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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
  • Yan Ma
THE ORPHAN OF ZHAO AND OTHER YUAN PLAYS: THE EARLIEST KNOWN VERSIONS. Translated and introduced by Stephen H. West and Wilt L. Idema. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. 403 pp. Hardcover, $65.00; E-book, $64.99.

The Orphan of Zhao and Other Yuan Plays by Stephen H. West and Wilt L. Idema consists of an introductory essay on Yuan (1260–1368) zaju and the English translations of seven printed Yuan zaju plays with respective dramaturgical backgrounds as well as the translations of Ming (1368–1644) rewrites of four of the seven early prints. Zaju, as described in the volume, is "a form of musical drama that required one actor, playing the lead male or female character, to sing four suites (one [End Page 256] per act) of eight to twenty songs" (p. 1). The seven Yuan texts selected in this volume were preserved in fourteenth century editions, the earliest known versions of zaju. The four Ming texts selected are derived from the Ming court. To suit the reading preference of the educated literati in the Ming, the palace manuscripts were anthologized, among which the most notable is A Selection of Yuan Plays (Yuanqu xuan), edited by Zang Maoxun (d. 1621). Three Ming texts in this volume are from Zang's anthology. By trying to closely follow the original Chinese texts of the Yuan and Ming scripts, the authors allow readers to trace format changes of the zaju texts and the changes between earlier and later versions of each in terms of plot, character, and theme. In addition, the book allows readers to investigate the differences in the social and cultural worlds the plays represent and from which they were derived.

The different formats of the Yuan and Ming scripts were determined by their functions. Yuan scripts were cooperative works created by writers, actors and performance troupes. The most popular scripts were copied and circulated among different performance troupes. The texts that this volume uses are the commercial printings of these performance texts. In these Yuan texts, there are no physical divisions that identify the acts (zhe), although individual scenes within them are physically separated. The term "zhe" is used to mark the scenes that do not involve the lead actor. However, in the Ming texts, the term "zhe" is adopted by the editors to mark act divisions, in which each unit that has a single suite of arias is identified as an act. These Ming printed editions intended to "clearly break the text into reading units that order the narrative (not the performance) and make reading and commentary easier" (p. 17). Therefore, while the Yuan scripts are performance texts that reflect the performing actions of the actors, the Ming editions are the reading texts that reflect the literary taste of editors and readers.

The volume also informs the reader that Yuan performance texts served as scripts intended for the use of a performing troupe's male or female lead. Most of these Yuan texts include little more than the arias sung by the lead actor, with minimal directions that may provide summaries of dialogue. Directions for supporting roles generally provide only cues for the lead actor. In the Ming palace editions, the number of arias sung by the lead actors has been reduced, while there is extensive dialogue not limited to the leading role. The Ming printed editions, which are mostly derived from the palace manuscripts, are fully written-out scripts that include complete stage directions, arias for the lead actor, rhymed poems, and dialogue for every actor. Therefore, while the Yuan texts focus almost entirely on the performance of the lead actors, the Ming scripts include performance information for [End Page 257] every actor; this difference is probably due to the changes made in the palace editions to ensure appropriate performance for the emperor.

In addition to the changes in format, alterations concerning the characters, plot, and theme(s) of the single story can be perceived in each play. One of the most common changes is the disappearance of the emperor as...


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