Cao Cao as depicted in a movie

A more popular and less elitist literary tradition developed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) with the dissemination of prose epics. The most famous of these are work The Water Margin and The Dream of the Red Chamber. Rebellious characters are often featured in Ming-era fiction and drama. They include the Monkey King in Journey to the West and the 108 bandit-heroes in the Water Margin. Bandits and pirates that are omnipresent in Chinese fiction and history.

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”:“The growth of the small gentry which had its stronghold in the provincial towns and cities, as well as the rise of the merchant class and the liberation of the artisans, are reflected in the new literature of Ming time. While the Mongols had developed the theatre, the novel may be regarded as the typical Ming creation. Its precursors were the stories of story-tellers centuries ago. They had developed many styles, one of which, for instance, consisted of prose with intercalated poetic parts (pien-wen). Buddhists monks had used these forms of popular literature and spread their teachings in similar forms; due to them, many Indian stories and tales found their way into the Chinese folklore. Soon, these stories of story-tellers or monks were written down, and out of them developed the Chinese classical novel. It preserved many traits of the stories: it was cut into chapters corresponding with the interruptions which the story-teller made in order to collect money; it was interspersed with poems. But most of all, it was written in everyday language, not in the language of the gentry. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“The short story which formerly served the entertainment of the educated only and which was, therefore, written in classical Chinese, now also became a literary form appreciated by the middle classes. The collection Chin-ku ch'i-kuan ("Strange Stories of New Times and Old"), compiled by Feng Meng-lung, is the best-known of these collections in vernacular Chinese. Little original work was done in the Ming epoch in the fields generally regarded as "literature" by educated Chinese, those of poetry and the essay. There are some admirable essays, but these are only isolated examples out of thousands. So also with poetry: the poets of the gentry, united in "clubs", chose the poets of the Song epoch as their models to emulate.

Websites and Sources: Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) mclc.osu.edu; Classics: Chinese Text Project ; Side by Side Translations zhongwen.com; Poetry: Li Bai Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Classic Novels: Journey to the West site vbtutor.net ; English Translation PDF File chine-informations.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Culture: China Culture.org chinaculture.org ; China Culture Online chinesecultureonline.com ;Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; Transnational China Culture Project ruf.rice.edu
Books: “Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction“ by Sabina Knight (Oxford University Press, 2012) ; “The Culture and Civilization”, a massive multi-volume series on Chinese culture (Yale University Press); “Anthology of Chinese Literature from the Earliest Times to the Fourteenth Century” edited by Cyril Birch; Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture,” translated by Stephen West, edited by Victor H. Mair, Nancy S. Steinhardt, and Paul R. Goldin (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005)].

Drama, Opera and Printed Novels During the Ming Dynasty

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The Chinese drama made further progress in the Ming epoch. Many of the finest Chinese dramas were written under the Ming; they are still produced again and again to this day. The most famous dramatists of the Ming epoch are Wang Shih-chen (1526-1590) and Tang Hsien-tsu (1556-1617). Tang wrote the well-known drama Mu-tan-ting ("The Peony Pavilion"), one of the finest love-stories of Chinese literature, full of romance and remote from all reality. This is true also of the other dramas by T'ang, especially his "Four Dreams", a series of four plays. In them a man lives in dream through many years of his future life, with the result that he realizes the worthlessness of life and decides to become a monk. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Together with the development of the drama (or, rather, the opera) in the Ming epoch went an important endeavour in the modernization of music, the attempt to create a "well-tempered scale" made in 1584 by Zhu Tsai-yu. This solved in China a problem which was not tackled till later in Europe. The first Chinese theorists of music who occupied themselves with this problem were Ching Fang (77-37 B.C.) and Ho Ch'êng-t'ien (A.D. 370-447).

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: ““The art of making woodblock printed pictures has enjoyed a long history in China. The large-scale production of printed Buddhist images began as early as the Sui, T'ang, and Five Dynasties (late A.D. 6th to 10th centuries). With the progressive advance of engraved woodblock printing, the printing of illustrated books gradually became common and reached the peak of its development during the Ming dynasty. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw]

The great socio-economic growth following the Wan-li reign (1573-1620) led to the emergence of more affluent commoners. Responding to the increasing public demand for new forms of entertainment, authors writing in the vernacular style produced large numbers of novels and plays, sparking a period of intense literary creativity. Encouraged by the popularity of these works, private printers spent large sums of money to enlist literati artists and craftsmen to produce pictorial editions of the most successful novels and plays, thus ushering in the most glorious period in the history of Chinese printing.”

National Palace Museum, Taipei’s “collection boasts a large number of printed editions of Ming and Qing plays and novels, and is particularly rich in works dating after the Wan-li period. Ranging from the simplicity of the Chien-an style to the delicacy of Wu-lin imprints and the complexity of Huichow designs, the imprints in the collection all possess an inherent beauty and splendor. Appealing to commoners and gentry alike, this wide array of secular illustrated publications constitutes an integral part of the popular literature of the time, and the pictures, rendered to visually represent the scenarios, reveal a great diversity in taste and aesthetics. Through the technology of printing, celebrated stories of legendary characters such as "Hsi-hsiang chi (Romance of the Western Chamber)" and "Hsi-yu chi (Journey to the West)" reached a wide audience and survive to the present day. Yet, how different is our perception of the legendary characters of Ts'ui Ying-ying and Sun Wu-k'ung from that in the Ming and Qing dynasties? These imprints allow us to compare current and historical understandings of cultural narratives and beliefs. The prints featured in the exhibition, be they from romantic, historic, or spiritual texts, all give us the unique opportunity to glance back in time and appreciate the same printed images as those who came before us.

Famous Novels from the Ming Period

Three of The Four Classic Novels of China — 1) “Water Margin” (“Shuihu Zhuàn”) by Shi Nai'an,14th century; 2) “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” (“Sanguó Yanyì”) by Luo Guanzhong,14th century; and 3) “Journey to the West” (“Xi Yóu Jì”) by Wu Cheng'en,16th century — were written during the Ming Dynasty. The fourth — “Dream of the Red Chamber” (“Hónglóu Mèng”) by Cao Xueqin,18th century — was written during the Qing Dynasty.

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “To this day every Chinese knows and reads with enthusiasm “The Water Margin”, probably written about 1550 by Chen Chen, in which the ruling class was first described in its decay. Against it are held up as ideals representatives of the middle class in the guise of the gentleman brigand. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Journey to the West” is a Chinese novel published in the 16th century and attributed to Wu Cheng'en (1500-1582). Arguably the most popular literary work in East Asia, it is based on legendary pilgrimage of the Tang dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang, who traveled to Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent in the 7th century. In the story he is accompanied by his disciples Sun Wukong (the Monkey King), Zhu Bajie (Pigsy) and Sha Wujing (Monk Sha). Every Chinese also knows the great satirical novel "The Westward Journey"), by Feng Menglung (1574-1645), in which ironical treatment is meted out to all religions and sects against a mythological background, with a freedom that would not have been possible earlier. The characters are not presented as individuals but as representatives of human types: the intellectual, the hedonist, the pious man, and the simpleton, are drawn with incomparable skill, with their merits and defects.

Another famous novel is "Romance of the Three Kingdoms"), by Luo Guanzhong (Huhai Sanren). Just as the European middle class read with avidity the romances of chivalry, so the comfortable class in China was enthusiastic over romanticized pictures of the struggle of the gentry in the third century. "The Tale of the Three Kingdoms" became the model for countless historical novels of its own and subsequent periods. Later, mainly in the sixteenth century, the sensational and erotic novel developed, most of all in Nanking. It has deeply influenced Japanese writers, but was mercilessly suppressed by the Chinese gentry which resented the frivolity of this wealthy and luxurious urban class of middle or small gentry families who associated with rich merchants, actors, artists and musicians. Censorship of printed books had started almost with the beginning of book printing as a private enterprise: to the famous historian, anti-Buddhist and conservative Ou-yang Hsiu (1007-1072), the enemy of Wang An-shih, belongs the sad glory of having developed the first censorship rules. Since Ming time, it became a permanent feature of Chinese governments.

“The best known of the erotic novels is the Jin Ping Mei (Chin-p'ing-mei) which, for reasons of our own censors can be published only in expurgated translations. It was written probably towards the end of the sixteenth century. This novel, as all others, has been written and re-written by many authors, so that many different versions exist. It might be pointed out that many novels were printed in Hui-chou, the commercial centre of the time.

Jing Pin Mei and Erotic Literature in China

China has a rich history of erotic literature and painting. China's most famous examples of erotic literature — "Rouputuan" (“The Carnal Prayer Mat”) and “Jin Ping Mei” ("The Golden Lotus") — were written in the 14th century during the Ming Dynasty. “The Plum in the Golden Vase,” another infamously pornographic story, is about the rise and fall of a corrupt merchant, written by an anonymous author in the late 16th century.

“Jin Ping Mei” is a 3,000 page novel that includes the sexual exploits of a horny young merchant, Ximen (Hs-men pronounced semen), and his mistress, Golden Lotus. Because some of the descriptions are very explicit, the story has been banned since the Ming Period. In one passage, for example, Ximen tosses a plum into Golden Lotus's vagina, moves it around until she has an orgasm, and then eats the plum. In the Mao era, the Communist government edited out sexy parts of “Jin Ping Mei” but unedited versions were available if you had connections.

Tristan Shaw wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books: “For over 400 years, the Ming-era novel Jin Ping Mei – known in English as The Golden Lotus – has been celebrated by some readers as a literary masterpiece, while others condemn it as a salacious influence. Chronicling the life of a decadent merchant named Ximen Qing in the Song dynasty, the book’s notoriety comes from its graphic descriptions of sex, covering everything from adultery to sado-masochism. As Ximen rises up the social hierarchy, his lust for power and sex becomes increasingly depraved. Over the course of the story, he takes six wives and numerous concubines and servants, before eventually dying during the passionate raptures of sex from an overdose of aphrodisiacs. [Source: Tristan Shaw, Los Angeles Review of Books, China Channel, September 13, 2019]

Golden Lotus was an unhappy housewife before she became Ximen's lover. "Her hair was black as a raven's plumage; her eyebrows mobile as the kingfisher and as curved as the new moon. Her almond eyes were clear and cool, and her cherry lips most inviting...Her face had the delicate roundness of a silver flower, and her fingers as slender as the tender shoots of a young onion. Her waist was as narrow as a willow, and her white belly yielding and plump. Her feet were small and tapering; her breasts soft and luscious. One other thing there was, black-fringed, grasping, dainty and fresh, but the name I may not tell...it had all the fragrance and tenderness of fresh-made pastry, the softness and appearance of a new-made pie."

Water Margin

“The Water Margin” (also known as “Outlaws of the Marsh”, “The Tales of the Marshes”, “All Men Are Brothers” and “The Marshes of Mount Liang” ( Shuihu Zhuàn)) is one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. Attributed to Shi Naian (Sze Nai-an), whom some believe to be Luo Guanzhong, the author of "Romance of the Three Kingdoms," the novel is about the trials and tribulations of 108 outlaws during the mid Song Dynasty when the ruling class was described as being in decline. In the book the the gentleman brigands are held up as ideals representatives of the middle class virtue. One of the first English translations was by Pearl S. Buck.

According to foreignercn.com: An illustration of the novel Water Margin is vaguely based upon the historical bandit Song Jiang and his 36 companions. The group was active in the Huai River region and eventually surrendered to government troops in 1121. They are recorded in the Song Shi ( - "History of the Song Dynasty) (1345), the name of Song Jiang appearing in the chapter of Emperor Huizong, the activities of the gang in the chapter for Zhang Shuye. Folk stories about Song Jiang circulated during the Southern Song. The first text to name Song Jiang's thirty-six companions was the 13th century Guixin Zashi ( - "Miscellaneous Observations from the Year Guixin") by Zhou Mi (1232 - 1298). Among the thirty-six are Lu Junyi, Guan Sheng, Ruan Xiaoer, Ruan Xiaowu, Ruan Xiaoqi, Liu Tang, Hua Rong and Wu Yong. Some of the characters to later become associated with Song Jiang also appeared around this time. They include Sun Li, Yang Zhi, Lin Chong, Lu Zhishen and Wu Song. [Source: foreignercn.com foreignercn.com

“A direct precursor of Water Margin was the Da Song Xuanhe Yishi (Chinese: - "Old incidents in Xuanhe period of the great Song Dynasty"), which appeared around the mid-13th century. The text was basically a written version of storytellers' tales, based loosely on historical events. It is divided into ten chapters, roughly covering the history of the Song Dynasty from the early 11th century to the establishment of the Southern Song regime in 1127. The fourth chapter covers the adventures of Song Jiang and his 36 companions, and their eventual defeat by Zhang Shuye. Some of the more well-known stories and characters of the Water Margin are clearly visible, including "Yang Zhi selling his sword", "Stealing the birthday present", "Song Jiang kills his slave girl", "Fighting Fang La" etc. It places Song Jiang and his bandits in the Taihang Mountains, and his band ran the gamut from fishermen to ex imperial drill instructors to inn-keepers etc.

“Stories about the bandits of Mount Liang became popular as subject for Yuan Dynasty drama. During this time the material on which the Water Margin was based evolved into what it is today. Song Jiang's bandits were expanded to number one hundred and eight, and though they came from different backgrounds, all eventually come to occupy Mount Liang. There is a theory that Water Margin became popular during the Yuan Dynasty due to resentment toward the Mongol rulers. Song Jiang's rebellion was safe to promote because it criticized the Song Dynasty on the surface, but it was also a call to oppose all corrupt governments.

Authorship, Early Editions and Translations of the Water Margin

According to foreignercn.com: There is considerable disagreement as to the author of Water Margin. Most consider the first seventy chapters to have been written by Shi Nai'an, while the last thirty chapters were written by Luo Guanzhong, also the author of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Luo may have been the disciple of Shi Nai'an. It has also been suggested that Shi Nai'an did not exist but was merely a pseudonym for Luo Guanzhong himself. Clues from the text itself strongly suggest that the author was a native of Zhejiang province (as both Luo and Shi were) who had little knowledge of northern China. At a 2006 conference, the leading scholars of the work agreed that Shi and Luo were probably the same person, because the name Shi Nai'an written backwards spells "an nai shi", meaning "It is I again." [Source: foreignercn.com foreignercn.com

“It is not clear how close the Luo's edition was to those that are known today. The earliest extant edition of Water Margin is a 100-chapter printed text dating from the mid-16th century. Another edition, with 120 chapters by Yang Dingjian, has been preserved from the Wanli era (1573–1620). Yet other editions were published since this era to the early Qing Dynasty, including a 70-chapter edition by Jin Shengtan (1608-1661).

Water Margin has been translated into many languages. One of the first English translations was made by Pearl Buck. Titled All Men are Brothers and published in 1933, the book was well-received by the American public. However, it was also heavily criticized for its many errors and inaccuracies, including many mispronunciations. An often cited example in this edition was her mistranslation of Lu Zhishen's nickname "Flowery Monk" into "Priest Hwa". Of the later editions, Chinese-naturalized Jewish-American scholar Sidney Shapiro's “Outlaws of the Marsh” (1980) is considered one of the best. However, due to its being published during the Cultural Revolution, this edition received little attention at the time. Shapiro's translation is currently published by the Beijing Foreign Language Press, as a four-volume set.

Journey to the West

“Journey to the West” is a 16th century novel by Wu Cheng En that some say has many similarities with “The Wizard of Oz”. It is based on the 7th century wanderings of real life Buddhist monk named Xuanzang (Hsuan-tsang) who went to India in search of sacred Buddhist texts. In the story the Great Monk is accompanied on his journey by three animal spirits: Pigsy, a dim-witted, awkward, greedy and mischievous(a pig; the Monkey King, a monkey possessed by an immortal, and Sha Wujing, a man-eating feminine water spirit. Together with a dragon prince — transformed into a white horse — the jolly party encounters monsters and faces many obstacles, and overcomes them through their wit and teamwork.

Xuanzang, the Chinese monk who inspired the story, left China for India in A.D. 645 to obtain Buddhist texts from which the Chinese could learn more about Buddhism. He made it to Central Asia and India despite being held up by surly Chinese guards and guides who abandoned him in the middle of nowhere. In Central Asia he traveled to Turfan, Kucha, the Bedel pass, Lake Issyk-kul, the Chu Valley (near present-day Bishkek), Tashkent, Samarkand, Balk, Kashgar and Khoton before crossing the Himalayas into India. Xuanzang spent 16 years in India collecting texts and returned to China with 700 Buddhist texts.

“Journey to the West” is widely regarded as the greatest story of Chinese literature and is well known in Japan and Korea and elsewhere in Asia. The monk Hsuan-tang Zang is kind of an anti-hero, pious but cowardly. He repeatedly has to be rescued by the monkey king and the water spirit. The greatest challenge for the four characters is crossing the 400-kilometer-wide river to Heaven, guarded by a monster that feeds on children. When they return to China with scrolls they went to India to collect the find the scrolls are blank and are told that is the true teaching of Buddha.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

“Romance of the Three Kingdoms”is a popular historical novel written by Luo Guanzhong in the 14th Century based on some real-life historical figures. Comprised of over 800,000 words, 1191 characters, and 120 chapters, it takes place when China was divided into many warring and focuses on three kingdoms---Wei, Wu and Shu. It remains popular throughout Asia today and has been an inspiration for scores of movies, television dramas, manga and video games. What has made the book so popular is not so much the battles and fighting but the personalities involved and their interactions.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms is based upon events in the turbulent years near the end of the Han Dynasty and the Three Kingdoms era, starting in A.D. 168 and ending with the reunification of the land in 280. Acclaimed as one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, it is arguably the most widely read historical novel in late imperial and modern China.. Some say its literary influence in East Asia is comparable to that of the works of Shakespeare on English literature.

Carrie Gracie of BBC News wrote: “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is for China roughly what Homer is for Europeans, a swashbuckling adventure story, with lots of blood, excitement and craftiness on the battlefield. Chinese boys live and breathe the story, with its hundreds of characters in cloaks and long robes and multiple sub-plots, spanning a century of convulsion before the empire was reunited. it retells the events surrounding the demise of the Han dynasty and echoes Confucian values that were popular at the time. The story begins just as the Han empire is about to break up. The opening words are: "It is a general truism of this world that anything long divided will surely unite, and anything long united will surely divide." [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 15, 2012]

Peony Pavilion

One of China’s most famous stories, “The Peony Pavillion“, written more than 400 years ago by the Ming dynasty playwright Tang Xiazu, is a love story that takes place within a dream: a woman falls asleep by a peony pavilion and dreams of a handsome scholar she has never met and falls deeply in love with him. Unable to find him in the real world she dies of a broken heart and ends up in the Underworld, where the strength of her desire convince the Infernal Judge to release her ghost back into the land of the living to marry the man of her dreams. Fei Bo, a Chinese choreographer, told The Times: “The story “tells you universal emotions and passions. People can understand how strongly the heroine fights to find love. Drama and novels developed from the same story-telling tradition in which the use of vernacular language is a prominent feature. The Peach Blossom Fan and the popular short stories collected in Lasting Words to Awaken the World and Pounding the Table in Amazement are other works that grew from this tradition. See Chinese Opera Stories, Opera and Theater.

“The Peony Pavilion” was written by Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu (1550-1616). He is from Fuzhou, Jiangxi Province in eastern China, where the story also where the story took placeIn Peony Pavilion, the young lady awakens from the dream and understands that everything was only a dream but still she mourns herself to death. The effect of Tang Xianzu’s dream scenes were so moving that young female spectators, it is said, went out of their minds, and even committed suicide. Later, Tang Xianzu’s dream-scene technique was imitated by several less talented playwrights, and some of them substituted Tang Xianzu’s magical poetry with simple stage effects. [Source: Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

In 1946 Mei Lanfang played the aristocratic lady Du Liniang in the opera who, in a dream, falls in love with Liu Mengmei, a scholar. It was Mei's first appearance on the stage after World War II. While Mei was considered the most famous Peking Opera artist in China, he was also good at Kunqu opera. In 1930, Mei and his team visited the United States and dazzled audiences with the same work.

The Peony Pavilion is still regularly performed in China and abroad. A big deal was made when it was firsts staged in the U.S. In 1998, Kunqu Opera was invited New York to perform the famous opera Peony Pavilion as the marque event of the Lincoln Center Festival. But the opera didn't happen because an ultra-conservative Communist bureaucratic named Ma Bomin refused to allow the opera to leave the country on the ground that the director's interpretation of the Peony Pavilion was "feudal," "pornographic," and "superstitious" and contained "unhealthy elements." Ma had previously approved the opera but just as the actors were getting ready to leave for New York she blocked the shipment of six tons of important costumes, sets and props. After representatives from Lincoln Center flew to Shanghai to try to work out a compromise, she agreed to let the sets and costumes go. When someone asked her if the actors would be allowed to go, she answered no. The opera was well received in China and the director said his aim was to be true to original 1598 version of the play. But in the end he was unwilling to make changed demanded by Ma and the entire opera was scuttled. The whole episodes was covered in the New York Times and on 60 Minutes.

A replica of the pavilion, based on pictures recorded in ancient books of the play was built in Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-on-Avon in 2019. “Zeng Gonglin, deputy director of Fuzhou’s construction bureau, said“The pavilion, with an area of 10 square meters and height of six meters, is built in the same design as it is depicted in pictures in ancient Chinese books.” “He said the stone foundation and the wooden structure of the pavilion would be built in China, and then sent to Britain. “He said the stone foundation and the wooden structure of the pavilion would be built in China, and then sent to the British site this month. [Source: Xinhua, Global Times, March 14, 2019]

Tang Xianzu: China’s Shakespeare

The Peony Pavilion was written by Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu (1550-1616), known as the “Shakespeare of the East”. Tang, Shakespeare and Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes were all active in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and all died in 1616. The four major plays that Tang wrote are known in China as the Four Dreams.

Tang Xianzu (T’ang Hsien-tsu) was the first writer who was able to create dramatic scripts and language matching the fashionable melodies of kunqu opera, which was very popular in the Ming era. His works are regarded as the epitome of the dramatic literature of the Ming period. His plays are still praised for their harmonious structure, deep emotions and sophisticated style. His style is often called the “dreaming” Ming style. This is because of the so-called dream scenes, which were both his innovation and his trademark. Through these dream scenes or sequences, in which the leading character falls asleep, it was possible to make a character’s secret or unconscious hopes or fears visible. The most famous of these kinds of dream sequences is in Tang Xianzu’s most popular opera, The Peony Pavilion. [Source: Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki **]

Laurie Chen wrote in the South China Morning Post: “Tang, created intricate and profoundly moving works of Chinese opera, which are often concerned with romance and dreams. He lived during the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when Chinese society was slowly transitioning from a rigid feudal system to become more open. As such, Tang’s plays often feature complex female characters who aspire towards autonomy and the right to choose their own male partners. [Source: Laurie Chen, South China Morning Post, October 2, 2018]

“Tang was not a particularly prolific playwright, having started writing after dedicating most of his life to an undistinguished career in the civil service. He wrote four major plays while serving as a low-level bureaucrat, of which the romantic tragicomedy The Peony Pavilion is the best known. Even now, most Chinese view him as a scholarly bureaucrat, in contrast to Shakespeare, who actively performed in and directed theater troupes when the art flourished in Renaissance England. But, like Shakespeare, Tang left a considerable body of work, including more than 2,000 essays and poems in addition to his four major plays.High-profile drama festivals in China have celebrated the works of both playwrights in recent years, and Chinese President Xi Jinping referenced the two literary giants as a symbol of cross-cultural understanding while in London in 2015. In 2016, statues of the pair were put on display in Stratford and Fuzhou as part of a long-running campaign by the Fuzhou government to rebrand the city into a cultural tourism hub.

In 2017, Chinese archaeologists said they found Tang’s tomb in Fuzhou. Wendy Wu wrote in the South China Morning Post: The remains of the family graveyard of Tang Xianzu have been rediscovered after it was largely destroyed during the social upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, according to The Beijing News reported. The cultural relics and archaeology department in Jiangxi has discovered 40 tombs in the Tang plot in excavations since May and one of them was identified as the probable site of the playwright’s burial. It was particularly badly damaged. The graveyard was attacked by Red Guards in 1966 at the start of the Cultural Revolution when symbols of China’s ancient culture and customs were frequently targeted. Most of the tombs were largely destroyed with only cracked bricks remaining, according to the report. Archaeologists did find six epitaphs honouring the dead, one of which was written by Tang about his grandmother. Fuzhou, Tang’s hometown, has several buildings which honour him. [Source: Wendy Wu, South China Morning Post, August 30, 2017]

Peony in Chinese Literature

In a review of “From Bewitching Beauty to Effete King: Transgendering of King Peony in Medieval Chinese and Korean Literature” by Jeongsoo Shin, Sixiang Wang a PhD candidate at Columbia University wrote: “The peony has come to have a variety of associations in the East Asian literary tradition. Its luxurious petals have signaled wealth and beauty while its peculiar, seedless manner of reproduction has come to symbolize sterility and empty luxury. It has even come to represent political power as a symbol of China as a nation, arguably one of its dominant associations today. [Source: A review by Sixiang Wang PhD Candidate, East Asian Languages and Cultures; History-East Asia. Columbia of “From Bewitching Beauty to Effete King: Transgendering of King Peony in Medieval Chinese and Korean Literature” by Jeongsoo Shin +++]

“Jeongsoo Shin gives an overview of the peony flower’s origins as a medicinal plant. Despite its connection with female allure in later literature, the flower, from a traditional horticultural perspective, possessed characteristics of both “male” and “female” plants. Understanding the peony’s origin as an androgynous, medical plant is essential for appreciating its subsequent emergence as a literary trope. Although it is difficult to establish exactly when the peony became a garden flower, its emergence in Tang China (618–907) as a significant literary trope was undoubtedly connected to its popular cultivation. New methods of cultivation produced varieties never before seen, and the peony’s chameleon-like ability to appear in different colors made it a “prodigy” among flowers. By the High Tang, through the poetry of Li Bo (701–762), the peony flower came to be intertwined with the tragic figure of Consort Yang on whom later writers blame the decline of the Tang, due to emperor Xuanzong’s (r. 712–756) singular attention to her. The flower thus emerged as a rather negative symbol, representing exuberance, luxury, and desire. +++

“Though its association with the court made it also a symbol of secular power, the flower enjoyed cultivation beyond the confines of the palace: Buddhist monasteries, among the locations famous for their flowers, sometimes supplied the imperial palace with peonies. Peony poetry took off in the late Tang in step with the development of peony as a fashionable commodity, and it was during this frenzy that the idiom “Guo se tian xiang”, which Shin translates as “reigning beauty and heavenly fragrance,” first came to be attached to the flower in the poems of Li Zhengfeng. What is curious, however, is that despite its feminine allure the peony also acquired the epithet, “king of one hundred flowers”, a term that in all likelihood originally applied to other flowers than the peony. +++

Later Shin “turns attention away from the poetry of the capital Chang’an to that of Luoyang, which emerged not only as a center for peony cultivation but a political and cultural center supplanting Chang’an amid the decline of the Tang. Here, the flower lost its connection with the Tang court per se, emerging as a symbol for “Chinese civilization”. Shin gives one poignant anecdote: as northern China was coming under the hegemony of the Northern Song (960–1127), southern kingdoms such as the Southern Han (917–971) held on to their independence. The people of the Southern Han were disdainful of the “Central States”. Proud of the jasmine flowers they cultivated, the southerners called them their “small southern vigor”. When the Han was conquered by the Song, the Han ruler was taken to Luoyang, only to be “terrified” by the size of the peony blossoms there, where, he was told, they were called “great northern victory”. Though the size of the peony blossoms may symbolize the power and strength of the “Central States,” others interpreted the “barren seeds in the large blossoms” to be indicative of “empty, superficial brilliance”. +++

“The flower found its way into the court politics of the early Song. Shin discusses the development of connoisseurship in terms of the political conflict between two courtiers, Qian Weiyan (962–1034) and Li Di (971–1047). While the latter was lauded for resisting the regency of the empress Dowager Liu, Qian was seen as currying favor with the powerful. Criticism of Qian’s “peony cultivation” was an oblique criticism of Qian’s political position. Qian’s protégé, however, the well-known early Song statesman Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072) , not only refused to criticize his patron, he also celebrated the peony’s cultivation. His “Account of the Luoyang Peonies” elevated the peony above all other flowers, and the peonies of Luoyang above the flowers of all other regions. The way Ouyang explains the lusciousness of the peony’s blossoms, however, was in terms of a “disease of [its] original, vital energy”. He too saw the peony as a prodigy of nature, but one that was remarkable as a “concentration of beauty”. Its uncanny existence was for Ouyang not a vehicle for moral criticism; in Shin’s reading, Ouyang’s celebration of the aesthetics of peony cultivation was in fact a veiled political defense of his patron. +++

The horticultural dimension of the story helps reveals a separate set of concerns. Writing against what he believes to be the overemphasis of the peony as an embodiment or representation of “Chineseness,” which has “overshadowed other significant elements of the flower,” Shin has set out to give a more diverse reading of its valences within the Chinese literary tradition (p. 221). By bringing in the Korean literary context, he has pointed how the gendering of the peony as female cannot be taken for granted. Its “transgendering” was, then, a mechanism of “transculturation.” Elucidating the many ways in which the literary symbol of the peony has been deployed in politics. +++

Book of Swindles

On “The Book of Swindles”, whose earliest datable edition dates to 1617, Christopher Rea of the University of British Columbia wrote: This is an age of deception. Con men ply the roadways. Bogus alchemists pretend to turn one piece of silver into three. Devious nuns entice young women into adultery. Sorcerers use charmed talismans for mind control and murder. A pair of dubious monks extorts money from a powerful official and then spends it on whoring. A rich student tries to bribe the chief examiner, only to hand his money to an imposter. A eunuch kidnaps boys and consumes their "essence" in an attempt to regrow his penis. These are just a few of the entertaining and surprising tales to be found in this seventeenth-century work, said to be the earliest Chinese collection of swindle stories.

“The Book of Swindles, compiled by an obscure writer from southern China — Zhang Yingyu who lived during the Wanli period (1573–1620) of the Ming dynasty — presents a fascinating tableau of criminal ingenuity. The flourishing economy of the late Ming period created overnight fortunes for merchants — and gave rise to a host of smooth operators, charlatans, forgers, and imposters seeking to siphon off some of the new wealth. The Book of Swindles, which was ostensibly written as a manual for self-protection in this shifting and unstable world, also offers an expert guide to the art of deception. Each story comes with commentary by the author, Zhang Yingyu, who expounds a moral lesson while also speaking as a connoisseur of the swindle. This volume, which contains annotated translations of just over half of the eighty-odd stories in Zhang's original collection, provides a wealth of detail on social life during the late Ming and offers words of warning for a world in peril.

Book: “The Book of Swindles: Selections from a Late Ming Collection” by Zhang Yingyu. Translated by Christopher Rea and Bruce Rusk (Columbia University Press, 2017)

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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