Romance of the Western Chamber

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A scene from a multi-colored woodblock printing album depicting scenes from the play

Romance of the Western Chamber (traditional Chinese: 西廂記; simplified Chinese: 西厢记; pinyin: Xīxiāng Jì; Wade–Giles: Hsi-hsiang-chi), also translated as The Story of the Western Wing, The West Chamber, Romance of the Western Bower and similar titles, is one of the most famous Chinese dramatic works. It was written by the Yuan dynasty playwright Wang Shifu (王實甫), and set during the Tang dynasty. Known as "China's most popular love comedy,"[1] it is the story of a young couple consummating their love without parental approval, and has been seen both as a "lover's bible" and "potentially lethal," as readers were in danger of pining away under its influence.[2]


An ivory fan depicting scenes from The Story of the Western Wing in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

The play has twenty-one acts in five parts. It tells the story of a secret love affair between Zhang Sheng, a young scholar, and Cui Yingying, the daughter of a chief minister of the Tang court. The two first meet in a Buddhist monastery. Yingying and her mother have stopped there to rest while escorting the coffin of Yingying's father to their native town. Zhang Sheng falls in love with her immediately, but is prevented from expressing his feelings while Yingying is under her mother's watchful eye. The most he can do is express his love in a poem read aloud behind the wall of the courtyard in which Yingying is lodging.[3]

However, word of Yingying's beauty soon reaches Sun the Flying Tiger, a local bandit. He dispatches ruffians to surround the monastery, in the hopes of taking her as his consort. Yingying's mother agrees that whoever drives the bandits away can have Yingying's hand in marriage, so Zhang Sheng contacts his childhood friend General Du, who is stationed not far away. The general subdues the bandits, and it seems that Zhang Sheng and Cui Yingying are set to be married. However, Yingying's mother begins to regret her rash promise to Zhang Sheng, and takes back her word, with the excuse that Yingying is already betrothed to the son of another high official of the court. The two young lovers are greatly disappointed, and begin to pine away with their unfulfilled love. Fortunately, Yingying's maid, Hongniang, takes pity on them, and ingeniously arranges to bring them together in a secret union. When Yingying's mother discovers what her daughter has done, she reluctantly consents to a formal marriage on one condition: Zhang must travel to the capital and pass the civil service examination. To the joy of the young lovers, Zhang Sheng proves to be a brilliant scholar, and is appointed to high office. The story thus ends on a happy note, as the two are finally married.[3]

Historical development[edit]

The original story was first told in a literary Chinese short story written by Yuan Zhen during the Tang Dynasty. This version was called The Story of Yingying, or Yingying's Biography. This version differs from the later play in that Zhang Sheng ultimately breaks from Yingying, and does not ask for her hand in marriage. Despite the unhappy ending, the story was popular with later writers, and recitative works based on it began accumulating in the centuries that followed. Perhaps bowing to popular sentiment, the ending gradually changed to the happy one seen in the play. The first example of the modified version is an oral performance by Dong Liang of the Jin Dynasty. Wang Shifu's play was closely modeled on this performance.[4]


Illustration by Chen Hongshou, woodblock print, from the 1639 edition published by Zhang Shenzhi[5]
A scene from a multi-colored woodblock printing album depicting scenes from the play, Zhang Junrui’s nocturnal music-making
Cui Yingying (seated) and Hongniang, from a 2016 Yue opera performance in Tianchan Theatre, Shanghai, by Shanghai Theatre Academy students.

Due to scenes that unambiguously described Zhang Sheng and Cui Yingying fulfilling their love outside of the bond of marriage, moralists have traditionally considered The Story of the Western Wing to be an indecent, immoral, and licentious work. It was thus placed high on the list of forbidden books. Tang Laihe is reported to have said, "I heard that in the 1590s the performance of the Hsi-hsiang chi...was still forbidden among [good] families." Gui Guang (1613–1673) called the work "a book teaching debauchery." On the other hand, the famous critic Jin Shengtan considered it silly to declare a book containing sex to be immoral, since "If we consider [sex] more carefully, what day is without it? What place is without it? Can we say that because there is [sex] between Heaven and Earth, therefore Heaven and Earth should be abolished?".[6]

Since the appearance of this play in the thirteenth century, it has enjoyed unparalleled popularity.[who?] The play has given rise to innumerable sequels, parodies, and rewritings; it has influenced countless later plays, short stories, and novels and has played a crucial role in the development of drama criticism.

The theme of the drama is an attack on traditional mores, supporting the longing of young people in those days for freedom of marriage, although it follows the timeworn pattern of a gifted scholar and a beautiful lady falling in love at first sight. According to the orthodox viewpoint of Confucian society, love was not supposed to be a basis for marriage, as most marriages were arranged by the parents of the couples, but the happy ending of The Romance of the Western Chamber embodies the aspirations of people for more meaningful and happier lives.

Thus, the biggest difference between The Story of Yingying and The Story of the Western Wing lies in their endings—the former has a sad ending while the latter has a happy ending. What's more,The Romance of the Western Chamber carries a more profound meaning in its conclusion, and directly suggests the ideal that all lovers in the world be settled down in a family union, with a more sharp-cut theme of attacking traditional mores and the traditional marriage system.


There have been numerous English translations:

The book was translated into Manchu as Möllendorff: Manju nikan Si siang ki.[8] Vincenz Hundhausen made a German translation of this story.[9]


It was a released as a silent film Romance of the Western Chamber in China in 1927, directed by Hou Yao. In 2005, the TVB series Lost in the Chamber of Love made a twist in the tale and had Hongniang, played by Myolie Wu, falling in love with Zhang Sheng, played by Ron Ng, while Cui Yingying, played by Michelle Ye, would marry Emperor Dezong of Tang, played by Kenneth Ma.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Shifu Wang, Edited and Translated with an Introduction by Stephen H. West and Wilt L. Idema (1991). "The Story of the Western Wing". University of California Press., p. 3.
  2. ^ Rolston, David L. (March 1996). "(Book Review) The Story of the Western Wing". The China Quarterly (145): 231–232. doi:10.1017/S0305741000044477. JSTOR 655679.
  3. ^ a b Wang, John Ching-yu (1972). Chin Sheng-T'an. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc. pp. 82–83.
  4. ^ Wang, John Ching-yu (1972). Chin Sheng-T'an. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc. pp. 83–84.
  5. ^ Hung, Wu (1996). "The Painted Screen". Critical Inquiry. 23 (1): 50. doi:10.1086/448821. JSTOR 1344077.
  6. ^ Wang, John Ching-yu (1972). Chin Sheng-T'an. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc. p. 84.
  7. ^ "The Story of the Western Wing." (Archive) University of California Press. Retrieved on December 8, 2013.
  8. ^ Crossley, Pamela Kyle; Rawski, Evelyn S. (Jun 1993). "A Profile of The Manchu Language in Ch'ing History". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. Harvard-Yenching Institute. 53 (1): 94. doi:10.2307/2719468. JSTOR 2719468.
  9. ^ Merker, p. 242.

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