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  • Identity Research, Conjectured Study
  • Grant Shen (bio)
Shiamin Kwa. Strange Eventful Histories: Identity, Performance, and Xu Wei’s Four Cries of a Gibbon. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012. xii, 273 pp. Hardcover $39.95, isbn 978-0-674-06685-4.

Xu Wei 徐渭 (1521–1593) was a literary giant, renowned artist, and accomplished military strategist in Ming China. Shiamin Kwa’s book investigates Xu’s four-play cycle, Four Cries of a Gibbon 四聲猿. The introduction attempts the construction of a logical frame to raise issues of identity and performance. The four chapters, each devoted to one play, explore the plays at the text and performance levels. The appendices provide annotated full translations of the plays for ready reference. The identity research is insightful and coherent. The performance study, though original and exciting, seems to rely on inconclusive textual evidence and unverified circumstantial evidence.

The Identity Research

Four Cries of a Gibbon was popular in late imperial China as well as with modern scholarship. Shiamin Kwa incorporates a wide range of modern scholarship—imaginatively and productively at times—into her own study. Not merely following up existing discourses, Kwa strives to avoid the beaten track so as to reach new conclusions or to deepen an apparent reading in order to reveal other layers of significance. For instance, Kwa concedes to the established opinion that Xu Wei might have chosen his subject matter under the influence of his personal experience or historical circumstance. Yet Kwa further explores the transformations undergone by all the protagonists. Mi Heng, the unrestrained drummer, reenacts his confrontation with the treacherous host posthumously in the netherworld; Yu, the seduced Zen master, reborn a prostitute, is restored to his original self upon his enlightenment; Mulan, the female warrior, fights a war in her father’s name, only to reinstate her gender upon returning home; and Chuntao, an orphan girl, cross-dresses to take imperial examinations and government office, but abandons her disguise for marriage. By analyzing the protagonists’ boundary-crossing between life and afterlife, incarnation and reincarnation, or man and woman, Kwa is able to prove “a quality of timelessness and universality” in Xu Wei’s plays and thus advances research in the field (pp. 7, 88, 95).

Cleverly, Kwa raises the identity issue along the plot line of the protagonists’ transformation when their identity crisis and identity realization become inevitable. This approach helps counter a reader’s possible objection that the author is “imposing [his/her] own modern preoccupations on to a five-hundred-year-old text.” It helps formulate the stimulating discourses of the book, such as: “How does a person know another? How can what one says affect how one is understood? How does clothing, or the removal of clothing, reveal who one is? Does it reveal [End Page 18] the true person, or is the unclothed person distinct from the clothed one?” (p. 7). These discourses have been conducted in a scholarly and convincing manner whether from a literary viewpoint or modern perspective, mirroring the comparable successes of prior studies.

Kwa cites lyric, dialogue, and stage direction to illustrate the liminal moments of identity conversion. The heroine of play 4, for example, is quoted:

I will take my father’s old clothes, shoes, head-wrap and hat and put them on, in exchange for my own skirt, jacket, and coiled-up chignon. Anyone seeing me would never be able to tell that I am a girl, and not a man!

Quickly go and prepare father’s old clothes and bring them out. I will change costume.

Facing the mirror, I wipe off the red rouge,

Take off the lotus ornament, and from now on wear green robes.

My cloth-wrapped bundle is tied up tightly, my chignon fastened into a snood,

I will come back wearing gold flowers of success stuck into my cap.

(p. 96)

This line of textual evidence supports the argument that “the characteristics that constitute the female identity are ones that are put on … so that the process of Chauntao’s becoming a man involves her stripping down and taking off these encumbrances.” It further supports the assertion that the heroine’s “exposure also involves a covering up, as she is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-9367
Print ISSN
1069-5834
Pages
pp. 18-31
Launched on MUSE
2016-01-22
Open Access
No
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