Tang Xianzu and Chinese Culture
President, OHKF China Institute;
Chairman, Intangible Cultural Heritage
Advisory Committee of Hong Kong
It is common knowledge that Tang Xianzu (1550–1616) was the most distinguished dramatist and writer in the Ming dynasty. As a paragon of literary brilliance in Chinese culture, his accomplishments are often juxtaposed with those of William Shakespeare in Britain. The year of 1616 saw the departure of these two great playwrights of the East and the West, as well as that of the greatest Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes. It was of course a coincidence in history, yet the coincidence does leave boundless room for imagination for generations that follow. After four centuries, we are now reverently commemorating their contributions to human civilisation.
The dramatic writing of Tang Xianzu spanned more than 20 years – from The Legend of the Purple Flute (in 34 episodes, incomplete) written during his prime years to The Story of Handan in his twilight years. The Four Dreams at Linchuan (also known as The Four Dreams of Yuming Tang) is the most famous collection of full-length plays created by Tang. In chronological order, they are The Legend of the Purple Hairpin (in 53 episodes), The Peony Pavilion (in 55 episodes), The Dream of Nanke (in 44 episodes) and The Story of Handan. These four masterpieces became widely acclaimed in late Ming period and were repeatedly staged throughout the years. After becoming household names, they have been warmly admired by audiences until this date. The Peony Pavilion, in particular, has become very popular in various regional opera genres across China. Its profound influence is manifested by the countless performances nowadays in different forms. Compared with his plays, Tang Xianzu’s full career of literary creation lasted much longer. Starting from the first poem -- After the Chaos (AD 1561) in his virgin collection of poems Early Scribblings at Red Spring – and ending with The Seven Poems of Farewell to the World and A Chant of Fleeting Passage of Time (1616), both written soon before his demise, Tang’s writings as a whole spanned 55 years. Therefore, while commemorating Tang Xianzu, we must bear in mind that he was more than a playwright. Turning over the pages of Collected Writings from Yuming Tang, we see clearly that Tang is a prolific poet well versed in various genres of literature. He produced a long list of outstanding works, including fu or poetic prose, prefaces, tablet inscriptions, accounts of events, and eight-part essays.
Since there are only limited studies on Tang Xianzu, discussions about the writer have basically focused on the texts of The Four Dreams at Linchuan. The overall accomplishments of his literary creations and the cultural significance embedded within, as a result, could be easily overlooked. To understand Tang Xianzu, one must know well his time and social background; the growth of his ideas and his unique artistic perspectives; the twists and turns in the poet’s life; the choices he made for his life; the setbacks he ran into, and how he transcended cynicism to settle down to elegant poetry and prose in addition to timeless plays, which in turn sublimated into the exploration and pursuit of cultural significance of human beings. It is generally agreed that understanding the time and background of a piece of writing and knowing the authors’ creative motivation and their mind sets and contexts only allow us to grasp the outer rim of a literary piece; the approach does not fully explain the artistic achievements of the writing. However, faced with widely recognised ageless classics, we must look into the life journey, the Zeitgeist and the creative process of the author, so as to fully comprehend the multi-layered connotation embedded in the formation of a classic text. A diversified and multi-faceted exploratory approach is the only way to get a glimpse into the brilliance and vibrancy that radiate from the surface of a classic text; that is the only way to reveal how the artistic use of writing could transform words that we use on a daily basis into the “flower petals raining from the sky” as seen in literature. All this has been possible because the wealth of artistic traditions is condensed with profound cultural significance, which are manifested via the authors’ artistic ingenuity and their visions that traverses a particular time and place. The aspirations to pursue the fine qualities in human nature in literary writing will be constantly uncovered by subsequent generations. That is also why people are always amazed by classics – readers treasure timeless writings because they get inspiration from the spirit that transcends eras and lands. Drawing on the thriving vitality that continues to stun the world throughout the intervening centuries, readers are able to evaluate their own purpose of life.
Tang Xianzu was born to a wealthy family in Linchuan of Fuzhou in Jiangxi Province. He studied under Luo Rufang, a master scholar in the Wang Yangming school of Confucianism. Tang firmly believed that the school’s principle of “zhi liangzhi” – the unimpeded activation of conscientiousness, benevolence and righteousness – is the way to become close to the ancient sages. He recognised an ontic self with the “innate knowledge of the innocent children”, and believed that truth could only be reached by freeing the mind and responding to nature’s course. Having earned his name as a successful writer in his youth, he was supposed to possess extraordinary talent that would bring about a bright future. However, Tang was disliked by Zhang Juzheng, Prime Minster of the time. Tang upheld his dignity to very high standards, and abided by his principle of neither jealousy nor greed, unwilling to bow to those in power. As a result, he failed time and again in the imperial examination. After Zhang Juzheng died, Tang Xianzu eventually earned the title of jinshi or Advanced Scholar, yet he still refused to join the circles of the ruling class. He even wrote to the emperor criticising the corrupt, incompetent officials at a critical moment, directing his blame at Shen Shixing, the then Prime Minister. Tang was subsequently demoted in retaliation for that act, yet he stood by his beliefs and upheld the values of truth, goodness and beauty. He insisted that as a person, one must be righteous; as an official, one must be fair and honest; as a writer, one must produce writings of grace and beauty; and as a playwright, one must create scripts that touch people’s hearts. His life was very much like the scripts he wrote – he witnessed the dark side of reality in the mortal world, and expressed the most romantic and deeply heartfelt aspirations. Through the lives of his characters such as Huo Xiaoyu, Du Liniang, Chunyu Fen, and a Mr Lu, we seem to experience their joys, sorrows, and vicissitudes of life that are likely to happen to ourselves. We are thus compelled to ponder, given the theme that life is but a dream, how we can grasp the real meaning of our existence as humans.
On this four hundredth anniversary of the passing of Tang and the Bard, we may be reminded to compare the literary achievements and cultural influences of the two great writers. We would also look into what made such a historical coincidence in their lives. Their passing in the same year has always intrigued Chinese and foreign opera scholars. Masaru Aoki, for example, although mistakably believing that Tang Xianzu died in 1617 – one year later than the Bard – in his History of Recent Traditional Chinese Opera; he still found that for both stars in the literary world to fall at more or less the same time was “such an unusual fact that great playwrights of the East and the West respectively were active during the same period”. Zhao Jingshen, another scholar, published the article “Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare” in 1946, pointing out five similarities between the two writers. First, they were born in the same year and then passed away in the same year; secondly, both have been considered to hold the highest position in the theatrical scene; thirdly, both based their play writing on stories told by other authors; fourthly, they both broke the old rules of drama of their time; and lastly, they both produced the saddest and most touching plays. Mr Zhao’s observation was largely correct, but the argument was not quite accurate. Although both died in the same year, the Bard was born in 1564, namely 14 years later than Tang, who was born in 1550. In 1959, Tian Han visited the “Tablet at Yuming Hall of the Tang’s” in Linchuan, Jiangxi Province, when he wrote a poem that compared Du Liniang (female protagonist in The Peony Pavilion) and Juliet (that in Romeo and Juliet). With deep sympathy for the love-yearning female leads, the poem praised the beautiful writing of the great playwrights. It also pointed out that Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare rightly made a brilliant match, as Du Liniang and Juliet did. Xu Shuofang wrote in 1964 an article entitled “Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare” (published in 1978), presenting a much more in-depth discussion, and highlighting the fact that although Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare came from the same period of time, their theatrical traditions were significantly different. Tang wrote lyric phrases and poetic lines according to pre-set scores and rhythmic rules, while Shakespeare wielded his literary talent in a more open genre of drama. Xu found that Tang Xianzu was allowed a much more difficult and complex milieu for his creative writing than that enjoyed by the Bard. In 1986 and 1987, Xu Shuofang made two more explorations of Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare, relating the playwrights to the backgrounds of history and culture in the East and the West respectively. He also pointed out that the Ming Dynasty, in which Tang Xianzu lived and wrote, was much more closed and lagging behind as compared with to the Elizabethan Age for Shakespeare. Therefore, it was much more difficult – and hence much more admirable – for Tang Xianzu to have created the character of Du Liniang in “The Peony Pavilion”, who was so brave in pursuing her own happiness.
The comparisons of the backgrounds of Tang and the Bard in previous studies have missed one point – they have never explored the so-called “early globalisation” faced by Eastern and Western civilisations during the 16th century against the background of global history. The historical “cross section” or the “same period” for Tang and the Bard, i.e. late Ming Dynasty in China and the Elizabethan Age in England, saw the birth of a burgeoning commodity economy. Towns and cities were expanding and societies were becoming open-minded; academic ideas and culture and art were vibrant. There were changes and deconstruction of the class system; the phenomena of wealth accumulation and wealth disparity also co-existed. I wrote some 10 years ago to argue that this should be observed both from a “cross section” of societies and from the progress of of history. Societies at such a historical juncture were filled with new aspirations and new setbacks, which broadened the horizon for people’s mind and emotions and offered a “brave new world” for dramatic creation. It is noteworthy that from the second half of the 16th century to the 17th century, a large number of scholar-officials who belonged to literati took part in Chinese play writing. Unknowingly or half-knowingly, they brought the conflicts of ideas and powers from the changes in society into drama – the imaginary theatre for life situations – through stimulated visions and setbacks. The great accomplishments of Tang Xianzu came from his talented writing, revealing the shifts in society and its cultural ideas, highlighting the individuals’ awareness of their purpose in lives, and pointing out the fact that in pursuing happiness, one must be determined and persistent. In this sense, Tang shared a very similar environment for imagination and creation with the Bard, though the latter lived in a relatively more open society.
Furthermore, the “vertical section” representing of the macro-development of global history over the past four centuries shows the rising, strengthening and expanding of the West, as well as its hegemony and the shaping of “the world system”. At the same time, in the fields of culture, from the Renaissance and Reformation to Enlightenment, the “vernacular movement” led by the intellectuals began in various regions across the world. . Drama has also transformed from moral plays of a religious nature to the “new drama” that reflects changes in society and real-life situations. Starting in the 19th century, the Bard of England gradually became a global Shakespeare along with the rise of the British Empire, affecting people’s sentiments and the way they look at life over the course of modernisation. Looking back at the historical and cultural changes in China, one could see very different circumstances. The open-mindedness in academic ideas and culture that emerged in the late-Ming period gradually declined in the early Qing Dynasty years. During their consecutive reigns, the three Emperors of Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong made vigorous efforts at a draconian rule and established the master plan for the Qing Empire. At the same time, they launched persecution campaigns against writers to crack down on liberal thought in society, and restructured the social system and moral order to ensure a closed and conservative ambience in society. Culture and art in early Qing years were only an extension of the remainder from the late-Ming period. There was no longer a basis for sustainable growth that would stem from the grass roots. China’s “vernacular movement” did not occur until the late Qing and early Republican years, when Western ideas were introduced into the country. At that time, the main forces of societal progress had evolved into a powerful anti-traditionalist wave that combined with modern cultures of the West – the wave was to discard all things traditionally Chinese, including Chinese opera. While Tang’s literary works still retain their own timeless value and significance, they too have almost vanished like bubbles over the past 100 years as the torrents of cultural ideas in modern China rushed and raged.
Compared with the numerous plays that Shakespeare wrote, Tang Xianzu’s repertoire was a smaller one, and his narratives and characterisation were done in a narrower way. Yet, Tang’s works feature a stronger lyricism, which is inherent in the traditions of Chinese literati. The internal emotions of his characters were transformed into exquisite poetry. His works focused on the expression of truth and love, which fully corresponded to the personal life of Tang Xianzu himself. In terms of poetry and prose, Tang Xianzu was undoubtedly a much more prolific and accomplished writer than Shakespeare. His writings offer a wealth of literary and intellectual materials yet to be explored and studied by scholars. Four hundred years after Tang and the Bard passed away, we are now reviewing the cultural evolution of both the East and the West. Perhaps one could say that Shakespeare, a professional playwright of the Elizabethan Age, brilliantly inherited the explorer’s spirit of people in the Renaissance era. His literary exuberance resembles roses that blossomed in summer; he was an ingenious writer-actor who shined in Western culture. Tang Xianzu, on the other hand, was a literary genius and gentleman with lofty ideas of late Ming period. He was an heir to the refined tradition of Chinese culture. Tang gave off a pure, delicate scent, just like the white camellia planted outside of his study. He dedicated all his lifetime to a culture that nourishes man’s personality. As a cultured gentleman refined with Buddhist, Confucianist and Taoist ideas, Tang Xianzu was also a naturally born poet-playwright.
Four hundred years have passed, yet the images of Tang and the Bard have become even more relevant and full of significance. They are now both symbols for people who take them as sources of ideas to help them reflect upon the purpose of their own existence. They invite us to explore beauty and noble aspirations. We are fortunate to have them, whose ideas deserve our contemplation. Life is short, and politics is transient; culture and art alone can last for long.