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  • The Orphan of Zhao and Other Yuan Plays: The Earliest Known Versions trans. by Stephen H. West and Wilt L. Idema
  • Jennifer W. Jay (bio)
Stephen H. West and Wilt L. Idema, trans. and intro. The Orphan of Zhao and Other Yuan Plays: The Earliest Known Versions. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. xii, 391 pp. Hardcover $65.00, isbn 978-0-231-16854-0.

The Orphan of Zhao and Other Yuan Plays is the latest collaborative project of Stephen West and Wilt Idema, renowned scholars and translators of traditional Chinese literature. It arrived very soon after the publication of their three other volumes, Monks, Bandits, Lovers: Eleven Early Chinese Plays (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2010); Battle, Betrayal, Brotherhood: Plays of Three Kingdoms (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2012); and Generals of Yang Family: Four Early Plays (Singapore: World Scientific, 2013). This volume consists of an erudite essay on the structure, production, and performance of early Yuan drama, followed by introductions and annotated translations of seven early Yuan role-text scripts printed in 1250–1400, and four Ming rewrites or recensions produced in the seventeenth century. The authors' primary objective of "bringing a portion of that early theatrical world to life, valid in its own right" (p. x) is achieved through a critical analysis of these early Yuan texts and annotated translations that allows the reader to participate in the experience of early urban theater in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

The analytical essay walks us through developments from the early role-text performance scripts in the thirteenth-century urban theater in north China to the editing of these scripts at the Ming palace theater, then to the rewriting and anthologizing activities of the literatus' studio in South China. Yuan drama is characterized by the production and performance of zaju, a term that West and [End Page 76] Idema translate variously as musical drama, miscellaneous comedy, and northern drama (p. 2). The scripts, which might have originated from performance ballads, contain a wedge and four acts, where only the lead actor or actress sings, usually four suites of eight to twenty songs. West and Idema situate the "corporate" production of these texts in an "environment of cooperation" (p. 15), where actors, writers, and troupes worked together to write and customize the script for the performance. The collective efforts may explain why the Yuan texts do not indicate authorship. Assigning authorship to individual plays derived from later sources such as Zhong Sicheng's 1330 work, Register of Ghosts and from later scholars such as Wang Guowei. Short enough to be quickly hand-copied, they circulated to other troupes, whose members likely made adjustments for their performances. These Yuan role-text scripts existed in multiple numbers and in variant versions, but only thirty of these scripts have randomly survived. Containing mostly song lyrics and minimal stage directions, these texts seem to have been printed for mass circulation, mostly in Hangzhou, for the perusal of the southerner audience whose local dialects limited their understanding of stage words and songs sung in the northern dialect.

In the Ming, the early Yuan texts or zaju were edited by court agencies before they were performed in the imperial palaces. In 1615–1616, Zang Maoxun, a Zhejiang literatus, edited and rewrote the early Yuan texts and Ming court scripts; a hundred of these rewrites are included in his Selections of Yuan Plays, an anthology that modern Western scholarship has accepted as the canon of Yuan drama. The literary excellence of the Ming recensions places them in the realm of high literature, but West and Idema fault modern scholarship for bypassing the performance-based early Yuan scripts. They introduce and translate seven early Yuan scripts and four Ming recensions to demonstrate that the latter, often using South China as the background, reflected the sensibilities of South China, toned down raw emotions such as revenge, and made the characters and situations more aligned with the social and mental world of the seventeenth century.

West and Idema first present translations of the Yuan and Ming texts of The Orphan of Zhao, a tale of sacrifice and revenge from the events of 583 b.c.e., first recorded in Zuozhuan and Shiji. In the...


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