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Monks, Bandits, Lovers, and Immortals. Eleven Early Chinese Plays (review)

From: Journal of Song-Yuan Studies
Volume 41, 2011
pp. 414-432 | 10.1353/sys.2011.0020

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This book is the third published book that documents the results obtained from years of collaborative research relating to Chinese plays conducted by Professors West and Idema. It consists of English translations and annotations of eleven works in total; including eight zaju 雜劇 plays from the Yuan Dynasty, one from the xiwen 戲文 from the southern part of this same dynasty, and two zaju plays from the early Ming Dynasty.

Before embarking upon my review of this book, I would like to clarify the position from which I will approach my task. First, I am engaged in research on early Chinese plays in Japan; thus, the following review is based on research and ideas on early Chinese plays that originate from Japan. Second, this book serves as a publication aimed at a general readership in English-speaking countries. This is not to suggest that the book does not reflect the results of specialist research. Rather, a characteristic of the book is that it conveys the results of specialist research conducted over many years by these two professors. In their capacity as translators they render this research accessible to a general readership in a way that is easy to understand.

Viewed from the perspective of someone from an East Asian country, early Chinese plays in the West are quite a unique tradition. From a historical perspective, as East Asian countries neighbouring China such as Japan, Korea, and Vietnam have been the recipients of Chinese culture over a long period of time, they have accumulated a very sophisticated knowledge of all aspects of Chinese culture. Consequently, Chinese culture has also had a huge impact on the formation of cultures in the above countries. In literature, too, people in these countries have become well versed in all genres of classical Chinese literature, not only reading works of literature created by Chinese authors but also producing many of their own original works. In the fields of classical poetry and prose, in particular, these are in no way inferior to works created in China, both quantitatively and qualitatively, and they form an important part of the native literature of these countries.

However, there is one exception to this in the form of Chinese plays from the early modern period onwards. For example, although Zang Maoxun’s 臧懋循 Yuanqu xuan 元曲選 (A Selection of Yuan Plays), which is also introduced in this book, is known to have been imported to Japan in the Edo period, there were very few people who read it. Also, while The Story of the West Wing, which is a major early Chinese play, attracted a number of readers in Japan and Korea, very few other works were known to people in these countries. Furthermore, other than a handful of exceptions, there were no translations or pastiches of Chinese plays. All-in-all, early Chinese plays have had an extremely limited influence on these countries. This is in stark contrast with other genres of Chinese literature, particularly novels, which, along with plays, were a major form of popular literature. Novels attracted many readers and lots of translations were made. They thus had a major impact on the contemporaneous native literature of these countries.

However, Chinese plays had already been translated and adapted by famous literary figures such as Voltaire in Europe by the eighteenth century (Appendix 1: A Note on the Translation and Study of Early Chinese Drama in Europe and the United States). This must come as a huge shock to those in East Asian countries who fancy themselves to be well-versed in classical Chinese literature. One reason why Chinese plays did not make much of an impact on surrounding countries is that their style of writing—particularly, the idiosyncratic style of writing employed in the arias section—proved an obstacle to their reception abroad. That these Chinese plays which people in East Asian countries steered clear of were for some reason discovered by Europeans, who in theory should have been greatly inferior to people in East Asian countries at understanding Chinese literature, and that they became popular in Europe at an early stage may be incomprehensible to people in East Asian countries. While this would no doubt make an interesting topic for research...



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