- The Columbia Anthology of Yuan Drama eds. by C.T. Hsia, Wai-yee Li, and George Kao
Yuan drama—or more precisely, song-drama—has long occupied a privileged place in Western translations of Chinese literature. In the early decades of the 18th century, the Eurasian print networks of the Jesuit order propelled one particular play, The Orphan of Zhao, to the forefront of a dialogue between play-makers of the East and West. Seduced by the beauty of Chinese literature to the point of heralding it as an early, albeit unrecognized Christian revelation, a Jesuit father in Macau excerpted lines of dialogue from Orphan in an attempt to help his fellow missionaries master the intricacies of the spoken language. Meanwhile, one of his confrères in Paris announced the imminent appearance of a “Chinese tragedy” in a pamphlet designed to attract subscriptions for the grand apotheosis of the Jesuit project in China, The Universal History of China (1735–36), easily one of the most influential Western works on China ever compiled. Having been denuded of its literary core — the lyrical arias written from the point of view of a single protagonist—the skeletal playtext of Orphan nevertheless inspired actors, impresarios, and playwrights, including Voltaire (1694–1778) and Arthur Murphy (1727–1805), to mobilize China, Chinese characters, and Tartar figures on the European stage as an alternately edifying and entertaining spectacle for urban theatergoers. It is this same play that the Royal Shakespeare Company chose to make the basis for a first foray into the world of Chinese theatre in its 2013/14 season, and it is also the play that opens The Columbia Anthology of Yuan Drama (hereafter Anthology).
Despite this semblance of historical continuity, the Anthology marks something of a watershed in the modern reception of Chinese plays in the West. To be sure, Yuan drama constituted the bulk of the numerous 19th-century translations from the Chinese dramatic corpus, including for example, the famed Chalk Circle (1832); however, in the 20th century, living Chinese operatic traditions—most notably Beijing opera, Yue opera, and Kun opera—reinvented themselves as international cultural commodities and eventually eclipsed prior Western interest in the purely textually transmitted Yuan plays. In the People’s Republic of China, Yuan plays came to be constituted as part of a genealogy of anti-imperialist world literature, but reliable and readily accessible translations of the Yuan corpus in English or any other European language for that matter remained rare. More recently, however, growing out of an overall reassessment of the late imperial era as a period of great cultural creativity, the scholarly community has begun [End Page 164] to revisit the first great flowering of theatre in urban China and the Anthology crystallizes such findings in an interesting and reader-friendly fashion.
What in Mongol-ruled Yuan China (1260–1368) enabled the first flourishing of theatre as a pansocial, transregional, and literary form that generated thousands of written texts and drew thousands of spectators to permanent theatres in the then-largest cities in the world? The Introduction succinctly and authoritatively reviews some of the prevailing scholarly paradigms. While not dismissing the dominant Chinese interpretation of the plays as a form of protest against the depredations of Mongol rule, the Introduction gravitates to the more recent understanding of these song-dramas as a cultural expression of a happy and unprecedented symbiosis between rural opera, urban entertainment culture, literati talent, and court patronage. This was a world powered by the performances of famous, often female stars whose performances of lyrical and earthy plays proved to be so seductive and artistically thrilling as to draw the court and the literati into the ambit of urban entertainment despite whatever moral misgivings these elites may previously have had about the mixing of high and low or male and female in such public spaces. And while the playwrights — quite possibly China’s first professional writers—for the most part belonged to the classically literate, albeit officially uncredentialed...