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Oral Tradition 20.2 (2005) 335-361

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Textual Representations of the Sixteenth-Century Chinese Drama Yuzan ji (The Jade Hairpin)

School of Oriental and African Studies
University of London
[*eCompanion at http://www.oraltradition.org1 ]

The late Ming period in China (1573-1644) was a golden age for drama and woodblock printing. This is a study of textual representations of the chuanqi drama Yuzan ji (The Jade Hairpin) composed by Gao Lian in 1570.2 In this preliminary investigation, I focus primarily on the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and on four types of representations, namely, full-length editions of the drama, selections of acts in anthologies, technical manuals, and cards for drinking games.

I will first present the background to the author and play, and then give a brief history of the textual representations of this work. Next I will analyze these texts and ask various questions, such as "why do some texts contain dialogue, musical notation, and/or stage directions and others do not?"; "what was the function of illustrations?"; "who read the texts and why?"; and "why were only selections published?" and "what criteria determined which selections were chosen?"

Notes on the Playwright Gao Lian

Gao Lian hailed from a merchant family in Qiantang (present-day Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province).3 He failed twice in the provincial [End Page 335] examination and gave up hope for an official career, but his father left him well off. His Zun sheng ba jian (Eight Discourses on the Art of Living, 1591) has been studied by the cultural historian Craig Clunas (1991:13-20). He was also a noted writer of sanqu ("independent songs"), which may be found in anthologies such as Chen Suowen's Beigong ciji (A Collection of Songs in the Northern Mode, Wanli period [1573-1620]; see Du 1983:8/4b), Feng Menglong's Taixia xinzou (New Tunes from the Clouds Above, 1627), Zhang Chushu's Wu sao hebian (Joint Edition of Encountering Sorrow in the Wu Style, 1637), and so on.4 Two of his chuanqi plays are extant, The Jade Hairpin and Jie xiao ji (The Upright and the Filial, 1571; see Xu 1993:212-13). This second work is divided into two parts: the first (in 17 acts) is about Tao Qian, the hermit par excellence; the second part (in 14 acts) is about the filial grandson Li Mi. Lü Tiancheng (1980:217-18) places Gao Lian in the sixth grade of dramatists out of nine. Qi Biaojia (1980:49-50) places both his works in the fifth grade of neng ("able"), after the categories of miao ("marvelous"), ya ("elegant"), yi ("otherworldly"), and yan ("beautiful").

Here I will concentrate on The Jade Hairpin. There are versions of the story in prose and in a Ming period zaju drama, but since this paper concentrates primarily on representations of Gao Lian's play, we will not go into the story's development in various genres.5

Synopsis of the Jizhi zhai Edition of The Jade Hairpin in 34 Acts

The story is set in the beginning part of the Southern Song period (1127-1279). Pan Su, former governor of Kaifeng Prefecture, sends his son Pan Kai to sit for the civil service examination at Lin'an (Hangzhou). Our heroine, Chen Jiaolian, daughter of the former Assistant Governor of Kaifeng Prefecture, had been betrothed to Pan Su's son even before they had been born, with an exchange of a jade hairpin and a mandarin duck ornament as betrothal gifts. Troops from the Jin Dynasty attack the Southern Song, and Jiaolian is separated from her mother. The mother seeks refuge [End Page 336] with the Pan family, while Jiaolian finds refuge at Female Chastity Nunnery on the outskirts of Jiankang, and is given the Buddhist name Miaochang.

Zhang Xiaoxiang—historically a statesman and poet—stays in the nunnery incognito, on his way to Jiankang to take up his post of governor. He is impressed by Miaochang's beauty, and while playing weiqi ("encirclement chess") with her, tries to seduce her verbally...


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