Taohua shan

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Author: Jing Shen
Date: 2010
From: Playwrights and Literary Games in Seventeenth-Century China: Plays by Tang Xianzu, Mei Dingzuo, Wu Bing, Li Yu, and Kong Shangren
Publisher: Lexington
Reprint In: Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800(Vol. 210. )
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 18,050 words

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[(essay date 2010) In the following essay, Shen examines The Peach Blossom Fan in the context of the fall of the Ming dynasty and the investigation by Qing dynasty scholars that followed on the role of Confucian philosophy in the political and moral degeneracy of Ming monarchs. Shen argues that though Kong, a Confucian, intended to contrast the illusions of people in the last days of the Ming dynasty with reality by means of the play’s historical presentation of other plays about the past, his intention is undermined by intertextual references.]

Political-Philosophical Context

In contrast to Li Yu’s plays, which are silent about the fall of the Ming Dynasty, Kong Shangren’s (1648-1718) Taohua shan (The Peach Blossom Fan) examines the final days of the previous dynasty with intense sorrow. In view of the political and intellectual career of Kong Shangren as a descendant of Confucius, my purpose here is to discuss the reaction of early Qing scholars against the philosophical thought of late Ming to explore the context in which The Peach Blossom Fan was created. The fall of the Ming exerted a great influence on the Chinese intellectual climate and impelled the literati to reflect on the political and moral functions of the Confucian schools in society. They regarded the late Ming philosophical trend as the cause of the degeneration of the Ming monarchy.1 Political readings of Confucianism were not unique to Confucian scholars during the Ming-Qing transition period, but the connection between philosophy and politics became closer and more complicated at that time. Early Qing intellectuals reevaluated late Ming thought, on the one hand, and explored moral statecraft on the other. According to Cynthia Brokaw, even during the late Ming these two aspects had already drawn the attention of the Donglin Academy and its successor, the Restoration Society, which plays an important role in The Peach Blossom Fan.2 The Ming loyalists’ criticism of the former dynasty’s politics and history could be voiced when it had been replaced by the Qing Dynasty, but this profound critical spirit had been developed through the former dynasty with its dynamic and nonconformist cultural and intellectual atmosphere. These loyalists’ writings that sought to restore Ming history in effect shaped Qing scholarship, fostering relative independence of learning from government politics. The fall of the Ming did not immediately end its culture; the residue continued and transformed in the Qing.3

After consolidating its rule, the Qing government tried to engage Chinese gentry in political reform and community stabilization, as a result of which the gentry regained local authority over administration and education. They actively discussed and promoted moral and social values in accordance with their idea of Confucianism. It is true that anti-Manchu sentiment was strong when the Ming monarchy fell to the alien Qing, but toward the end of the seventeenth century, Chinese literati gradually shifted their focus from reaction against the Manchu government to examination of Confucian values.4 This change of focus is also evident in The Peach Blossom Fan, which concentrates on the role of the Ming regime in its own fall, rather than that of the Manchu army. Kong Shangren wrote the play from 1679 to 1699, when he underwent seclusion after failing in the civil service examinations, and experienced promotion to government service thanks to Emperor Kangxi’s recognition, disappointment at corrupted officialdom, and visits with Ming loyalists. The final version (resulting from repeated revisions) reveals the contradiction between mourning the fallen Ming and praising the Kangxi reign, with a focus on the late Ming regardless of mourning or criticizing its downfall.5

How to react to the fall of the Ming was a tough issue for Ming loyalists. Those who did not die for the sake of honor felt ashamed; on the other hand, they defended their choice, criticizing the martyrs for being unwise and taking the easy way out. Even those who took their own lives to preserve their integrity did not necessarily feel at ease about not fighting for the restoration of the Ming. When he was summoned by the Qing ruler to take office, Qi Biaojia committed suicide to maintain his reputation as a Ming subject. Still, his self-justification in “Last Words,” which emphasizes “the similarity in loyalty and righteousness” between his suicide and active contributions to restoration, reveals an uneasy conscience and concern about his position in history compared with those who sacrificed their lives for the restoration of the country.6 Yet those who changed to serve the Qing authority, such as Wu Weiye, cannot easily be labeled traitors because their writings also express adherence to the former dynasty. Their vivid yearning for the late Ming makes Zhao Yuan think that this sorrow over the loss of their country and attachment to that past were shared by all the scholars during the transitional time.7

By the time The Peach Blossom Fan was written, the Qing regime had solidified its rule and the country was showing signs of peace. The new government’s oppression of Chinese literati was not necessarily worse than that of early Ming rulers. This put Ming loyalists in a predicament: The meaning of their life as Ming adherents depended on the ideal of restoring the former dynasty. Some began to reconsider their duty as Confucian scholars and tried to separate the country from the land, maintaining their feelings for Ming but engaging in ethical teaching across the land. Individual Ming loyalists cherished a different nostalgia for the old country given their different experiences. Some had escaped the late Ming factional retaliation by sheer luck as the result of the Manchu invasion.8 The changing and conflicting roles and interpretations of the different loyalists in the contemporary Qing Dynasty added to the complexity of the world described in The Peach Blossom Fan.

The Peach Blossom Fan employs the chuanqi form developed in the Ming and presents philosophical and political interpretations of Ming chuanqi plays. This artistic and thematic conception is most appropriate as theater permeated late Ming life. As we have seen in chapter 2, Qi Biaojia, a devoted official who committed suicide to remain loyal to the late Ming, still entertained friends and relatives with performances of plays in the midst of the war turmoil during the final days of the Ming regime. Royalty went even farther. According to Ji Liuqi’s (fl. 1662-1671) Mingji nanlüe (A Sketch of the Southern Regimes of the Ming Dynasty), when Emperor Yongli (r. 1646-1662) escaped to Guilin, his uncle Wang Weimu organized a Kunshan-style troupe to perform chuanqi plays such as The Purple Hairpin and Luanbi ji (The Barb of Love) every day.9

In his preface to The Peach Blossom Fan, Kong Shangren conveys his intention to impart moral teachings in the chuanqi form, and discusses chuanqi’s connection to poetry and history classics with respect to principles, moral function, and style.10

Although it is minor artistry, chuanqi incorporates all the forms of poetry, lyrics, parallel prose and fiction. In portraying characters and describing scenery, it also contains the painting world. Its purport in fact originates from The Three Hundred Poems [The Book of Songs], its meaning derives from The Spring and Autumn Annals, and its style imitates that of Zuo Commentary, Discourses of the States and The Book of The Grand Astrologer [Records of the Grand Historian]. Chuanqi is a most suitable form to admonish people, transform customs, support benevolent government and assist the emperor’s teachings. Isn’t current music truthful like ancient music? The play Peach Blossom Fan depicts all the recent events in the Southern Ming; some elders [from that time] are still living. From song and dance onstage and directions given offstage, we may know who and what caused the downfall of the three-hundred-year enterprise, and when and where it happened. This play not only makes audiences sigh and weep, but can also admonish the public as a remedy for the last phase [of the Ming Dynasty].11

With its serious reflection on the chuanqi form, the preface promotes the historical and moral interest of The Peach Blossom Fan. It also anticipates an intimate community in which actors and audience re-experience recent history as portrayed in the play. Yet the strenuous association of the chuanqi form with the Confucian Classics here provokes a question: Is The Peach Blossom Fan a representation and evaluation of history, as Kong Shangren states, or is it an examination of and a negotiation between texts?

Kong Shangren incorporated three Ming plays into The Peach Blossom Fan to investigate the politics of chuanqi drama: The Peony Pavilion written by Tang Xianzu, The Swallow Letter by Ruan Dacheng,12 and Mingfeng ji (The Singing Phoenix), allegedly by Wang Shizhen.13 These plays set into the scholar-beauty story of Hou Fangyu and Li Xiangjun represent different moralities and facilitate Kong Shangren’s evaluation of the Ming legacy. Contextualizing the Ming plays in The Peach Blossom Fan displays a “concern about what theater is and how it functions in society,”14 and reveals Kong Shangren’s viewpoint on the capacity of theater to construct personal life and public history.

Ritual versus Theater

“Whether Chinese or Western, it is especially characteristic of historical plays to link questions of (1) public or private and (2) real vs. illusory by raising the matter of role-playing, not only in individuals vis à vis one another, but notably in groups acting on the stage of life—the question of whether to regard the play as history, or history as a long, episodic play,” as Lynn Struve remarks.15 Being a historical play, The Peach Blossom Fan plays on the thin line between ritual and theater to explore the relationships between private and public realms, life and stage, and eternity and transience. This playing is conducted through the characters’ interpretations of music and drama as well as their comments on each other’s performances. Performing and discussing plays are important activities in The Peach Blossom Fan. Some characters, including the romantic heroine Li Xiangjun, fashion their lives on the poetic and theatrical experience portrayed by chuanqi texts, in order to seek a timeless state that transcends changing reality. The rituals that frame the story of The Peach Blossom Fan are meant to expose the myth-making of theater but paradoxically claim exclusive authority for this play in reconstructing reality and history.

The story of The Peach Blossom Fan starts and concludes with ritual ceremonies. Conventionally, in the prologue, an anonymous character in the fumo role, the male supporting role, introduces the gist and purpose of the story. The fumo opening The Peach Blossom Fan in the “Prologue” (xiansheng), however, presents himself as a person who appears in the play and claims to have witnessed the downfall of the Ming court. He describes his life experience, the current political situation, the outline of the play, and its author through a conversation with an offstage voice that represents the audience.16

Last night, in the Garden of Great Serenity, I saw a new play entitled The Peach Blossom Fan. The events it portrays took place in Nanjing not long ago, during the last years of the Ming dynasty. The rise and fall of an empire are evoked in a story of meeting and separation. Both plot and protagonists were drawn from life. Not only did I hear tell of the originals; I saw them with my own eyes. How amusing it was to recognize my decrepit self in a minor role! I was stirred so deeply that I laughed and wept, raged and cursed by turns. Needless to say, the audience had no idea that I was included in the drama.17

Describing himself as one who has experienced the last days of the Ming Dynasty, the fumo vests himself with authority to judge the factuality of The Peach Blossom Fan in depicting the history of the late Ming. His comments on the materials and presentation in The Peach Blossom Fan are intended to assure the audience of the historicity of the story.

Beyond his role as a person interested in that period of history, this fumo was a master of ceremonies of the Imperial Temple, which means that he conducted state rites. His previous identity casts a ritual light on the major story of The Peach Blossom Fan: the play presents a theatrical performance, but it also provides the audience with an opportunity to reexperience the historical events sanctified by a ritual practitioner. Walter Burkert, one of the leading historians of Greek religion and archaic culture, suggests an idea of ritual that is illuminating to the examination of the ritual narrative frame in The Peach Blossom Fan:

Ritual [is] behavioral pattern that has lost its primary function—present in its unritualized model—but which persists in a new function, that of communication. … This communicating function reveals the two basic characteristics of ritual behavior, namely, repetition and theatrical exaggeration. For the essentially immutable patterns do not transmit differentiated and complex information but, rather, just one piece of information each. … The fact of understanding is thus more important than what is understood. Above all, then, ritual creates and affirms social interaction.18

This passage indicates that ritual behavior can employ theatrical devices to make the performance compelling to the audiences, but the audiences do not undergo the performance to obtain something new, because ritual is a repeated activity. The performance of ritual, which demands the engagement of the audience, is to achieve a sense of understanding within the community and to reaffirm its common faith. Based on this notion of ritual, the intimate conversation between the former master of ceremonies and the audience creates an atmosphere in which they are going to relive the historical moment and to reach a fair moral judgment on the characters. This sense of inclusion transforms the theatrical event into a ritual experience and demands a belief in the reality of the events that are dramatized in the play.

As a matter of fact, ritual and drama have been in relation since the beginnings of Chinese history. C. H. Wang discusses rites as an origin of Chinese drama as portrayed in early Chinese classics, especially The Book of Songs.19 Wang draws pieces from the poems about ancestral rites from The Book of Songs to recreate dramatic scenes and focuses his analysis on the description of impersonation and staging to identify the dramatic qualities of the rites. Among the performers in the rites, the most important one is gongshi (ancient impersonator), someone (usually a grandson) who is dressed to represent the spirit of the dead, entering a temple and enjoying the sacrifices made by descendents. As C. H. Wang concludes,

The effect is religious, and dramatic. I have reconstructed a religious ceremony on the basis of some Confucian classics to demonstrate that Chinese drama, like its parallels in Europe, originates in ritual, and that the lord impersonator is as much an important character among the dramatis personae on the first stage of Chinese drama as he is the “master” in the ancestral temple when the ceremony is called to order.20

This dramatic presentation of rites appeals to the audience’s physical and emotional involvement, in a way that a play usually does not. During the ritual performance, spectators act in response to the presence of the ancestral impersonator as if he were a spirit of the dead. These histrionic rites seek to reassert the appropriate order in a family and in society. The Peach Blossom Fan capitalizes on the relatedness of rituals and drama to actualize its moral and historical significance.

In the intellectual context of its time, this ritual frame of The Peach Blossom Fan should not only be regarded as an artistic choice but also as a reaction to the rise of Confucian ritualism in the early Qing period. By 1700, the conservative attitude toward social order revived an interest in the Zhu Xi school that emphasized the investigation of principles. Confucian scholars and officials, Brokaw remarks, blamed the liberal Wang Yangming school for the political corruption during the late Ming and attempted to restore a moral and stable order with the older teachings of the Zhu Xi school.21 Nevertheless, this was not simply a revival of the earlier school; some of its teachings were emphasized and used to express the viewpoint of early Qing intellectuals on their society. That is, the gentry embraced the ritualistic elements of the Zhu Xi doctrine to reestablish social order. Confucianized ritual, which signified a hierarchy of social relations and political ranks, compelled everyone to act in accordance with his social status and duty. This ritualistic approach highlighted the role of the gentry as the moral and sociopolitical leaders of communities. The possibility that the approach was a simple revival of an earlier school is further undermined by the fact that it was the Kangxi government, the non-Han rulers, who exalted Confucian ritualism.22

But Confucianized ritual had always been considered an essential component of “Chineseness.”23 As a descendant of Confucius, Kong Shangren assumed his primary role in maintaining the vigor of rituals. When Emperor Kangxi visited Qufu, Confucius’s home, Kong Shangren was chosen to lecture on the Confucian classics during the imperial ritualistic sacrifice, which impressed the emperor and earned Kong an official post in the capital.24 Kong’s erudite post in a certain sense was the product of the exaltation of Confucian ritualism by the Manchu emperor. Thus ritualism at this historical moment, which did not evoke any anti-Manchu sentiment, reinforced the essence of Chinese political and ethical values and accorded nicely with government policy. The Confucianized ritual emphasized the “hierarchical relations between ruler and subject, father and child, husband and wife.”25 It compelled people to “fulfill their responsibilities towards others”—namely, “loyalty to lords, filial piety to parents, and love and compassion for children and subordinates.”26 The ritualized ideas of “hierarchical relations” and “responsibilities towards others” in accordance with one’s social role structure the ideology of The Peach Blossom Fan and provide the playwright with grounds to resolve the dramatic conflicts in the end.

The ritual frame of The Peach Blossom Fan also justifies the moral regulation of music in the main story. “‘Rites and music’ in fact stand for the Confucian approach to moral cultivation and social order,” as Chow Kai-wing notes.27 Rites and music interplay through the story of The Peach Blossom Fan, a play in poetic and musical chuanqi form; although music occupies a dominant position, by the end of the story rites regulate the passion ignited by music. By integrating the three Ming chuanqi plays, The Peach Blossom Fan depicts music of different moral senses in contestation. The importance of rites and music to The Peach Blossom Fan is highlighted early in scene 1, “The Storyteller” (tingbai), which is conventionally reserved for the romantic hero to voice his lofty ideals and unfulfilled feelings. Here, instead of dominating the stage as usual, the hero Hou Fangyu becomes an audience for Liu Jingting, a storyteller played by a chou (clown) role, who controls the theme of the first scene and sets the tone for the development of the story. In this scene, Hou Fangyu, Chen Dingsheng, and Wu Ciwei, all members of the Restoration Society, ask Liu Jingting to entertain them with his storytelling, but Liu treats them to an anecdote from The Analects, about how Confucius rectified music. According to the anecdote, the state of Lu in Confucius’ time was corrupt and its music was decadent as a consequence. After Confucius returned to Lu from Wei and restored the righteous music, the musicians realized that they had been serving degenerate masters and left them. As a result, the previously clamorous theaters of the mighty nobles immediately experienced a slump in attendance. This anecdote foregrounds the way in which music and theater represent and affect social morality, and argues for the “sense of propriety” that should structure music.28 The rest of The Peach Blossom Fan shows how music becomes disharmonious because of the characters’ disconnection from social and political reality and how rites and moralizing music reconnect them to reality, which is represented through the interaction of the inner plays interspersed by ritual performances.

A Rehearsal of Mudan ting

“For the performers and entertainers in The Peach Blossom Fan, performance is primarily a mode of self-definition,” according to Li Wai-yee.29 The performance of Tang Xianzu’s Peony Pavilion in The Peach Blossom Fan shows the heroine Li Xiangjun’s vision of love and its helplessness in relation to the political world. Here Kong Shangren draws on the reader’s knowledge of the text and philosophical context of The Peony Pavilion to suggest Li Xiangjun’s selective reading of the play and her tragic belief in timeless love.

The concept of love constituted in The Peony Pavilion relates to the philosophical thinking of Tang Xianzu’s time. His teacher Luo Rufang was a disciple of Wang Yangming and a member of the Taizhou School, which was a radical branch of Wang Yangming’s School of Mind. Wang’s philosophy, formulated in the mid-Ming period, laid great emphasis on the importance of mind and placed independent thinking over doctrine.30 His concept of innate knowledge, which questioned fixed moral standards in an ambiguous language, was utilized by members of the Taizhou School to minimize the importance of conventional morality and to argue for the fulfillment of human desires, and this led to the implication of his teachings in the moral decadence of the late Ming.31 Luo Rufang developed Wang Yangming’s philosophy and replaced the notion of mind with that of life. Luo regarded life as a perpetual animating process and identified it with love and humanity. This understanding is manifest in The Peony Pavilion, a play that portrays love as the creative power of life.32 Tang Xianzu clearly conveys his attitude towards the interrelation of life and love in his preface to The Peony Pavilion:

Of all the girls in this world, who is ever so committed to love (youqing) as Liniang? Once she dreams of her lover, she falls ill and her illness worsens until with her own hand she transmits to the world a portrait of her features and then dies. After being dead for three years, she can still in her limbo-like existence seek the object of her love and regain her life. Verily Liniang can be called a person committed to love (youqing ren). She doesn’t know how she has fallen in love, but once in love, she is totally committed to it. While still alive, she wills her death, and while in death, she wills to have her life restored. To stay alive without the courage to die, and to die without the volition to regain life—such is not the condition of one supremely committed to love. Love engendered in a dream—who says it is not real? Aren’t there quite a few such dreamers in this world?33

This passage legitimizes human desires and empowers love with the force to generate life. It affirms the authority of mind by saying that passion engendered in a dream can overcome all limitations in the physical world. Liniang’s love reaches a “timeless state,” as C. T. Hsia remarks.34

This timeless state constructed by Du Liniang’s idea of love is what Li Xiangjun cherishes as she performs The Peony Pavilion. At the beginning of The Peach Blossom Fan, Li Xiangjun is studying the four “dream” plays by Tang Xianzu with the musician Su Kunsheng, and has just learned half of The Peony Pavilion. The reference to the dream plays at that moment highlights the dream motif and implies Li’s reverie about life. She resembles Du Liniang first in the way she indulges in a narcissistic dream of spring.

Bridal Du [Du Liniang]

From dream returning, orioles coil their song
through all the brilliant riot of the new season
to listener in tiny leaf-locked court.

Spring Fragrance [Chunxiang]

Burnt to ashes the aloes wood
cast aside the broidering thread,
no longer able as in past years
to quiet stirrings of the spring’s passions.35

This is the moment when the reading of the love poem from The Book of Songs has evoked Du Liniang’s awareness of spring’s sensuality and she is looking forward to exploring the scenery in the garden. On her first appearance, Li Xiangjun reveals similar spring sorrow.

Returning from the scented land of dreams,
I leave the red quilt embroidered with mandarin ducks,
To redden my lips and dress my hair.
I shall con some recent poems
To dispel the languor of spring.36

This is an image of a girl deeply immersed in her subjective feelings. The enchanting spring and poetry stir her sentimental passion.

After she enters the story of The Peach Blossom Fan with the same gesture with which Du Liniang opens scene 10, “The Interrupted Dream” (jingmeng), Li Xiangjun sings the arias from that scene.

See how deepest purple, brightest scarlet
open their beauty only to dry well crumbling.
“Bright the morn, lovely the scene,”
listless and lost the heart
“Bright the morn, lovely the scene,”
listless and lost the heart
—where is the garden “gay with joyous cries”?
Streaking the dawn, close-curled at dusk,
rosy clouds frame emerald pavilion;
fine threads of rain, petals borne on breeze,
fine threads of rain, petals borne on breeze,
gilded pleasure boat in waves of mist:
glories of spring but little treasured
by screen-secluded maid.
The green hillside
bleeds with the cuckoo’s tears of red azalea,
shreds of mist lazy as wine fumes thread the sweetbriar.
However fine the peony,
how can she rank as queen
coming to bloom when spring has said farewell!
However fine the peony,
how can she rank as queen
coming to bloom when spring has said farewell!
Idle gaze resting
there where the voice of swallow shears the air
and liquid flows the trill of oriole.37

These arias paint a picture of spring in the garden that is full of life and pleases various senses; its vitality makes Du Liniang awake to the contrast with her dull and cloistered boudoir and to a youthful desire for happiness. Amid the blooming, however, she reveals her anxiety about the transient spring and her passing youth. In view of the languorous feelings Li Xiangjun expresses in her opening aria, these arias from The Peony Pavilion should be thought to accurately elaborate her passion and anxiety aroused by the blossoming spring. That is, the first aria of her personal revelation and those borrowed from The Peony Pavilion could form an emotional continuum to express her yearning for love.

This possibility, however, is undermined by the reactions of the audience in the play. All of her audience in scene 2, “The Singing-Master” (chuan ge) of The Peach Blossom Fan—Li Zhenli, Yang Wencong, and Su Kunsheng—believe that she simply plays a theatrical role that does not involve any personal feelings when she performs the arias. As far as her foster mother Li Zhenli is concerned, singing is a means for courtesans to attract noble customers. Li Zhenli asks Li Xiangjun to practice the arias from The Peony Pavilion before Yang Wencong, a patron: “Be not too prodigal with your emotions, but learn to sing / Songs of the morning breeze and broken moon.”38 From Li Zhenli’s point of view, Li Xiangjun should learn to sing romantic lyrics in an enchanting voice but minimize emotional involvement and wait to hook sons of rich nobles with her preeminent looks and skills. This professional detachment discourages Li Xiangjun from internalizing the experience of The Peony Pavilion. Even at such a time of momentary prosperity, the distance of Li Xiangjun’s courtesan identity from Du Liniang’s gentry status throws into question the possibility that Li might be able to indulge herself in the love of her dream in the manner of Du. As a matter of fact, Li Zhenli’s theory of a courtesan’s performance reflects the expectation of some male characters in the play.

The elite patron Yang Wencong considers Li Xiangjun’s practice of art to be a superficial expediency. She impresses him with her beauty and her musical talent in her performance of The Peony Pavilion. Then he offers to introduce her to Hou Fangyu, a literary genius from an eminent family. Li Xiangjun makes a lifelong commitment to Hou, but after he has fled from a political frame-up, Yang Wencong makes plans to marry her to Tian Yang, director of military supplies, contending that “her union with Master Hou was a temporary arrangement.”39 Thus the wedding for Li Xiangjun and Hou Fangyu, which is decorated by poetry and music and seems to celebrate an everlasting marriage, is a scholar-beauty drama directed by Yang Wencong.

Likewise, Su Kunsheng’s attention to the technical details of singing discourages Li Xiangjun from concentrating on the emotional undercurrent of the lyrics in The Peony Pavilion.40 For him, the success of performing The Peony Pavilion lies in mastering the prosodic rules of the arias. His comments on Li Xiangjun’s singing only address the issues of rhythm, stress, and vocalization, and do not concern interpretation of poetic subjectivity. Ironically, Tang Xianzu, who emphasizes the poetic thought and meaning of words at the expense of musical regulations, would rather violate the melodic principles than restrain his literary creativity.41 But Su Kunsheng attaches great importance to musical sound and ignores the literary contents of Tang Xianzu’s lyrics. The way by which he instructs Li Xiangjun in performing The Peony Pavilion, beyond his consciousness, deconstructs the lyric illusion that the original work constructs and the subjective engagement with the world that prevailed in the late Ming.

Moreover, the repeated corrections of Li Xiangjun’s singing by Su Kunsheng interrupt the train of thought conveyed through the sequence of lyrics from The Peony Pavilion. In the text of The Peony Pavilion, the arias I have quoted above consist of four segments in two tunes. The first segment ends with the line “where is the garden ‘gay with joyous cries’?” Then the line “Streaking the dawn, close-curled at dusk” starts a second part that extends to the line, “glories of spring but little treasured by screen-secluded maid.” The third part ends with the line “how can she rank as queen coming to bloom when spring has said farewell,” and the fourth is composed of the remaining lines. The first segment indicates that Du Liniang is struck by the blooming spring in the garden and its solitude. The flowers full of youth and vigor provoke her desire to pursue happiness in her own life. The second segment reveals Du’s sadness for being secluded in her boudoir from such an enchanting spring. The third one introduces peonies into the scene: The peonies have not bloomed with other flowers; the concern she shows for the peonies implies her anxiety about her own youth, which is constrained despite the springtime. The presence of peonies also serves as a foreshadowing: After her stroll in the garden, she dreams about her lovemaking beside the peony pavilion with Liu Mengmei. The last segment suggests stirrings of love on the part of Du Liniang by referring to the imagery of pairing swallows and orioles. Thus the original arrangement of the lyrics subtly describes the development and turn of her self-reflection. Su Kunsheng, however, changes the flow of the lyrics by interrupting in the middle of a segment and asking Li Xiangjun to repeat the last line of a previous one before singing the next. The way in which Su re-marks the pause between segments breaks up the psychological movement of Du Liniang in reaction to the scenery. The interrupted lyrics weaken the emotional intensity of the original text and naturally prevent Li Xiangjun from identifying with its passionate subject.

Furthermore, the occasion on which those arias are introduced in The Peach Blossom Fan presents a contrast to the context in which they are situated in The Peony Pavilion. “The Interrupted Dream” is the moment of greatest self-enchantment in The Peony Pavilion.42 Du Liniang, as I have discussed, reads her own feelings and thoughts into the objects in the garden and turns the garden into a private locus to display her highly subjective mood. The external scenery becomes the work of her artistic conception. As a result of this garden visit, she dreams of a sensual meeting with Liu Mengmei there, which evokes her life-consuming yearning for him and anticipates her life-renewing union with him later. This subjectivity and intimacy involved in the garden is totally lost in scene 2 of The Peach Blossom Fan. Li Xiangjun sings the arias from The Peony Pavilion during a social gathering that Li Zhenli and Yang Wencong use to deliberate over a patron for her. Here Li Xiangjun occupies the center of the dramatic attention on the small stage within the play, but she is a passive actor for other characters to observe, evaluate, and manipulate. Their comments on her performance, which disrupt the subjective world constructed in the lyrics from The Peony Pavilion, are meant to bring her out of her private domain and prepare her for the public arena. In this sense, those lyrics of self-expression are depersonalized and transmuted into a tool of social interaction in The Peach Blossom Fan.

Ruan Dacheng’s Ritual Frustration and Theatrical Activities

Scene 3, “The Disrupted Ceremonies” (hongding), in The Peach Blossom Fan introduces a different gathering in the spring season, the imperial rites for Confucius. This ritual episode, which is placed just after the performance of The Peony Pavilion in the house of pleasure, seems to interrupt the flow of romantic music and impose order on the enchanting spring.43 The meaning of ritual propriety is to regulate the expression of feelings and desires: “When the feelings and desires are expressed and satisfied in accord with ritual propriety, human nature is restored to its harmonious state.”44 “Rituals that reinforce Confucian social ethics such as filial piety, loyalty to the monarch, and the notion of social hierarchy govern the conduct of people of all stations.”45 According to this doctrine, fantasies easily lead to self-indulgence and excessive desires that are isolated from social ethics, and one should moderate passions born out of romantic fantasies through rituals to achieve moral cultivation. The rites in scene 3 can therefore be considered an effort to regulate the romance and fantasy described in scene 2. To apply the ritualistic idea to the whole story, we may look at The Peach Blossom Fan as a reflection on the romantic chuanqi form that encourages fantasies of passion.

This episode on rites, disharmonious with the melodious entertainment in scene 2, comprises verbal condemnation and physical punishment. The ritual ceremony demands the audience’s participation to create an atmosphere of community, but it also needs to distinguish the outsider from the insider to solidify the community. “Between the virtuous and the vile / There is always a clear distinction,” which is a purpose of the rites.46 Ruan Dacheng is the one to be marked as an outsider and a notorious opportunist representing the moral degeneration of late Ming politics.

Not only is he named a traitor, he is also beaten by the master of ceremonies and other participants until he loses his beard: “Hear, Hear! We have done a righteous deed before the Sage’s gate.”47 The Imperial Academy, a place to worship Confucius, now functions as a stage to demonstrate the condemnation of a partisan enemy. Michel Foucault discusses the social and theatrical aspects of public torture in premodern societies:

[T]orture forms part of a ritual. It is an element in the liturgy of punishment and meets two demands. It must mark the victim; it is intended, either by the scar it leaves on the body, or by the spectacle that accompanies it, to brand the victim with infamy. … And, from the point of view of the law that imposes it, public torture and execution must be spectacular, it must be seen by all almost as its triumph.48

Although the passage describes European practices, this idea of public punishment is applicable to the sacrificial rites here in The Peach Blossom Fan. Ruan Dacheng, who participates in the rites as an attempt to be reincorporated into the political ranks, becomes a target to be condemned. By attacking Ruan in public, the community reaffirms its boundaries and faith. Violence provides the theatricality of the rites in this scene, in contrast to the singing of sensuous arias from The Peony Pavilion in the previous scene. The confrontation between ritual condemnation and aesthetic language of chuanqi drama is highlighted when Ruan Dacheng unsuccessfully appeals to one of his chuanqi plays, Chundeng mi (The Riddle of the Spring Lantern), to defend his conscience during the ritual ceremony. The Riddle of the Spring Lantern, in which the last scene—“Stating Mistakes” (biaocuo)—contains rhythmic storytelling called “The Confession of Ten Mistakes” (shi cuoren), was allegedly intended to show his repentance after the downfall of the evil eunuch Wei Zhongxian for having been associated with Wei’s clique.49 Being slapped at the rites in The Peach Blossom Fan, Ruan feels resentful that the writing of The Riddle of the Spring Lantern does not protect him from further accusation. The result—that nobody believes in his vindication through The Riddle of the Spring Lantern—implies that although they both employ and create theatricality, ritual is conducted to reinforce truth whereas chuanqi drama may invent myth.

Humiliated during the rites, in scene 4, “The Play Observed” (zhenxi), Ruan Dacheng decides to live in seclusion at his home temporarily; working on his chuanqi plays and training his private troupe provide him with an outlet for his repressed political ambitions.50 Thus the cluster of scenes 2, 3, and 4 creates a subtle correlation between rites and drama: Scenes 2 and 4 describe the writing, performance, and enjoyment of chuanqi plays while scene 3 presents the ritual ceremony. This arrangement portrays ritual practice as an interruption of theater-going or an incomplete effort to regulate theater. From another perspective, that Ruan Dacheng, who has been thrashed at the rites, turns to editing the texts of his plays, indicates that engagement in drama serves as an alternative to the worship of the Sage and the revisiting of political and moral heritage.

The presence of Yang Wencong, who watched Li Xiangjun’s performance and now comes to enjoy Ruan Dacheng’s dramatic work, affirms the continuity between scenes 2 and 4. It is not a casual design that the setting of Ruan Dacheng’s mansion resembles that of Li Xiangjun and Li Zhenli’s house, both as seen through Yang Wencong’s eyes.51 Yang is first intoxicated by the spring scenery in Li Xiangjun’s courtyard and then fascinated with the birds and fish raised in the house. After that, he appreciates the poems and painting created by famous patrons in Li Xiangjun’s sitting room. Likewise, walking into Ruan Dacheng’s garden, Yang Wencong is impressed by the ingenious arrangement of rocks, flowers, and trees, which are designed by Zhang Nanyuan, a late Ming landscape architect. The name of Ruan’s study is inscribed on a tablet by Wang Duo (1592-1652), a famous calligrapher; Yang Wencong thinks highly of the calligraphy. The nature fashioned by art and the art depicting nature decorating the homes of Li Xiangjun and Ruan Dacheng create illusory spaces in which their residents can be immersed in aesthetic practice. Appreciating chuanqi drama is the major activity that fills the time in this space. The artistic correspondences between the places of Li Xiangjun and Ruan Dacheng undermine her wishful efforts later to make a clean break with him and suggest the corrupting nature of art in The Peach Blossom Fan.

Ruan Dacheng’s apparent absorption in chuanqi drama makes a parody of the literati ideal of aesthetic cultivation and friendship based on conversations about literary works.52 As I have demonstrated in chapters 2 and 3, writing, reading, and discussing chuanqi plays were popular activities among the late Ming literati; these pastimes reinforced the community they shared and allowed them a way to vent their frustrations over unfulfilled political dreams. Seemingly in this literati style of friendship, Yang Wencong and Ruan Dacheng amuse themselves with the text of The Swallow Letter, and amply display their gentility reading the play while drinking wine.

Nevertheless, for Ruan reading chuanqi plays is simply a way to pass the time while political transactions are under way. Ruan is discontented with his current situation and considers exploiting his creativity to curry favor with the powerful. To his delight, leaders of the Restoration Society—Chen Dingsheng, Fang Mizhi, and Mao Pijiang, with whom he is anxious to associate—borrow his troupe to perform The Swallow Letter. Along with the troupe, he sends his man to eavesdrop on their comments while watching the play. Therefore, he is actually waiting for the report from this servant when Yang Wencong pays him a visit. When the three scenes of The Swallow Letter are performed, the audience focuses on the poetry and melodies, as Ruan’s man reports; their comments are filled with compliments for his literary talent. Flattered by the commendation, Ruan feels rewarded that the work embodying his utmost effort has found “understanding friends” (zhiyin) at last.53 Apparently, his ideal audience should consist of such cultured men who have the literary competence to appreciate poetic nuances. However, they make up Ruan’s zhiyin in an ironic sense; having seen half the play, they begin to describe him as a political opportunist.54 They evaluate not only the literary talent of the author shown in the text but also his moral stance in real life, which disrupts theater as a shelter from politics.

The literary pleasure that Ruan Dacheng and Yang Wencong seem to seek together also gradually gives way to political resentment: “What have politics to do with art?”55 Ruan feels offended by the way in which his audiences have brought politics to theater, but as the beginning of this scene has shown, he has never regarded theater as a place totally separate from politics. Theater serves him as a double-edged weapon, a shelter from political disputes and a tool by which he can associate with high officials. Now he finds himself in a dilemma caused by his fanciful idea of theater. Nor do the members of the Restoration Society have a clear sense of the relationship between theater and politics. The fact that they borrow the troupe from Ruan Dacheng, their partisan opponent, to perform his Swallow Letter indicates that they believe theater can be separated from politics. Initially, they regarded the chuanqi play simply as an art of music and poetry that could amplify the pleasure of drinking wine, but they gradually blur the distinction as the public morality of the playwright begins to outweigh the artistry of his literary work. Both the political motives of Ruan Dacheng and the moral judgments by the audience who has borrowed his troupe compromise the independence of theater.

Mao Pijiang’s (1611-1693) personal recollections reveal ambivalence about Ruan Dacheng and his drama.56 His postscript to Wangxi xing (Traces of the Past) depicts their feedback about the performance of The Swallow Letter, just as portrayed in The Peach Blossom Fan: “The play was superb and excellent. For every highlight, the audience paid the highest compliments to the singers and severely scolded the author with one voice.”57 In his Yingmei’an yiyu (Reminiscences of the Studio of Shadowy Plum-blossoms), however, Mao Pijiang mentions another occasion on which he and his friends gathered to watch a performance of The Swallow Letter, describing it purely as a romantic moment for scholars and beauties enlivened by this play. The members of the Restoration Society, who admired Mao’s concubine Dong Xiaowan for having accompanied him on the trip regardless of banditry and turmoil, gave her a party.

That day a new play, The Swallow Letter, was put on, and it depicted love in a subtle and skilful way. My concubine shed tears over the separation and reunion of the characters Huo Duliang and Hua Xingyun. So did [her close friends] Ms. Gu and Ms. Li. For a moment, the scholars and beauties, the towers and misty water, the new music and the bright moon were all worth eternity. When I think of the gathering to this day, it is like a dream on the pillow of mystical excursion.58

The courtesans present at the party apparently related to the rough love between the scholar Huo Duliang and his courtesan lover Hua Xingyun. This reminiscence of The Swallow Letter free of any political antagonism only intensified Mao Pijiang’s nostalgia for the dreamlike past.

To further obscure the line between politics and theater, Ruan Dacheng’s meeting with Yang Wencong in The Peach Blossom Fan, which starts with the reading of drama, ends in a political scheme. Ruan takes Yang’s advice and decides to provide a trousseau for the nuptials of Li Xiangiun and Hou Fangyun, an influential member of the Restoration Society, so as to make peace with the other members. Hence, the scene that primarily describes reading and seeing The Swallow Letter is placed in a framework that transmutes an apparent passion for drama into a political game. The confusion of drama and politics intensifies as Ruan looks at political matters from a theatrical perspective. In scene 12, “The Lovers Parted” (ciyuan), when he is resummoned to attend a conference on state affairs after being dismissed from office, Ruan clearly conveys such a theatrical view: “I can see the black and white of events as on a chessboard; / Brushing my eyebrows and beard again, I shall play a role in the drama.”59 For him, the public domain is like a stage on which participants act theatrical roles. With this attitude, he plays politics as something manipulative and changeable.

Li Xiangjun’s Experience of Mudan ting: The Imagery of Peach Blossoms

By contrast, Li Xiangjun lacks this sense of theatricality in life. She is inclined to apply her learning of romance from drama to life without thinking of the difference between the setting of the literary romance and the social reality in which she is living. Li Xiangjun believes in words in the way that Du Liniang lives by the poem that is inspired by her dream of love. Based on her dream, the scenario of which is also dreamed by Liu Mengmei before they meet, Du Liniang inscribes a poem on her self-portrait.60

However close the likeness
viewed from near at hand,
from farther off one would say
this was some airborne sprite.
Union in some year to come
with the “courtier of the moon”
will be beneath the branches
either of willow or plum.61

This poem foretells the ending of the story in which Du Liniang marries the zhuangyuan Liu Mengmei. The poem reappears through the play to reassure them of their predestined love. Likewise, Li Xiangjun regards Hou Fangyu’s poem on his palace fan to her as a pledge of their everlasting love; the poem sustains her faith in their love while he is away escaping from Ruan Dacheng’s false charge against him.

On a path between two rows of crimson towers,
The lucky Prince advances in his chariot.
From the magnolias he turns aside
To gaze in rapture at the breeze-blown peach blossoms.62

Here, the peach blossoms refer to the bride Li Xiangjun and also point out the central imagery of this play. When she refuses to remarry Tian Yang, Li Xiangjun uses the poem on the fan as evidence of her devotion to Hou: “My heart will never change, / Fixed as the poem on this silken fan. / Had we been together only a single night, / Our love would last forever.”63 For her, the poem represents their mutual passion irrespective of time and space.

Yet the idea of the poem in The Peony Pavilion originates from a dreamland and is fulfilled in the real world, whereas the poem in The Peach Blossom Fan is composed on the celebration of a real wedding but is resolved in an otherworldly arena by the end of the story. The creation and interpretation of the poem as a love token in The Peony Pavilion are exclusively ascribed to the lovers and not open to outside readers. By contrast, the poem on the fan in The Peach Blossom Fan, which is supposed to be an intimate pledge of love, is presented as a social piece, and the private feelings it depicts are inevitably modified by public criteria. According to Yang Wencong, who writes a congratulatory verse to the new-lyweds and later recalls their wedding as “a temporary arrangement,”64 writing poetry at the wedding is simply a literary game. The love poem in The Peony Pavilion describes a search for a soul mate between Du Liniang and Liu Mengmei, mostly developing in their minds. This exclusivity is not present in its counterpart from The Peach Blossom Fan, which is instead created in accordance with social tastes and eventually deconstructed by the fall of the Ming monarchy.

Both of these poems foreground the central images of the plays, but the willow and plum signify the same meaning through the story of The Peony Pavilion, whereas the peach blossoms contain several implications in the discourse of The Peach Blossom Fan. Willow and plum figure Liu Mengmei and Du Liniang respectively, and provide them with consistent clues to find each other. This pair of images first appears in scene 2, “Declaring Ambition” (yanhuai), where Liu (Willow) Mengmei describes his dream of a beauty standing beneath a blooming plum tree in an inviting posture. The beauty beneath a plum tree clearly refers to Du Liniang, which alludes to the literary story that a man in Mount Luofu woke from drinking to find that a beautiful woman turned into a flowering plum tree.65 On the other hand, in the scene of “The Interrupted Dream,” Du Liniang in her dream sees a young man break off a branch of willow and ask her to compose a poem on it. Then the willow becomes an attribute of Liu Mengmei. When she revisits the garden (in scene 12, “Pursuing the Dream,”) where she dreamed of the man with a willow twig, Du Liniang catches sight of a plum tree, which corresponds to the dream that Liu has had in scene 2. To actualize the story that takes place in Mount Luofu, Du Liniang requests to be buried beneath the plum tree and her father satisfies her wish after her death. In this way, willow and plum indicate the predestined relationship between Liu Mengmei and Du Liniang.

Peach blossoms, however, symbolize love, political loyalty, and enlightenment in The Peach Blossom Fan, and the lovers are not aware of all the connotations until the final moment. The transformation between the first two connotations of the imagery is described in a relatively explicit manner. Li Xiangjun uses the fan to beat off the people forcing her to remarry Tian Yang and stains it with her blood by knocking her head against the ground, claiming that she wants to separate herself from the eunuch Wei Zhongxian’s clique, including Tian Yang and Ruan Dacheng. Yang Wencong paints leaves around the stain to make a picture of peach blossoms out of it. The imagery of peach blossoms is thereby transformed from a love token to a political weapon paradoxically through the artistry of Yang Wencong, who compares his art to Ruan Dacheng’s playwriting.

The meaning of enlightenment that is contained in the imagery of peach blossoms is more delicately introduced into the story, even though it has been suggested early in scene 1 when Liu Jingting tells a tale of Confucius from The Analects to Hou Fangyu and his company. According to the tale, the musicians of Lu, who were awakened by Confucius’ teaching, realized the immorality of the nobles they served and decided to withdraw from the turbulent world into the “Peach Blossom Spring,” a fictitious haven of peace, away from the turmoil of the world.66 The reference to the “Peach Blossom Spring” at the very beginning of the play anticipates withdrawal from the mundane world on the part of the lovers and the artists in the end. To highlight the foretaste of reclusion, Liu Jingting concludes his tale by connecting his listeners to the “Peach Blossom Spring”: “Please come another day; / And if to Peach Blossom source / You fail to find the way, / To this old fisherman have recourse.”67

The peach blossom in relation to Hou Fangyu and Li Xiangjun changes from being their love token to a symbol of spiritual enlightenment mostly beyond their comprehension. As the love poem inscribed on the fan integrates peach blossoms, a quatrain that Hou Fangyu composes on the painting of “Peach Blossom Spring” (taoyuan tu) by the artist Lan Ying in scene 28, “The Painting Inscribed” (tihua), again refers to this image, which, however, gives a hint of enlightenment. Hou comes back to look for Li Xiangjun after a long separation and learns that she has been removed to the court. His sentimental grief is revealed in this quatrain:

I dwelt in the hidden cave by Peach Blossom Fountain,
But on my way back I could not find the road.
For the fisherman had misled me over the mountain,
To keep this sanctuary for his own abode.68

The peach trees were blooming on his wedding day with Li Xiangjun; now it is the season of peach blossoms again, but she is absent from the house of pleasure. The two poems by Hou Fangyu both appear to be inspired by real peach blossoms, but the sign written in the poems reveals “semantic indirection,” for it contains symbolic meanings that are not fully comprehensible to the poet himself.69 The above poem compares Hou’s memory of his passionate life in the house to the utopian land represented by the Peach Blossom Spring. Finding the house devoid of love, he describes himself as a man who cannot find his way back to the spring. Despite his disappointment over his lost love, the poet still remembers the old house of pleasure as a place of peace. The turmoil of the world impels him to search for such a land as the Peach Blossom Spring, but he misplaces his hope in a love disengaged from the changing world. Likewise, Li Xiangjun believes that the Peach Blossom Cave is a place where she and Hou Fangyu will renew their predestined relationship. In scene 36, “Flight from Disaster” (taonan), she goes to a temple east of Nanjing with the artists to seek refuge, in hopes of finding her love and fate there. Yet the Peach Blossom Spring she thinks of alludes to a different story: the journey of Liu Chen and Ruan Zhao of the Han Dynasty along a peach blossom spring into the Tiantai Mountains where they found fairy love, rather than a place for reclusion. Interestingly, in Du Liniang’s dream, Liu Mengmei’s mystical meeting with her is similarly compared to the adventure that Ruan Zhao encountered in the Tiantai Mountains.70 In other words, Li Xiangjun is anxious to reconstruct an ideal romance in the manner of Du Liniang’s in her dreamland.

Clearly, both Hou Fangyu and Li Xiangjun place their hope of love in a utopia, unaware of the fact that the Peach Blossom Spring in The Peach Blossom Fan is an arena free from romantic passions. It represents a real timeless state, which “allows escape from romantic entanglements as well as from history,” as Li Wai-yee notes.71 This otherworldly meaning of the peach blossoms dramatically contrasts with the symbol of love that Hou Fangyu and Li Xiangjun cherish when they are finally reunited in the temple. He shows her the peach blossoms created out of her bloodstains and compares them to the “petals that rained down when the holy Abbot preached.”72 This is the moment right before they are enlightened. The analogy of a love token and a religious symbol implies to audiences an essential transmutation of their relationship, although Hou Fangyu meant it to express his appreciation of her loyalty to him. At the crucial transition moment, Zhang Wei, the abbot now, walks down from the altar and tears the fan from their hands, waking them from their dream of love and leading them to enlightenment.


When we are home once more as man and wife, we shall endeavour to repay their kindness.


What is all this meaningless chatter? How laughable to cling to your amorous desires when the world has been turned upside down!


Sir, you are mistaken. The marriage of man with maid has always been an important human relationship. Sorrows of separation, joys of reunion, all these are the fruits of love. Why should you object to our discussion of them?


[angrily] Pshaw! Two piteous passion-clinging bugs! Where now is the nation, where the home, where the prince, where the father? Can’t you get rid of this miserable infatuation?73

Hence, the imagery of peach blossoms contains various and contradictory meanings, and at the closure of the story, its reference to enlightenment deconstructs all the other elements. To reiterate, willow and plum in The Peony Pavilion symbolize and fulfill the transcendent love of Du Liniang and Liu Mengmei; the poem containing the imagery indicates that the love will be transformed into a proper marriage when Liu Mengmei becomes a winner in the imperial examinations. Conversely, the peach blossoms in The Peach Blossom Fan that seem to represent romantic passion finally expose its illusoriness and point to otherworldly transcendence.

What further complicates the imagery of peach blossoms is that the fatuous Emperor Hongguang gives Li Xiangjun a palace fan also painted with peach blossoms. In scene 25, “The Cast Selected” (xuanyou), the emperor asks Li Xiangjun to sing an aria from The Peony Pavilion and gives her a fan painted with peach blossoms that match her high complexion. In this context, the emperor is described as an incompetent ruler who indulges himself with music and art despite the political turmoil of the country. The peach blossom fan he awards to Li Xiangjun is proof of his befuddled life. This gift implicitly problematizes the fan inscribed with Hou Fangyu’s love poem on peach blossoms and painted with peach blossoms made from Li Xiangjun’s bloodstains, which she wants to symbolize their love. The coincidence of the two fans implies a parallel between her and the emperor: She is obsessed with personal feelings and isolated from the changing world, similar to the emperor in self-indulgence. When she is imprisoned in the palace, Li Xiangjun is still anxiously awaiting the reply to the peach blossom fan that she has had sent to Hou Fangyu. On accepting the leading role of The Swallow Letter offered by the emperor, she hopes that he would allow her to leave the court and look for Hou. In this light, the peach blossom fan symbolizes inflexible absorption in a private passion that is disconnected from the public world.

Li Xiangjun’s indulgence in the dream of love is amply manifested in the aria that she chooses to sing in the presence of the emperor, from the “Pursuing the Dream” scene in The Peony Pavilion. In that scene, Du Liniang revisits the garden hoping to relive her intimate experience with Liu Mengmei in her dream.

Why does the fairy trace again the Peach Blossom Spring?
It is just because flying petals fleck the ripples.
The Lord of Heaven need pay the florist nothing,
but we below mourn over fallen blossoms.
Alas, the early spring passes unfulfilled.74

This aria alludes to Peach Blossom Spring as a locus of idyllic love. Because Li Xiangjun hopes to renew her relationship with Hou Fangyu in such a place after leaving the palace, this selected aria should be considered as a revelation of her true feelings. By singing this aria, she yearns to seek the dreamlike life she has lived with Hou Fangyu in the way that Du Liniang looks for her dream in the garden. Unfortunately, Li Xiangjun does not know that this wonderland garden does not exist in the world of political turmoil.

The language of The Peony Pavilion obviously has a great impact on Li Xiangjun, but it is worth noticing that she is highly selective in what she learns of the play. In The Peony Pavilion, “Pursuing the Dream” in scene 12 takes place the day after “The Interrupted Dream” in scene 10. On her first appearance, Li Xiangjun is said to have learned half of The Peony Pavilion and is requested to sing several arias from “The Interrupted Dream” that she just practiced. Yet through the greater part of The Peach Blossom Fan, she is still singing the aria from “Pursuing the Dream.” The discrepancy between the dramatic changes of the public world and the slow progress of her learning of The Peony Pavilion suggests that she tends to bring her memory of personal feelings to a standstill irrespective of the political turbulence. The events portrayed by the story of The Peach Blossom Fan, for the most part, are marked with historical dates to show an intense engagement with the passage of time and its dramatic changes, but Li Xiangjun is not fully connected to the changing reality in view of her emotional world. The association that she has made with the text of The Peony Pavilion is simply focused on the part of having an interrupted dream and pursuing it, which accentuates her illusory vision of passion. Li Xiangjun’s learning of the play is also discontinued by Ruan Dacheng’s frame-up, which forces Hou Fangyu to flee. In other words, political unrest intrudes on her private domain and discourages her from further exploring the romance of The Peony Pavilion. As Li Xiangjun’s performance only involves Du Liniang’s dream without the latter half of The Peony Pavilion, which primarily depicts Liu Mengmei’s engagement in the romance, the turbulent political situation also prevents Hou Fangyu from playing the part of Liu Mengmei. He is forced to part from Li Xiangjun in 1643 (indicated by scene 12); there is no description of his longing for her until the year 1645 (in scene 27, “A Meeting of Boats”). During the two years of separation, he is serving in the army. The national crisis undermines all possibilities he has to act the romantic hero as portrayed in mainstream chuanqi drama. Under these circumstances, Li Xiangjun’s creative reading of The Peony Pavilion is doomed to be incomplete.

Her partial knowledge of Tang Xianzu’s drama is not limited to The Peony Pavilion. She is expected to learn the four plays by Tang Xianzu, including The Purple Hairpin, The Peony Pavilion, Record of Southern Bough, and Record of Handan, as Li Zhenli tells Yang Wencong in scene 2. If she had finished with the cluster of the plays, she would have been introduced to another dimension of passion represented by Tang Xianzu. While all four plays utilize the dream motif, Record of Southern Bough and Record of Handan expose the illusoriness of such worldly desires as love and honor and extol otherworldly pursuits. The development of the cluster suggests disillusionment with passion in the end. The way by which the relationship of Li Xiangjun and Hou Fangyu is resolved in the story of The Peach Blossom Fan affirms the message conveyed through the sequence of Tang Xianzu’s four plays.

The Connection between Mudan ting and Yanzi jian

Besides being one of the plays by Tang Xianzu, The Peony Pavilion is also grouped with The Swallow Letter in the story of The Peach Blossom Fan, which, consequently, undermines Li Xiangjun’s self-contained world even though she attempts to distinguish herself from Ruan Dacheng and his music. In scene 25, we see The Peony Pavilion interwoven with The Swallow Letter. To satisfy the emperor, musicians and singing girls, including Li Xiangjun, are brought into the palace to perform The Swallow Letter. In their interview with the emperor, the musicians mention both The Peony Pavilion and The Swallow Letter as their latest productions, an indication that the two plays are equally well-circulated and popular at that time. Nevertheless, as she has rejected the trousseau offered by Ruan Dacheng, Li Xiangjun denies any knowledge of The Swallow Letter and seems to make a clean break with his corrupting instrument. However, her excellent singing of the aria from The Peony Pavilion convinces the emperor that she should play the zhengdan (young female lead) role of The Swallow Letter, he apparently believes that the two plays reveal a common ethos suitable for her to represent.

The connection between The Peony Pavilion and The Swallow Letter is not totally Kong Shangren’s fabrication to highlight the fragility of Li Xiangjun’s purity: The texts of the plays display substantial elements in common and the style of Ruan Dacheng has often been compared to that of Tang Xianzu. “The fame of Ruan Dacheng (1587-1646) was at least equal to that of Wu Bing, author of The Green Peony as a major dramatist of the Linchuan school founded by the illustrious Tang Xianzu,” as Cyril Birch notes.75 Zhou Yibai also asserts that Ruan Dacheng’s writing provides a prominent instance of Tang Xianzu’s style.76The Swallow Letter heavily draws on the plot and style of The Peony Pavilion. Like The Peony Pavilion, it uses the painting of a portrait and a poem responding to it to initiate, complicate, and fulfill its love story, although the story is emotionally not as appealing or powerful as that of The Peony Pavilion. The romantic heroine in The Swallow Letter, mistaking herself for the woman with a man in the portrait, dreams about him and suffers from lovelorn languor, as does Du Liniang. A swallow accidentally delivers to the man her love note suggestive of her feelings for him. The subtlety and sensuality of this story and the subjective passion of the heroine remind the reader of The Peony Pavilion. Although The Swallow Letter does not narrate a miraculous revival from the dead as The Peony Pavilion does, using a swallow as a matchmaker is equally fanciful.77

Nevertheless, The Peach Blossom Fan makes significant use of the text of The Peony Pavilion but simply exploits The Swallow Letter as a general entity. As I have demonstrated, several arias from The Peony Pavilion are carefully selected and deliberately staged to suggest Li Xiangjun’s subjective experience of the world and its discrepancy with external reality. By contrast, no lines are quoted from The Swallow Letter, though it is more frequently mentioned through the story of The Peach Blossom Fan. Ruan Dacheng writes The Swallow Letter when his political life is interrupted by Wei Zhongxian’s setbacks; hence, the play symbolizes the residue of political corruption of Wei’s clique. The play is further politicized by the fact that Ruan utilizes it to associate with scholars, officials, and even the Emperor Hongguang. Because of its fanciful and playful construction, the emperor even regards the play as representative of his reign. At the moment of domestic turbulence and foreign invasion, he enjoys the songs from The Swallow Letter as the music of resurgence. This indicates that the play pollutes the politics of the court and also exposes the emperor’s irresponsible attitude towards reality. Within the context of The Peach Blossom Fan, the events concerning The Swallow Letter underscore the corrupting power of literature at that historical moment and the political degeneracy of Ruan Dacheng. When the musicians and singing-girls are brought into the palace, they rehearse an aria from The Swallow Letter in the presence of the emperor, but which aria is not specified. Instead, the stage directions indicate that the chou playing the zhengdan role performs the aria with other characters at will while Ruan instructs them. The casual selection of an aria and the misplacement of role types are meant to make a farcical representation of The Swallow Letter. Even when Li Xiangjun is given the libretto of the play to memorize, there is no quotation of actual arias. These textual ellipses reaffirm the importance of the lyrics selected from The Peony Pavilion to the design of The Peach Blossom Fan. The selected lyrics of Du Liniang, which reveal an illusory vision of self and others in the context of The Peach Blossom Fan, are intended to represent the confidence in and obsession with a subjective experience in late Ming, a trend to be criticized—but not without nostalgia—by Kong Shangren. Despite being part of late Ming culture, The Swallow Letter is simply portrayed as a poisonous work to be condemned, as it is deprived of lyrical voice in The Peach Blossom Fan.

Contextualizing Mingfeng ji

Among the three plays within The Peach Blossom Fan, The Singing Phoenix is the one that Li Xiangjun clearly reads as a portrayal of Ma Shiying, Ruan Dacheng, and other sycophants. The Singing Phoenix, a chuanqi play of forty-one scenes, allegedly by Wang Shizhen, recreates the struggle between the treacherous prime minister Yan Song and the upright officials Xia Yan and Yang Jisheng during the Jiajing period (1522-1566). Unlike many other chuanqi plays that tell scholar-beauty stories, The Singing Phoenix focuses on the political dimension of life and mostly follows historical events.78 It initiated the contemporary political historical drama found in the Ming and Qing Dynasties.79

In scene 24, “The Revellers Upbraided” (mayan), of The Peach Blossom Fan, Li Xiangjun recalls the story of The Singing Phoenix on learning that the corrupt prime minister Ma Shiying and his company are coming, which serves to alert audiences to the fact that they are going to act out The Singing Phoenix in real life:

The shameless flatterer [Zhao Wenhua] will sit with the cruel tyrant [Yan Song],
His face a powdered mask of obsequious guile,
Fawning on the despot’s whim in a thousand odious ways.
Soon the play called Singing Phoenix will be acted in real life,
And I shall resemble Mi Heng when he cursed and beat the drum.
It remains to be seen whether they will understand.80

Then Ma and his company come onstage to appreciate nature and art, comparing a painting of a snowy landscape with the snow scene outside, seemingly intoxicated with the harmony between the work of art and natural splendor. Their indulgence in aesthetic pleasure at the moment of state crisis and Ruan Dacheng’s flattery of Ma make a parallel to the sightseeing of Yan Song with his son Yan Donglou, regardless of the alien intrusion, and the sycophancy of Zhao Wenhua in The Singing Phoenix.

The above aria of Li Xiangjun brings up the interplay of theatricality and life, which is a prominent subject in this scene. Ma and Ruan are also aware of the impact that acting can have on life. The following conversation attests to their anxiety over the power that theater possesses.


Today I have swept away the snow and made tea to engage in idle talk and seek your guidance. Since Your Excellency holds so generous an opinion of us, we shall be our simple selves without play-acting.


Don’t talk about acting, I beg. Actors can be dangerous fellows. When they impersonate a character successfully, he will live forever in the image of this caricature. If they paint his face white like a traitor’s, he will remain so infamous that even his descendants will repudiate him as an ancestor.


Yes, actors can be dangerous, but I think they are usually fair. They provide a warning to evil-doers, not aiming at us.


In my opinion, most of those who have gone down to posterity as villains allowed themselves to be intoxicated by flattery.




Take the Prime Minister Yan Song of the older generation, for instance. How can you say he was not a man of letters? But since that play, The Singing Phoenix, he has always appeared with a hideous white face. I imagine this is due to his patronage of the sycophant Zhao Wenhua.


[bowing] Yes, that is profoundly true. I know that Your Excellency abominates flatterers. We admire you all the more on that account.81

The evil characters step aside and comment on their roles while playing them: Ma and Ruan assume the personae that identify them with Yan Song and Zhao Wenhua, but they both try to negate the meaning of acting and the fact of their acting. These denials highlight Ruan’s hypocrisy in particular because he has already conveyed his theatrical view of life in scene 12 and must be self-conscious about his “play-acting” with Ma here. As for Ma, the way by which he criticizes the art of impersonation and defends Yan Song convinces theater audiences of his connection to the villain. The character Ma is played by a jing role whose face is painted white, precisely like Yan Song in The Singing Phoenix, and the opinion he voices about face-painting thus makes fun of his own character. The complexity of The Peach Blossom Fan at this point lies in the duality that the evil character speaks for his literary type and at the same time denies his identification with it. The anxiety that causes Ma to negate impersonation affirms the power of theater in affecting political and moral judgment; the power is naturally ascribed to the play Peach Blossom Fan.

Li Xiangjun manipulates impersonation, assuming the voice of Mi Heng, who used performance to condemn Cao Cao in the Three Kingdoms (third century AD), and sings to denounce Ma Shiying to his face instead of entertaining him with an enjoyable song. We may also say that she speaks in the voice of the martyr from The Singing Phoenix to denounce evil officials. The world of The Singing Phoenix, however, cannot be fully re-presented in The Peach Blossom Fan. The Singing Phoenix, which uses the conventions of the chuanqi form by framing the events in the story of two young couples, basically runs counter to the ethos of romance. The sheng and xiaosheng characters, Zou Yinglong and Lin Run, conventionally romantic heroes, only express their aspiration to dedicate themselves to the needs of the country in scene 2, “Zou and Lin Travel to Pursue Studies” (Zou Lin youxue). The dan, playing Zou Yinglong’s wife, participates in this scene, yet she simply has a supporting role to serve in the rite through which Zou Yinglong and Lin Run become sworn brothers. The two men sing the following song as part of the rite.

We celebrate the fate that brings us together over a great distance,
Like the formation of a lifelong affinity.

These words that usually describe a romantic relationship in chuanqi drama are here used to describe the sworn brotherhood, depicting the political bond between men. To fulfill their ambition of serving the state, the young scholars take the civil service examinations, obtain official posts, leave their families, and accomplish military exploits at the frontier. They do not have a moment to be immersed in love. Although they occupy the position of conventional romantic heroes, the martyrs Xia Yan and Yang Jisheng who oppose Yan Song are the major forces that create the drama. Both are executed by scene 16, “Husband and Wife Die for Moral Integrity” (fufu sijie), but their heroism continues to affect the development of the story. The message conveyed by The Singing Phoenix is that political commitment outweighs love and that personal feelings should be repressed at critical moments for the state, as Yang Jisheng tells his wife. After Yang dies a heroic death, his wife carries on his cause and remonstrates with the emperor about Yan Song’s crimes through her suicide. Several families are sacrificed to demonstrate that public loyalty stands above the feelings between parents and children, and husbands and wives. All the positive male characters in the play can be indifferent to love and commit themselves to the state without hesitation. By referring to The Singing Phoenix, Kong Shangren reveals his intention to transform a scholar-beauty romance into a political-historical presentation in The Peach Blossom Fan.

The sacrifices that the positive characters in The Singing Phoenix make imply that if the social hierarchy has been corrupted, there is no room for personal relations. This is the message that Li Xiangjun does not grasp until the end of the story of The Peach Blossom Fan. She dreams that her love with Hou Fangyu can transcend the crisis of the state. Soon after the staging of The Singing Phoenix, she performs The Peony Pavilion in the palace, as I have discussed, and then agrees to play the romantic heroine of The Swallow Letter in hopes of winning the emperor’s pity and getting his permission to look for Hou. She tries to reconcile the persona of the romantic heroine in The Peony Pavilion with that of the uncompromising hero in The Singing Phoenix, but the social engagement revealed in the latter conflicts with the timeless dream woven by the lovers in the former. Li Xiangjun is lost in reveries about rebuilding her romantic life even as the state undergoes tremendous changes and society has collapsed. On the other hand, when she verbally attacks the evil minister in the vein of the heroes of The Singing Phoenix, she must believe that individual heroism would save the world. Heroism does save the world of The Singing Phoenix; at the end of that story, order is brought out of chaos: The good characters receive imperial honors and evil characters are severely punished. However, the world described by The Peach Blossom Fan is completely upside-down, with all its ethical relations fatally damaged, so there is no hope of setting it to rights.82 In this case, a belief in restoring the old order by means of heroism, following the story of The Singing Phoenix, becomes an illusion. The ending of The Peach Blossom Fan shows that the resolution to the conflict between personal desires and public morality is to isolate oneself from worldly desires and cultivate the Way to pursue purity that transcends these changes.

How to re-present The Singing Phoenix as a reflection on the fallen Ming was a delicate issue considering the rewriting of the play by imperial order. The performance of The Singing Phoenix greatly touched Emperor Shunzhi with its depiction of Ming loyal ministers, such as Yang Jisheng, who defy death in fighting against treacherous and powerful officials; then the emperor tried to learn about relevant historical facts.83 In 1657, Emperor Shunzhi ordered that a chuanqi play be written and focused on Yang Jisheng, who is not the protagonist in The Singing Phoenix although his heroism constitutes its dramatic climax. Two dramatists responded to the imperial decree: Wu Qi (1619-1694) and Ding Yaokang (1599-1669). The emperor appreciated Wu Qi’s Zhongmin ji (Commiseration on Loyalty), which expanded the scenes in which Yang Jisheng pledged loyalty to the emperor,84 and promoted Wu Qi to vice-director of a bureau in the Ministry of War, a position held by Yang Jisheng. Ding Yaokang’s Biaozhong ji (Expression of Loyalty) was not submitted because his recommenders worried that the explicit criticism of “the corrupt politics and the government officials’ bad habits of the former dynasty” in scene 22, “The Latter Memorial to the Throne” (houshu), would be offensive.85 In that scene, a eunuch gives a long speech reviewing Ming history, and through his voice, Ding Yaokang vehemently and bitterly attacks court strife, civil service examinations, government systems, military affairs, and provincial administrations. He reflects on the “three-hundred-year enterprise” of the entire Ming Dynasty even though the eunuch states in the end that the story is set during the Jiajing period.86 The plot of scene 22 is one of those primarily based on The Singing Phoenix, and the emperor simply intended the revision to make Yang Jisheng the main character of the dramatic story, so this drastic alteration clearly conveys Ding Yaokang’s personal intense sorrow over the fall of the Ming and his desire to remonstrate with the imperial authority. Ministers were expected to write veiled criticism, but what Ding had witnessed in the past fifty years compelled him to make his criticism more vehement. Ding had failed repeatedly in the civil service examinations and only held humble positions. He was delighted that this revising work would allow him to vent his accumulated feelings, which he had been unable to do without a key post, but he misplaced this passion to admonish the authority in that assignment from the emperor.87


By contextualizing the three Ming chuanqi plays in the story of The Peach Blossom Fan, Kong Shangren intended to highlight the discrepancy between the illusions his characters cherish and the reality of the final days of the late Ming. While exposing the characters’ theatrical and illusory views of that present revealed through their interpretations of the inner plays, he suggests that The Peach Blossom Fan makes a truthful and historical representation of that past, which is manifested in the comments by the master of ceremonies.

In the prologue to the second part (guyin), the master of ceremonies remarks on the discourse of The Peach Blossom Fan in an authoritative voice as he has opened the first part of the play:88

In bygone years, reality developed like a play;
Today this play resembles reality.
Twice have I watched its progress: Heaven preserves
This passive gazer with his cold clear eyes.89

The first line looks back on that particular period of history as drama in a reflective tone. The very fact that the playwright reproduces the past through an interaction of the three plays within his play characterizes the past as dramatic events in which the characters fantasize their lives. As the late Ming court dissolves like a dream, the plays that are incorporated into that history are described as having aggravated those illusions.90 The second line, however, contends that The Peach Blossom Fan truthfully (and unconventionally) recreates that period. The three chuanqi plays in the story of The Peach Blossom Fan participate in creating a dreamlike world, but as a chuanqi play itself, The Peach Blossom Fan claims to be a real and historical representation. Its historicity is greatly attributable to the ritual frame. Being a historical witness, the master of ceremonies empowers himself with the authority to confirm the truthfulness of the performance, as he expresses in the last two lines. Based on his comparison, the performance onstage faithfully reproduces the events of those years and makes him and audiences reexperience the reality. Such apparent repetitiveness seeks to compel the audiences to relive that history through The Peach Blossom Fan and thus to provoke a common understanding of that history, reinforcing the ritual meaning of the play suggested in its opening scene.

With the parallel between the story of The Peach Blossom Fan and the past made by the master of ceremonies, Kong Shangren describes his play as a historical representation. Nonetheless, the highly symbolic significance of the central imagery, peach blossoms, undermines its historicity. It is true that The Peach Blossom Fan shows referentiality to the historical world by identifying the historical dates and events, but the artistic medium portraying the events is symbolic. The semantic indirection of peach blossoms and the creative interpretations of the three inner plays demonstrate a world of subjective and artistic construction.91 This historical play, which is so carefully choreographed, in the end yields an unhistorical interpretation of historical events because of its many intertextual resonances.


1. In From Philosophy to Philology, Benjamin Elman notes that many Chinese literati who experienced the Ming-Qing transition believed that “the sterility and perniciousness of recent Confucian discourse” was responsible for the fall of the Ming dynasty (3).

2. Brokaw, The Ledgers of Merit and Demerit, 25.

3. Zhao Yuan, Ming Qing zhi ji shidafu yanjiu, 404, 409-415, 423, 425, 429-430.

4. Chow Kai-wing, The Rise of Confucian Ritualism in Late Imperial China: Ethics, Classics and Lineage Discourse, 3, 166.

5. Wu Xinlei, “Lun Taohua shan de chuangzuo licheng jiqi sixiang yiyun.” Although Kong Shangren’s preface to The Peach Blossom Fan says that Emperor Kangxi was anxious to read the play after hearing about its popularity among the nobility and literati in the capital in 1699, there is no reliable record of his comments on the play and of its performance in full or selected scenes at the imperial palace. The next year, Vice-Director of the Ministry of Revenue Kong Shangren was removed from office due to a doubtful case. As Ding Ruqin speculates, however, Kong’s veiled sentiments for the late Ming expressed in The Peach Blossom Fan and the sensation it caused among literati were more likely the factors that triggered his dismissal from office (Ding Ruqin, Qingdai neiting yanxi shihua, 127-129; Kong Shangren, Taohua shan, 6). The Qing ruler’s avoidance of The Peach Blossom Fan implies the complexity of that historical time and of its depiction in the play.

6. He Guanbiao, Sheng yu si: Mingji shidafu de jueze, 46, 146-147, 149, 205, 215, 216; Qi Biaojia, Qi Biaojia ji, 221-222; Zhang Dai, Shikui shu houji, 311.

7. Zhao Yuan, Ming Qing zhi ji shidafu yanjiu, 476.

8. Zhao Yuan, Ming Qing zhi ji shidafu yanjiu, 373-374, 389, 393-394. Ruan Dacheng attempted to get rid of his clique enemies during the Southern Ming days, but some members of the Restoration Society were saved by advancing south of the Qing army.

9. Zhou Yude, Zhongguo xiqu wenhua, 361-362. Also, during the Ming-Qing transition, the literati circle resembled a stage on which Ming loyalists performed dramatic (non-)actions. Legend or romance was a common narrative to describe Ming loyalists, and that was consistent with literati’s love of the marvelous in Ming (Zhao Yuan, Ming Qing zhi ji shidafu yanjiu, 278, 323-324).

10. The morality of The Peach Blossom Fan had drawn the attention of traditional critics. Li Haiguan (1707-1790), an eighteenth-century novelist, remarked that The Peach Blossom Fan surpassed Ming fiction with regard to moral teachings, and acknowledged the influence of this play on his own novel Qilu deng (Lamp at the Crossroads) in representing Confucian values. Li Haiguan, “Qilu deng zixu,” 52. This near-contemporary comment on The Peach Blossom Fan confirms the possibility of examining the moral cultivation constituted in this play.

11. Kong Shangren, Taohua shan, 1.

12. Ruan Dacheng was a well-known poet and dramatist of the late Ming, who drew on Tang Xianzu’s style in his play writing. Ruan was born into a distinguished family with important political figures. He himself earned a jinshi degree in 1616, but because he associated himself with the notorious eunuch Wei Zhongxian, who persecuted the members of the Donglin Academy, the forerunner of the Restoration Society, after Wei lost power, he was condemned by his contemporary political opponents and by later historians and literary writers.

13. It is generally believed that The Singing Phoenix was composed by Wang Shizhen. Wang’s father was executed by Yan Song, the evil grand secretary of that time, and this play describes a heroic confrontation with Yan Song. Wang Shizhen came from a prominent clan tracing its origin back to the Six Dynasties; his immediate ancestors were high officials. He himself earned a jinshi degree in 1547, and held office in the capital for almost two decades and later in the province, but his conflict with Yan Song and later with Zhang Juzheng damaged his official career, and consequently, he was out of office. Wang Shizhen was also an influential figure in the area of drama and poetry in the late sixteenth century, as I have suggested in chapter 3. Yet a contemporary of Wang Zhizhen, Tang Xianzu, separated himself literarily and socially from Wang Shizhen.

14. In “Shakespeare’s Essays on Dramatic Poesy: The Nature and Function of Theater within the Sonnets and the Plays,” Alvin Kernan makes this comment on the play-within-the-play of English Renaissance theater (176).

15. Lynn A. Struve, “History and The Peach Blossom Fan,” 57.

16. Li Wai-yee also points out the divergence of this fumo character from the chuanqi convention (“The Representation of History in The Peach Blossom Fan,” 422).

17. Chen and Acton, The Peach Blossom Fan, 2.

18. Walter Burkert, Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth, 23. In this book, Burkert discusses the relationship between myth and ritual in order to enhance the understanding of ancient Greek religious practice.

19. See chapter 2, “Drama,” in C. H. Wang’s From Ritual to Allegory: Seven Essays in Early Chinese Poetry, 37-51.

20. Ibid., 51.

21. Brokaw, The Ledgers of Merit and Demerit, 236.

22. Chow Kai-wing, The Rise of Confucian Ritualism in Late Imperial China, 1, 7, 10, 11, 165.

23. Susan Naquin and Evelyn Rawski, Chinese Society in the Eighteenth Century, 91. In Confucianism and Family Rituals in Imperial China: A Social History of Writing about Rites, Patricia Buckley Ebrey affirms the ethnic nature of ritual (li): “Li was also culture; Chinese li distinguished Chinese from other ethnic groups, each of which had its own li” (14).

24. Richard Strassberg, The World of K’ung Shang-jen: A Man of Letters in Early Ch’ing China, 23, 75.

25. Naquin and Rawski, Chinese Society in the Eighteenth Century, 91.

26. Ebrey, Confucianism and Family Rituals in Imperial China, 18.

27. Chow Kai-wing, The Rise of Confucian Ritualism in Late Imperial China: Ethics, Classics and Lineage Discourse, 9.

28. Chen and Acton, The Peach Blossom Fan, 10.

29. Li Wai-yee, “The Representation of History in The Peach Blossom Fan,” 424.

30. Kengo Araki, “Confucianism and Buddhism in the Late Ming,” 52.

31. Brokaw, The Ledgers of Merit and Demerit: Social Change and Moral Order in Late Imperial China, 19; Elman, From Philosophy to Philology: Intellectual and Social Aspects of Change in Late Imperial China, 42.

32. C. T. Hsia, “Time and the Human Condition in the Plays of T’ang Hsien-tsu,” 250.

33. Ibid., 276.

34. Hsia, “Time and the Human Condition in the Plays of T’ang Hsien-tsu,” 276.

35. Birch, The Peony Pavilion, 42.

36. Chen and Acton, The Peach Blossom Fan, 17-18.

37. Birch, The Peony Pavilion, 44-45. I add the repeated lines to Birch’s translation and put them in italics in order to highlight the interruption of the original lyric flow by Su Kunsheng’s corrections. See also H. C. Chang’s translation in Chinese Literature: Popular Fiction and Drama, 295.

38. Chen and Acton, The Peach Blossom Fan, 20.

39. Chen and Acton, The Peach Blossom Fan, 122.

40. In “The Representation of History in The Peach Blossom Fan,” Li Wai-yee also notices the ironic attention to the technical accuracy on the part of Su Kunsheng as Li Xiangjun is exposed to love through the language of The Peony Pavilion (425).

41. Tang Xianzu, Tang Xianzu ji (vol. 2), 1299, 1337.

42. In Enchantment and Disenchantment: Love and Illusion in Chinese Literature, Li Wai-yee defines the concept of enchantment as follows: “Enchantment is the process of being drawn into another world that promises sensual and spiritual fulfillment. It is the illusion of power, of the capacity to transcend the human condition” (3).

43. Li Wai-yee discusses the role of ritual in “The Representation of History in The Peach Blossom Fan” (423).

44. Chow Kai-wing, The Rise of Confucian Ritualism in Late Imperial China, 193. This is the viewpoint of Ling Tingkan, a Qing evidential scholar. It is developed from the teaching of Zhongyong (The Doctrine of the Mean): “Happiness, rage, grief, delight. To be unmoved by these emotions is to stand in the axis, in the center; being moved by these passions each in the degree constitutes being in harmony” (Ezra Pound, Confucius: The Unwobbling Pivot & The Great Digest, 5).

45. Chow Kai-wing, The Rise of Confucian Ritualism in Late Imperial China, 193-194.

46. Chen and Acton, The Peach Blossom Fan, 29.

47. Ibid., 30.

48. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 34.

49. As “Jinyue kaozheng” by Yao Xie of the Qing Dynasty notes, Gu Tianshi, Yang Fuji and Liang Zizhang remark that The Riddle of the Spring Lantern shows Ruan Dacheng’s repentance for the political mistake he has made (234-235).

50. Ruan Dacheng wrote The Swallow Letter and other chuanqi plays after the Donglin Academy gained power again and purged him from official life. Creating chuanqi plays served as a way to console himself when he stayed idly at home (Dong Kang, Quhai zongmu tiyao, 527, 531). See also Li Xiusheng’s Guben xiqu jumu tiyao, 354-359.

51. The deliberate arrangement to make Yang Wencong an intermediary between Li Xiangjun and Ruan Dacheng is also shown in the disturbance caused by Ruan’s trousseau. In the play, it is Yang who advises Ruan on offering the trousseau to Li and brings it to her himself. Historically, however, it was a general named Wang who acted as the intermediary (Yu Weimin, Ming Qing chuanqi kaolun, 440). This historical lapse attests the importance of Yang Wencong to the correlation of Li Xiangjun and Ruan Dacheng in the play. See Lu Eting’s “Su Kunsheng yu kunqiang” for another example of deliberate historical inaccuracy (95-116).

52. Zhang Dai recollected viewing The Swallow Letter at Ruan’s house where Ruan elaborated the performance. Zhang maintains that Ruan was very talented, but it is a pity that his plays expressed cynicism and often satirized the Donglin Academy (Tao’an mengyi, 103-104).

53. Kong Shangren, Taohua shan, 32.

54. After he was in power again, Ruan Dacheng vehemently sought revenge on those three scholars and Hou Fangyu. Chen Dingsheng was sent to jail. According to Yang Enshou, a Qing drama critic, the misfortune of these scholars and Hou Fangyu did result from their conflict with Ruan Dacheng on the occasion of watching his play (“Ciyu conghua” and “Xu ciyu conghua,” 280-281).

55. Chen and Acton, The Peach Blossom Fan, 35.

56. After the fall of Ming, some actors from Ruan Dacheng’s troupe wandered to Rugao and joined Mao Pijiang’s troupe. As a Ming loyalist, Mao Pijiang rejected the appointment from the Qing regime and instead directed his talents to instructing his troupe. Wu Xinlei, “Lun Taohua shan de chuangzuo licheng jiqi sixiang yiyun,” 536.

57. Lu Eting, Kunju yanchu shigao, 183.

58. Mao Pijiang, “Yingmei’an yiyu,” Congshu jicheng xubian (vol. 95), 1019. “The pillow of mystical excursion” (youxian zhen) alludes to Shen Jiji’s (c. 740-c.800) Zhen zhong ji (The World within a Pillow) of the Tang Dynasty: At an inn Student Lu met an old man Lü, a Taoist master. Lu sighed about his destitution; then the old man took out a pillow from his bag and let Lu sleep on it, while the innkeeper was cooking millet. In his dream, Lu experienced high position and great wealth, but he awoke to find the pot of millet still cooking on the fire. This allusion refers to illusory things and unfulfilled desires—pipe dreams.

59. Chen and Acton, The Peach Blossom Fan, 89.

60. Li Wai-yee sees an analogy between Li Xiangjun’s fan and Du Liniang’s self-portrait. In Li Wai-yee’s analysis, “the peach blossom fan becomes Xiangjun’s symbol for herself, which is why she is intent on sending it to Hou Fangyu. We have here a curious echo of the self-portrait in The Peony Pavilion” (Enchantment and Disenchantment, 86).

61. Birch, The Peony Pavilion, 70. I change Birch’s translation of mei as “apricot” to “plum” here and throughout this chapter.

62. Chen and Acton, The Peach Blossom Fan, 52.

63. Chen and Acton, The Peach Blossom Fan, 165.

64. Chen and Acton, The Peach Blossom Fan, 122.

65. Allegedly, in the Sui Dynasty, Zhao Shixiong traveled to Mount Luofu and met a beautiful woman. He invited her to drink and entertain him. Later he woke from drinking and found himself beneath a plum tree, realizing that the beauty was a plum blossom spirit. This anecdote inspired later paintings.

66. “Under the Jin dynasty, 265-420, the poet Tao Qian wrote of a fisherman of Wuling who, following a stream without noticing its length, suddenly came to a grove of flowering peach trees. Fascinated by the beauty of the trees and the abundance of scented plants, he wandered on until he reached a spring below a hill. He left his boat and entered a narrow passage which widened as he advanced towards a country of well-tilled fields, ponds of clear water, bamboos and mulberries, and pleasant cottages. The inhabitants were highly civilized and law-abiding. He asked where they had come from, and was told that their ancestors had fled from the tyranny of the Qin dynasty in the third century B.C. and had found refuge in this country cut off from the rest of the world. After leaving them, the fisherman reported his adventure to the governor of his district, who sent out men to investigate this unknown region; but they lost their way. Hence the expression taoyuan, Peach Blossom Spring, became a metaphor for a place of retirement where the sage could live happily, far from the noise and turmoil of the world. The allusion is of course anachronistic here, from the lips of a contemporary of Confucius (sixth century B.C.)” (Chen and Acton, The Peach Blossom Fan, 13).

67. Chen and Acton, The Peach Blossom Fan, 15.

68. Chen and Acton, The Peach Blossom Fan, 210.

69. In Semiotics of Poetry, Michael Riffaterre describes three ways to produce “semantic indirection,” one of which is “displacing, when the sign shifts from one meaning to another, when one word ‘stands for’ another, as happens with metaphor and metonymy” (2).

70. For the allusion, see Cyril Birch, The Peony Pavilion, 47.

71. Li Wai-yee, “The Representation of History in The Peach Blossom Fan,” 432. Here Li Wai-yee also points out the ambiguous meanings of the Peach Blossom Spring in Hou Fangyu’s quatrain.

72. “According to Buddhist legend, when the Abbot Guangchang reached the climax of his exposition of the sutras, a shower of flower petals fell from the sky” (Chen and Acton, The Peach Blossom Fan, 295).

73. Chen and Acton, The Peach Blossom Fan, 296. I modify their translation to “The marriage of man with maid is the source of human relationship.”

74. Here I combine Chen and Acton’s translation (The Peach Blossom Fan, 190-191) with Birch’s translation (The Peony Pavilion, 57).

75. Birch, “Bigamy Unabashed: Ruan Dacheng’s Comic Masterpiece, The Swallow Letter,” 1.

76. Zhou Yibai, Zhongguo xiju shi, 419.

77. In “Bigamy Unabashed: Ruan Dacheng’s Comic Masterpiece, The Swallow Letter,” Cyril Birch describes The Swallow Letter as “decadent” and “the overripe fruit of the Linchuan (Tang Xianzu) tradition of elegance.” Its hero “has no nobler thought in mind than to possess the favors of each of two young beauties without sacrificing the exclusive devotion of either,” as the result of which the two wives fight for an imperial mandate (7-9).

78. See Dong Kang, Quhai zongmu tiyao, 243.

79. Guo Yingde, Ming Qing chuanqi zonglu, 125-129.

80. Chen and Acton, The Peach Blossom Fan, 180. To underscore the reference to The Singing Phoenix here, I add to Chen and Acton’s translation the names of Zhao Wenhua and Yan Song mentioned in the original text.

81. Chen and Acton, The Peach Blossom Fan, 181-182. I make several minor changes to Chen and Acton’s translation based on the original text.

82. In “The Representation of History in The Peach Blossom Fan,” Li Wai-yee also mentions that the Ming historical play The Singing Phoenix is a “mismatched model” for The Peach Blossom Fan (427).

83. Ding Ruqin, Qingdai neiting yanxi shihua, 113. The Singing Phoenix itself was censored as a problematic play and presented to the Qing emperor for his review, as Lu Eting notes in Kunju yanchu shigao (329).

84. Ding Ruqin, Qingdai neiting yanxi shihua, 113.

85. Lu Eting, Kunju yanchu shigao, 255; Ding Yaokang, Xin bian Yang Jiaoshan biaozhong ranshedan (Biaozhong ji), 2; Guo Yingde, Ming Qing chuanqi zonglu, vol. 1, 570-572.

86. Ding Yaokang, Xin bian Yang Jiaoshan biaozhong ranshedan (Biaozhong ji), 13-15.

87. Guo Yingde, Ming Qing chuanqi zonglu, vol. 1, 564-565, 571-572.

88. Liang Zizhang criticizes this second prologue, but affirms its similarity to the first for the purpose of my argument: “The content of the scene ‘Guyin’ resembles that of the prologue at the beginning of the play, which is, therefore, superfluous” (Yao Xie, “Jinyue kaozheng,” 259).

89. For this verse, I modify the translation of the first two lines—“In bygone years, reality was the play; / The play becomes reality today”—by Shih-hsiang Chen and Harold Acton in The Peach Blossom Fan, 153.

90. The Hongguang court has been regarded as “a bout of play-acting” (Struve, “History and The Peach Blossom Fan,” 57-58).

91. In Semiotics of Poetry, Michael Riffaterre contends that semantic indirection “threaten[s] the literary representation of reality, or mimesis” because mimesis is based on “the referentiality of language, that is, upon a direct relationship of words to things” (2).


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Birch, Cyril. “Bigamy Unabashed: Ruan Dacheng’s Comic Masterpiece, The Swallow Letter”. Renditions 40 (1993): 1-31.

Birch, Cyril, tr. The Peony Pavilion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

Brokaw, Cynthia. The Ledgers of Merit and Demerit: Social Change and Moral Order in Late Imperial China. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Burkert, Walter. Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420110362