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  • Playwrights and Literary Games in Seventeenth-Century China: Plays by Tang Xianzu, Mei Dingzuo, Wu Bing, Li Yu, and Kong Shangren
  • Sophie Volpp
Playwrights and Literary Games in Seventeenth-Century China: Plays by Tang Xianzu, Mei Dingzuo, Wu Bing, Li Yu, and Kong Shangren BY Jing Shen. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010. Pp. xiii + 320. $80.00.

In this study, Jing Shen offers a valuable contribution to the study of Southern drama (chuanqi), performing close readings of a number of plays that have received short shrift in criticism in Western languages. Shen examines plays that traditionally have been seen as lesser works, arguing that it is precisely these plays that best serve as examples of the genre. Much of the secondary literature on chuanqi has focused on the three cornerstones of the seventeenth-century repertoire: Tang Xianzu's Mudan ting (The peony pavilion), Hong Sheng's Changsheng dian (The palace of everlasting life), and Kong Shangren's Taohua shan (Peach blossom fan). Plays such as Tang Xianzu's Zichai ji (The purple hairpin), Mei Dingzuo's Yuhe ji (The jade box), Wu Bing's Lü mudan (Green peony), and Li Yu's Bimuyu (The paired fish) and Fengzheng wu (The kite's mistake) are frequently mentioned in passing, yet seldom receive full-length treatments. With the revival of Kun opera (kunqu) that has taken place in the PRC and Taiwan over the last decade, lesser plays such as Lü mudan and Fengzheng wu are frequently mounted on stage, and in this regard, the publication of Playwrights and Literary Games is especially timely. Jing Shen's critical attention to the plays mentioned above can function as a companion volume to Cyril Birch's earlier Scenes for Mandarins: The Elite Theater of the Ming,1 which offers translations of selected scenes from several of the plays mentioned by Jing Shen.

Shen prefaces her readings with three chapters that introduce the genre, its authors, its conditions of performance, and the principles of traditional dramatic commentary, and provide as well a brief history of the performing arts in China. The primary concern of Shen's study is the interest of the playwrights in other literary texts and genres; the "literary games" of the title refers to the playwrights' employment of intertexual citation. The plays are treated in pairs, each pairing [End Page 203] exploring how authors used a different genre: the use of Tang chuanqi fiction by authors of chuanqi plays, the use of poetic language by authors in order to construct a "gendered subjectivity," and the citation or appropriation of early Southern drama by authors of later chuanqi.

Jing Shen gives detailed attention to the friendships and interactions among dramatists and the importance of dramatic schools. She is well equipped to handle the sophistication of the chuanqi genre and is not afraid of difficult texts whose spoken language as well as arias are bejewelled with ornate language. Indeed, her deft translations of portions of these texts will be quite helpful to students. The book offers a very full bibliography of secondary literature in Chinese as well as in English. One has the impression that the author's deep knowledge of the secondary literature allows her to paint with a fine brush. She does not make sweeping claims, but rather engages in sensitive close readings, which she copiously annotates.

Peach Blossom Fan, in particular, rewards this sort of reading, and the outstanding chapter on this play devotes itself to consideration of the roles of the three Southern dramas cited in Peach Blossom Fan: the Peony Pavilion, Yanzi jian (The swallow letter) and Mingfeng ji (The singing phoenix). Here Jing Shen contrasts the way in which Peach Blossom Fan draws upon the text of the Peony Pavilion with the way in which it invokes The Swallow Letter only as a "general entity" and in fact treats it as a "poisonous work," never once citing it. By the time of the writing of Peach Blossom Fan, the author of The Swallow Letter, Ruan Dacheng, had fallen into disrepute, and it is as though Kong Shangren would not allow any of the words of Ruan's play to infect the text of his own Peach...


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