Asian Theatre Journal 20.2 (2003) 250-253
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This fifty-scene chuanqi play, completed just five years before the final collapse in 1644 of the almost three-hundred-year-old Ming dynasty, tells the ultimate theatrical version of one of the two most influential love stories in Ming literature (p. xiii) and is considered one of the ten great classical tragedies of the Chinese stage. An English translation has long been sorely needed, yet the play presents formidable challenges for the translator. We are indeed fortunate that the translator who has taken up these challenges is Cyril Birch, whose superb translation of Tang Xianzu's chuanqi masterpiece Peony Pavilion has inspired a generation of scholars and served as the text for Peter Sellars' extraordinary cross-cultural production of sections of that play.
Mistress & Maid tells the story of the doomed lovers Wang Jiaoniang and her cousin Shen Chun. Shen Chun's parents clearly favor a marriage between the cousins, and initially it appears that Jiaoniang's parents will welcome the match as well. The love between the two young people themselves grows and is secretly and daringly consummated over the course of four visits that Shen Chun pays to Jiaoniang's home. Her father, however, shocks the young lovers by rejecting the match when it is formally offered, apparently because he doubts the young man's future prospects. And her mother's maid,Feihong, who initially seems to find the attraction between the two young lovers charming, comes to desire Shen Chun for herself and does all she can to break up the pair, inspiring jealousy in Jiaoniang and suspicion in her mother. Faced with the genuine strength of the cousins' loyalty to one another, Feihong comes to dedicate herself to helping them. Even Jiaoniang's father comes to welcome the match again after Shen Chun places high in the imperial examinations. But then, just as the match is in the process of being finalized, Jiaoniang's father cancels it when he is pressured by a high official to wed Jiaoniang to his son instead. Having sworn to Shen Chun that "if it is hopeless, I shall recompense you with my death" (p. 68), and faced with an arranged marriage she cannot avoid, Jiaoniang fulfills her vow by literally dying of thwarted love. Upon learning of her death, Shen Chun strangles himself with a silk kerchief thatJiaoniang had given him. Buried together in the same tomb at the behest ofJiaoniang's remorseful father and in accord with their wish to have"in life one room, in death one tomb" (p. 303), the two lovers then appear first to Feihong in the robes of immortals, and finally to the entire family as a pair of mandarin ducks, the ultimate symbol of marital fidelity, hovering near the shared tomb.
Corruption and inefficiency within the Ming dynasty were as responsible for its downfall as were the conquering Manchu who then established the Qing. Written in this political context, Mistress & Maid may very well be presenting a model of one kind of commitment to serve as a metaphor for quite another, as Birch points out in his masterly introduction to the translation (pp. x-xi). But as Birch also indicates, the intellectual climate of the late [End Page 250] Ming was one of "liberation from stifling convention, celebration of the claims of spontaneous feeling, sympathy for the aspirations of youth" (p. x). It is this ethos as embodied in the play that has led critics and scholars in post-Cultural Revolution China to celebrate Mistress & Maid as "essentially revolutionary in its depiction of youthful resistance to an oppressive system of latter-day Confucian values" (p. xx).
In fact, Mistress & Maid is one of almost innumerable "talent meets beauty" (caizi jiaren) stories and plays—a genre "that flourished throughout the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries" (p. xiv). And it is narrower in scope than Tang Xianzu's Peony Pavilion, with poetry that simply does not achieve...