THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

24 May 2016

Tang Xianzu, the great Ming dynasty playwright

This year the Library celebrates one of the greatest literary figures of all time, William Shakespeare (1564–1616), with a major exhibition and a rich series of events and on-line resources. Coincidently, two other world-famous writers died in the same year: Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616), and the Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu 湯顯祖(1550–1616). To commemorate these two writers, the Library recently presented in its permanent free exhibition space, the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, the display Imagining Don Quixote, and is currently showing a selection of woodblock printed editions from Tang Xiangzu’s work. For those who cannot visit the British Library to see the display on Tang in person, this blog post presents some information on the exhibits.

Tang Xianzu is one of the greatest Chinese playwrights. He was a native of Linchuan, Jiangxi province, and worked as an official during the reign of the Wanli Emperor (1572–1620) of the Ming dynasty. Tang Xianzu’s masterpiece is called the ‘Peony Pavilion’ (牡丹亭 Mudan ting). The ‘Peony Pavilion’ was written and staged for the first time in 1598 and performed at the Pavilion of Prince Teng, one of the great Chinese towers in Southern China. It is still one of the most beloved and famous Chinese traditional operas today.

Tang blog 1 by Sara
Xu xiang mudan ting, 繡像牡丹亭, ‘Illustrated Peony Pavilion’ in 8 chapters, c. 1840, woodblock printed edition. In this illustration from a Qing dynasty edition of the text, we can see the opening scene, when the sixteen-year-old Du Liniang falls asleep in the garden and starts dreaming. British Library, 15327.b.15 Noc

The term ‘opera’ is often used in reference to Chinese theatre as it was common for dramatic performances to be highly choreographed and punctuated by singing and musical accompaniment. There are many forms of Chinese opera, but the ‘Peony Pavilion’ is traditionally performed as a kunqu or ‘Kun opera’, a style developed in the early Ming period, which combines spoken parts with singing and dance movements.

Tang blog 2 by Sara
The Peony Pavilion performed in Venice on 15th of June 2010 (photo by the author). The original version of the Peony Pavilion runs for 20 hours, and comprises a total of 55 scenes, but it is now usually performed in shorter adaptations.

The ‘Peony Pavilion’ is sometimes referred to as ‘A Ghost Story’, because part of it takes place in the underworld and the protagonist returns from the afterlife. It narrates the love story between a girl from a wealthy family, Du Liniang, and the scholar Liu Mengmei. After seeing Liu in a dream and falling in love with him, Du dies of sorrow. Her spirit keeps looking for the young scholar and the Judge of the Underworld promises to resurrect her so that she can see him again. After appearing in Liu’s dreams as a ghost, her body is exhumed by Liu and the couple live happily thereafter.

Tang blog 3 by Sara
Xu xiang mudan ting, 繡像牡丹亭, ‘Illustrated Peony Pavilion’ in 8 chapters, c. 1840, woodblock printed edition. British Library 15327.b.16, another copy of the same edition of the work as in 15327.b.15. Noc

The ‘Peony Pavilion’ is one of the so-called ‘Four Dreams’ (Lin chuan si meng), four of Tang’s most important plays in which dreams play a significant part in the story. They include also ‘The Purple Hairpin’, ‘The Dream of Handan’ and ‘The Dream of the Southern Bough’. The latter two in particular contain themes of rejection of traditional feudal values and the possibility of escape through love and compassion in order to achieve happiness.

Tang Blog 4 by Sara
The ‘Dream of Southern Bough’, in the collection Shi er zhong qu十二種曲, ‘Twelve operas’, by Li Yu, 1785, woodblock printed edition. British Library, 15327.a.3 Noc

The ‘Peony Pavilion’ has been translated into many languages and adapted several times for television and theatre productions such as contemporary opera, ballet and musical performances, both in China and abroad. The escape from the conventions of feudal society, the power of true love to conquer even death, and the cathartic role of dreams are central themes of the ‘Peony Pavilion’. Together they created a story that is universal and beloved by students, readers and audiences around the world.

Tang blog 5 by Sara
‘Die Rückkehr der Seele’ (The Return of the Soul), translated by Vincenz Hundhausen. Zürich/Leipzig, 1937. This edition of the ‘Peony Pavilion’, translated and edited by Vincenz Hundhausen, is accompanied by forty reproductions of Chinese woodcuts from the Ming period. British Library, 11101.f.28

Further reading:
Tan, Tian Yuan and Santangelo, Paolo 'Passion, Romance, and Qing: The World of Emotions and States of Mind in Peony Pavilion' (3 vols.),  in Emotions and States of Mind in East Asia, Vol. 4. Leiden: Brill, 2015.
Tan, Tian Yuan, Edmondson, Paul and Wang, Shih-pe, 1616: Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu's China. London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2016.


Sara Chiesura, East Asian collections Ccownwork