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  • Strange Eventful Histories: Identity, Performance, and Xu Wei’s Four Cries of a Gibbon by Shiamin Kwa
  • Yuming He
Strange Eventful Histories: Identity, Performance, and Xu Wei’s Four Cries of a Gibbon by Shiamin Kwa. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2012. Pp. xii + 273. $39.95.

As calligrapher, painter, author, military strategist, as well as eccentric and possibly madman, Xu Wei (1521–1593) has proven a magnetic figure in accounts of numerous aspects of late Ming cultural history. He was also a renowned dramatist and drama theorist, and his four plays under the collective title Si sheng yuan 四聲猿 (Four cries of a gibbon) occupy an important position in our understanding of Ming theatrical culture. At the same time antiquarian and innovative, these odd plays are deeply grounded in earlier stage and musical traditions, not least that of the “northern” Yuan zaju, while also incorporating elements from the dominant stage practices of their era, the more modern “southern” operatic forms. Though they have long enjoyed iconic status in the history of Chinese drama, they pose formidable interpretive, formal, musical, and linguistic challenges. Shiamin Kwa’s Strange Eventful Histories, the first complete translation and study of these four plays in English, is thus a welcome addition to existing scholarship on Xu Wei and the theatrical literature of late imperial China.

The Four Cries comprises four individual plays: Kuang gushi Yuyang sannong 狂鼓史漁陽三弄 (The mad drummer plays the Yuyang triple [End Page 120] rolls); Yu chanshi Cuixiang yimeng玉禪師翠鄉一夢 (Zen Master Yu has a dream of Cuixiang); Ci Mulan tifu congjun 雌木蘭替父從軍 (The female Mulan joins the army in place of her father), and Nü zhuangyuan cihuang defeng 女狀元辭凰得鳳 (The girl graduate rejects the female phoenix and gains the male phoenix).1 The collective title Xu Wei assigned these four plays alludes to a poetic commonplace concerning the emotive power of the gibbon’s cry: on the third cry the saying goes, the human listener will be moved to tears.2 The suggestion of “four cries,” then, is of a form of expression that passes beyond both human language and human capacities of emotional response. These plays are indeed replete with idiosyncratic language that is densely enmeshed both in popular and dramatic idiom and in a wide and quirky range of literary allusion; meaning in these works is often complex, multiple, contradictory, and elusive.

In tackling these challenging works, Kwa’s renditions make good use of Zhou Zhongming’s周中明 collated, punctuated, and generously annotated edition of the plays in Chinese,3 and Kwa reproduces many of Zhou’s notes along with her own. Taken together, the translations and notes provide a glimpse into the densely allusive texture of the plays’ language, and resolve numerous thorny interpretive problems. Kwa does not, however, demonstrate consistently solid command of dramatic idiom, or of Xu Wei’s particularly challenging style. That Xu Wei’s own name and cognomen are mistranscribed in the book’s opening paragraph might otherwise be merely a regrettable lapse, but in the context of the volume as a whole, this slipup proves indicative of a recurrent shakiness in handling the primary source material.4 Some instances involve simple misconstrual of the relevant idioms, as where [End Page 121] a “bakebread [shop] sign” (shao bing de huangzi 燒餅的晃[= 幌]子) is rendered as “a big bright fried cake” (p. 48)5 or where “(someone’s) wife” (hunjia 渾家) is rendered as “sordid family” (p. 151),6 or when “several times I refused to go” (jibian jie xiaode buken qu 幾遍價小的不肯去)—where 價 is used for the vernacular particle jie and not the noun jia/price—is translated as “I refused to go at any price” (p. 205).7 Other instances stem from imprecise grasp of stage conventions, as where the stage direction “xu xia” 虛下, literally “unreal exit,” indicating that an actor mimes going out but remains on stage, is given as “leaves without fanfare” (p. 226).8

Other problems are somewhat more complicated. The opening lines of Master Yu in Zen Master Yu Has a Dream of Cuixiang, for example, are translated as follows:


What must be prepared for with the lion constellation?

The shadowless monkey star should not be submitted to.9

In this translation Xu Wei’s evocation of...


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