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  • Strange Eventful Histories: Identity, Performance, and Xu Wei’s Four Cries of a Gibbonby Shiamin Kwa
  • Guanda Wu
Strange Eventful Histories: Identity, Performance, and Xu Wei’s Four Cries of a Gibbon. By Shiamin Kwa. Harvard-Yenching Institute Monographs. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2012. xiv + 288 pp. Hardcover, $39.95.

Shiamin Kwa’s book is dedicated to the sixteenth-century Chinese artist Xu Wei’s (1521–1593) Four Cries of a Gibbon (Sisheng yuan), a famous zaju(lit., “miscellaneous drama”) collection including four plays, namely, The Mad Drummer Plays the Yuyang Triple Rolls( Kuang gushi yuyang sannong, conventionally simplified as The Mad Drummer, aka Mi Heng), Zen Master Yu Has a Dream of Cuixiang (Yu chanshi cuixiang yimeng, conventionally simplified as Zen Master Yu), The Female Mulan Joins the Army in Place of Her Father( Ci Mulan tifu congjun, simplified as Mulanin Kwa’s book), and The Girl Graduate Rejects the Female Phoenix and Gains the Male Phoenix( Nü zhuangyuan cihuang defeng, often simply known as Girl Graduate). Strange Eventful Historiesconsists of two substantial parts. The first half of the book features the author’s analytical reading of each of the four plays in this zajucollection. The second half is composed of appendixes, [End Page 332]in which Kwa provides the readers with her meticulously annotated translation of a complete set of Four Cries of a Gibbonin English.

The introduction starts with the basics, outlining Xu Wei’s eccentric life, his stunning artistic contributions, and the status of zajuin the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Kwa makes three main points regarding Four Cries of a Gibbonin this introduction. First, these four distinct plays in fact offer variations on the shared plot device that one dramatic character discloses his or her real identity before an audience (either in or outside the theatrical world), thus revealing the multiplicity within the personae presented by the same human body (p. 9). Second, Four Cries of a Gibbonin its entirety centers upon a set of seeming paradoxes, including the metaphysical conflicts between identity and misidentification, between authenticity and falseness, and between revelation and concealment. Kwa insists that, in order to better grasp the subject of the collection, one needs to explore an ostensible paradox, namely, of “reaching direct, spontaneous authenticity by engaging in an art form that is by nature false” (p. 9). Third, costume changes serve as crucial plot devices in all of the plays. Like many classical Chinese literary texts, Four Cries of a Gibbonreveals the fact that clothing is tied to the construction of identity.

Chapter 1 provides Kwa’s first set of inquiries into the relationships between dress (or undress) and identity and between authenticity and reenactment in Xu Wei’s theatrical world. Kwa notes that it is through the culturally disrespectful act of stripping that the lead character Mi Heng expresses his iconoclastic inner self in The Mad Drummer, a play featuring a cast of underworld characters who reenact the famous historical story in which the drummer Mi Heng offends the warlord Cao Cao by not putting on proper attire. Kwa contends that the clothing nevertheless serves as an external object that conveys the message from the inner self, even as it is stripped in this intriguing case. The reenactment of the historical story, suggests Kwa, provides both the audience in the theatrical world and the readers of the play with access to the authentic natures of the dramatic characters.

Chapter 2 looks at a more complicated relationship between costume and identity in the collection’s second play, Zen Master Yu, a deliverance drama in which a Zen Buddhist monk named Yutong is reborn as a female prostitute called Liu Cui, who is eventually notified of her true identity and assumes male clothing. For Kwa, the ending of the play implies that the physical body itself does not necessarily signify an identity. Rather “identity exists somewhere either in one’s state of mind or in one’s outward show of clothing” (p. 38).

Chapters 3 and 4 are devoted to Mulanand Girl Graduate, respectively. Unlike the collection’s first two plays, which are situated in fantastical worlds...


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pp. 332-334
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