In 17th Century China, as formerly disparate social spheres grew closer, the theatre began to occupy an important ideological niche among traditional cultural elites. As the newly rich and the newly educated challenged the position of older elites, notions of performance and spectatorship came to animate diverse aspects of literati cultural production. The goal of "Worldly Stage" is to show how the theatre acquired this figurative power. Conceptions of theatrical spectatorship, Sophie Volpp argues, helped shape a discourse on social spectatorship that suggested how a discerning person might evaluate the performance of status. The exploration of theatricality allowed authors to discuss the emerging middle elite's precarious grasp of symbolic capital and the cultural past. That social roles resembled theatrical roles illuminated the excesses of the socially aspiring and the success of the undeserving. The transience of the world and the vanity of reputation had long informed the Chinese conception of theatricality. But in the 17th Century, these notions acquired a new verbalisation. That theatrical spectatorship provided a model for how one viewed the world was an old idea.
What was new was that theatrical models of spectatorship were now applied to the contemporary urban social spectacle in which the theatre itself was deeply implicated.