Actors were luxury goods traded among the elite in late Ming and early Qing China. Not only individual actors but entire troupes were sold, bestowed upon friends, and bequeathed upon relatives. Their circulation served to create and maintain networks of social exchange, in much the same manner as did gifts of fine ceramic ware, calligraphic scrolls, and ancient bronzes. The cultural prestige of the actor as a luxury good, in turn, was predicated on a highly refined discourse of connoisseurship. For example, the theater aficionado Pan Zhiheng's (1556–1622) disquisitions on the art of acting were collected in a volume entitled Chongding xinshang pian (Recompiled texts on connoisseurship), published between 1600 and 1640 (Clunas 1991, 36). In this essay, I discuss the social significance of the connoisseurship of the actor, examining the exchange of actors and poems among a rarefied stratum of the mid-seventeenth-century elite.

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