these did not pertain specifically to the role of succession, it became clear which students were against the Emperor and which ones supported him. There are also indeterminate characters who are provided more personal dossiers, and they are allowed to come to a decision on the issue based upon what they hear from the other Secretaries and from the Emperor. Of course, the Emperor rarely addresses his secretaries directly. He usually whispers to the First Grand Secretary, who reports the Emperor’s words to the other Secretaries. The First Grand Secretary reminded people to behave respectfully, sit up straight, not cross their legs, and listen to each memorial, as this is the Way. The students also began policing each other. If one Grand Secretary made a statement unsupported by either 1587 or the Analects, another Secretary would ask where their proof was. All of a sudden, students began showing up with lists of Analects ready to fire off at their adversaries. One student told me before class that writing their memorial took so much time because they had to think of everything the other side would say about each of their points. I asked if considering all sides of the argument was something they could take on board with other assignments they did, resulting in a wonderful “ah-ha” moment on their end. 

In the last two classes the students all gave a second set of memorials specifically on the issue of succession, which was very heated. The follower of Hai Rui was so outspoken that midway through the class he was executed. This had a profound effect on the next game day. Students were much more respectful in their criticisms of the Emperor for fear that they would be executed and therefore lose the game.  In the end, the supporters of the Emperor were able to sway all of the indeterminates to their cause—a true feat. However, the odds in the game were stacked against them, as per historical precedent. They did not win the game because one student in their faction was absent and thereby not able to weigh in on the matter. We discussed how historic events could have gone many different ways. That is why it is important to be present and have your voice heard. Because the majority of the memorials were critical of the Emperor, he was forced to dismiss the First Grand Secretary and name his first born son heir.

In the second half of the classes we watched videos of Chinese Opera theatre, read scripts, examined the four role types of Kunqu, as well as investigated make-up and costumes that were suitable to these roles. The scripts have very exact stage directions, which explain how the actor should hold each finger at each line. The students had to recreate passages of the text as exactly as they could, to understand how precise this form of theatre was.

At the end of each class in game mode, we reflect on what happened: What is working in the game, and what is not working? How did it feel when two characters were butting heads? Are you more critical of Grand Secretaries who do not support their points with textual evidence? How does it feel to debate in character? I feel that it is important to reflect on the pedagogy as we go, so that any reservations are allayed and they can drive home the elements that are working. It is also important to discuss the pedagogy with the students so that they see why they are being taught in the way they are and what the intended learning outcomes are.


Student feedback

In examining the student feedback forms the majority of students felt that they developed confidence in expressing their opinions and cultivated new concepts. When answering open ended questions, eleven students commented that they were more engaged in this class and eleven students also commented that they did more preparatory work for the course (including rereading assigned texts) because of the style of the game. The most telling response from the surveys was that 100% of students would take another Reacting class.

The evaluations from faculty members were very positive. Senior Lecturer Dr. Melissa Blanco Borelli said “The level of engagement, maturity and interest I witnessed was unparalleled. When individual students had to present their written ‘memorials’ I was struck at the high quality of their writing, argumentative skills and their ability to support their arguments with evidence from the texts they had carefully read. Not once did I see a student turn to her phone or look around in a distracted manner.” Dr. Blanco Borelli noted that “it also provides sound ethical foundation for success in and out of the university setting. The respect of one another’s ideas –even if they disagree—comes across because they base their disagreements on the ideas presented, not on brute emotional responses.”


See other case studies on our Seminars and workshops page