Tang Xianzu

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Tang Xianzu
Traditional Chinese湯顯祖
Simplified Chinese汤显祖

Tang Xianzu (traditional Chinese: 湯顯祖; simplified Chinese: 汤显祖; September 24, 1550 – July 29, 1616), courtesy name Yireng (義仍), was a Chinese playwright of the Ming Dynasty.


Tang was a native of Linchuan, Jiangxi and his career as an official consisted principally of low-level positions. He successfully participated in the provincial examinations (juren) at the age of 21 and at the imperial examinations (jinshi) at the age of 34. He held official positions in Nanjing, Zhejiang province, Guangdong province etc.

After serving as the magistrate of Suichang, Zhejiang from 1593 to 1598, he retired in 1598 and returned to his hometown where he focused on writing. Tang died in 1616, the same year as famed English playwright William Shakespeare.[1]

His major plays are collectively called the Four Dreams, because of the decisive role dreams play in the plot of each one. All of them are still performed (in scenes, or in adapted full versions) on the Chinese Kun opera (kunqu) stage. Generally considered his masterpiece, the Mudan Ting (The Peony Pavilion) has been translated into English several times.

A translation of his complete dramatic works in English was published in China in 2014 and in London in 2018.

TANG Xianzu[2] (1550-1616), courtesy name Yireng, artist name Ruoshi 若士, the Taoist Devotee of Qingyuan 清远道人. He was from the Linchuan district of Jiangxi province. TANG lived through the reign of three Late Ming emperors, an era marked by corruption and instability. He was born in the time of Jajing 嘉靖 (1522-1566) and spent most of his adulthood under the reign of Longqing 隆庆 (1567-1572) and Wanli 万历 (1573-1620). TANG was from a family of scholars, dating back to his great-grandparents. He passed the second-level civil service examination at the age of 21, yet took another 13 years to succeed at the third level. TANG's failure was mainly caused by his rejection to accompany the two sons of the charge grand secretariat ZHANG Juzheng 张居正 to their examinations, thus offending the powerful man. When ZHANG passed away, TANG was finally able to claim a place in the government. Yet ingratiating the superiors to gain political favor was against his principle. Without the support of influential figures like ZHANG Siwei 张四维 and SHEN Shixing 申时行, TANG was appointed Taischang scholar to oversee rites and sacrificial ceremonies in Nanjing, a position of little significance. Nonetheless, TANG was passionate about the state of affairs and got himself involved by writing to the court, exposing the dirty money trade within the system and items sent out for disaster-stricken civilians falling into private pockets. In his Memorabilia to the Throne, titled Commentary on the Leadership and Supportive Duties of the Bureaucratic Officialdom 《论辅臣科臣疏》, Tang concluded that the first decade of Emperor Wanli's rule was impeded by the dictatorship of ZHANG Juzheng, and the following decade by SHEN Shixing. The harsh criticism had quite an effect on the court, but not in the way TANG was intending. He was demoted to Guangdong Province to care for Xuwen County prisoners. Then in the twenty-first year under the reign of Wanli (1593), TANG received a promotion and served as the magistrate of Suichang County in Zhejiang Province for five years. TANG's impartiality and righteousness had won him great esteem from the people.  Yet disheartened by the constraints and the inability to act, TANG lost interest in politics and retired to his hometown, devoting the remaining of his years to playwriting.

TANG[2] grew up with the Chinese classics. His father was a stringent Confucian scholar, and his grandfather was a dedicated follower of the Taoist masters Laozi and Zhuangzi. These all had a notable influence on the formation of his character and could be traced from his works. As a teenager, TANG studied under LUO Rufang 罗汝芳, a representative of the Taizhou School. LUO's teaching was close to Zen, opposing CHENG and ZHU's idealization of Confucian philosophy. This experience contributed largely to TANG's worldview and value system. During his time in Nanjing, TANG became a close friend to Zen master Daguan monk 达观禅师. Soon after, he encountered LI Zhi's 李贽 philosophical criticism named A Book to Burn 《焚书》. TANG found that LI's arguments were in harmony with his perception. Through the writing, he became a great admirer of LI, and at a later time, the two were fortunate to meet in Linchuan. Daguan and LI Zhi were recognized as "the two cardinal figures" among the late Ming thinkers, the point of view they stood for had a lasting impact on TANG Xianzu. When looking back on TANG's life, two points stand out regarding his attitude toward human existence. In the beginning, not quite unlike many others, TANG believed that action would lead to positive changes and bring favorable political outcomes. Disheartened by reality, he turned to Buddhism and Taoist practices, accepting the illusive property of living. Yet this transition was not sufficient to help TANG to reconcile with his tumultuous feelings, which were reflected in Record of Handan, and Record of the Southern Bough. Along with his religious pursuit, TANG  nurtured the fire that LI Zhi lit inside of him and passed on the torch through his masterpiece The Peony Pavilion, calling attention to the basic human needs and legitimizing the concept of self long-dismissed by the CHENG and ZHU indoctrination.


A few Ming and Qing playwrights followed Tang's writing style and called themselves the Yumintang or Linchuan school.[3] Tang Xianzu has been known for their methodology when writing, maintaining a message disregarding logical semantics. He has been compared to both Shakespeare and Philip Sidney, who both maintained this same method.[4]


A page from a printed copy of Record of Southern Bough (also known as A Dream Under the Southern Bough)
See The Purple Hairpin (1957) 紫釵記 (粵劇) by Tang Ti-sheng

" 'The Four Dreams of Linchuan' was a literary record of the ideological transition TANG went through concerning the meaning of life and one man's relationship to society. The Purple Hairpin was "one droplet of (his) obsession". The Peony Pavilion was his vow of "living and dying for the obsession". Record of the Southern Bough was the initial realization of "being entangled by the obsession". Record of Handan was a nostalgic sigh of "a whole life wasted upon such obsession". The processional of the plays might be read as TANG's journey of disillusionment, paralleling the change from vehement advocacy of self-expression to doubts about the tangibility of lived reality. In summary, the greatest contribution of TANG was transforming theater from pleasure-seeking to philosophical preponderance, marking the maturation of Chinese drama as an art form. TANG's compositions were highly acclaimed soon as brought to the sight of the public. Yet most spectators attributed the success of the plays to their literary mastery. In the chapter"Casual Notes" from Prosody of Qu, WANG Jide commented that TANG's language was "graceful yet seductive that the words drill to the bone". In the prologue of Record of Handan, SHEN Jifei wrote that "the paintbrush of Linchua draws flowers in the dreams". The later playwrights like RUAN Dacheng, and WU Bing were all great admirers. As followers of TANG's style, the attempts were only capable of scratching the surface."[5]

" The first of TANG's attempts at writing Chuanqi plays yielded an unfinished script titled The Purple Flute, in the first year under the reign of Emperor Wanli (1573). Fourteen years later, TANG complete the play and renamed it The Purple Hairpin. The other three plays The Peony Pavilion, Record of Handan, and Record of the Southern Bough were all composed when TANG was in retirement.  Dreams and dreaming played an important role in these four plays, and also because TANG's study was known as White Camellia Hall, the anthology of scripts became Four Dreams of the White Camellia Hall 《玉茗堂四梦》. The series was also introduced as the "Four Dreams of Linchuan 临川四梦", commemorating TANG's birthplace.

Inspiration for The Purple Flute came from The Story of HUO Xiaoyu 《霍小玉传》by a Tang novelist JIANG Fang 蒋防. TANG later changed the title to The Purple Hairpin. In the original, HUO Xiaoyu was wronged by LI Yi and died of a broken heart. In TANG's version, LI and HUO were husband and wife separated by the grand commander LU. When LI was selected as the top graduate, LU intended to have LI as his son-in-law. They reunited with the help of the Yellow-Robed Chevalier, a close friend of the emperor. Apart from the ending, the plot was untouched. Most of TANG's rewriting was done on the grouping of scenes and the use of language. HUO was depicted as a devoted wife and an unfaltering lover. The language was elegant and the lines were effective, affirming the pivotal potion of romantic love in TANG's plays. Yet the play was regarded as less successful among TANG's works as it lacked depth and was short of innovation.

Record of Handan was adapted from The Tale of the Pillow 《枕中记》, a short fiction composed by another Tang novelist SHEN Jiji 沈既济. The play was a social commentary, an indirect aspersion of the Ming politicians and elites through "a dream that was cooking along the yellow sorghum". TANG Xianzu used to be keen on the governing class of the Ming and actively engaged in the discussion about the grand secretaries that took office in the second half of the dynasty. Scholar LU who served as the prime minister for years and swam in the center of power was built based on the shared traits of these high officials. Lacking real talents, Scholar LU bribed his way to the top graduate. When he was working in Shanzhou, to dredge the sluggish river, LU asked his attendants to use salt and vinegar. Then LU took advantage of the exchange of letters and defeated the invading armies from Tibet. The unbelievable effectiveness of the unlikely means was a comic satire, ridiculing the incompetence of the current administration. By this point, Scholar LU had reached the highest point of his career. Out in the field, he was appointed as the general. Back to the court, he was given the position of the prime mister. His fame and wealth led LU to a decadent life. The emperor rewarded LU with a vast expanse of land, on which he built dozens of gardens, halls, terraces, and pavilions. His Majesty also sent LU twenty-four actresses from the Bureau of Celestial Music to delight him with songs and dances. While preaching abstinence to others, LU made the order of the court his excuse and said yes to all that came his way, eventually he died of exhaustion among the bed covers. The detailed depiction of LU's debauchery was sourced from the Ming high officials and their way of living. The most astounding of all was LU's fear that his many contributions might have been left out of the official record. Only after a complete list was produced, the scholar was finally able to draw in his last breath. When he woke up, only a brief period had passed and the yellow sorghum that the waiter put in the pot upon his arrival was still cooking. Evolving around the transience of life, Record of Handan was a disclosure of the delusive nature of fame and status, the two things many took as the ultimate purpose of life. The journey of Scholar LU also let out about the fatuity of the ruler, fawning officials stepping down one another to climb the ladder, and the ludicrousness of the day-to-day acts that each was carrying on. When LU began to make impressive progress, his jealous colleagues set him up. LU ended up being banished to Yazhou and not a single person would speak up for him. While at his low point, all LU received from the clerk of Yazhou was abuse and insult. When LU resumed his position, the offender immediately came to beg forgiveness. When bidding farewell, LU's friend XIAO Song put on a sincere face. Soon as LU turned his back, XIAO went to congratulate PEI Guangting, the man that was to take LU's place, hoping to gain favor with this new supervisor. The coldness of the bureaucracy came out from every page of the writing.

Record of the Southern Bough was based on the short fiction of Tang novelist LI Gongzuo 李公佐 named The Prefect of the Southern Bough 《南柯太守传》. The play was about a generation of ambitious young scholar awakening from the unaccommodating political environment, realizing the importance of love. The protagonist CHUNYU Fen got drunk and fell asleep. In his dream, CHUNYU entered the Grand State of Blooming Locust, fell in love, and married Princess Yaofang. At the same time, CHUNYU was appointed the prefect of the Southern Bough and made advances in his career, living a fulfilling and prestigious life. With help from the princess, CHUNYU became the prime minister. When everything was going his way, Princess Yaofang fell ill and passed away, under the persecution of his enemies that CHUNYU was removed from the court and sent back to his hometown. Hence CHUNYU woke up and discovered that the State of Huaian was a giant ant next under the locust tree in his front yard. Longing for his deceased wife, CHUNYU gave up eating. Eventually, he crossed the barrier of life and death, transcended the divide between humans and animals, and reunited with the soul of the princess. Though in the end, the play made a bow to Buddhist teaching and had the Zen master Qixuan break the tie between the lovers, affection was still regarded as the mightiest and most enduring of all CHUNYU deemed of value. Yet even love was ephemeral. The shortcoming of this play was its heavy religious connotation and scatteredness.

A shared characteristic of TANG Xianzu's plays was the depiction of corporeality through dreams. Dreaming is observed in humans from all parts of the world since antiquity. Dreams are a series of thoughts, images, and sensations occurring in a person's mind while sleeping. They are the reflection of a person's needs, their perception of reality. Dreams are glimpses into the deepest part of the mind and undulation from the softest part of the soul.  In ancient times, the interpretation of dreams was a widely practiced method for fortune-telling. In modern times, the study of dreams and dreaming is combined with other scientific approaches to understand the human experience. The Purple Hairpin, The Peony Pavilion, Record of Handan, and Record of the Southern Bough were all woven by dreams. Through dreams, the playwright merged the recurring conflicts his generation was experiencing with the illusory there and then.

A second characteristic of TANG's compositions was the precedence of love above reasoning. TANG believed that "love was an innate quality",  "emotions were brought out by the circumstances, then new circumstances were created by the emotions", and "love was given birth along with life"  with a concrete existence and justifiable presence. TANG Xianzu theorized that aesthetic and metaphysical engagements such as poetry, music, and dance were all the outcome of human beings' search for spiritual fulfillment, in other words, the product of love.   In a letter, he wrote that " …love is the purpose of being. Songs and poetry are the expressions of love, enlivened by the human spirit. The sounds we hear and the sounds we utter, the appearances we bear and the appearances we admire, the gigantic and the minuscule, the lively and the lifeless are no exceptions to the rule. Therefore it moves us, connects us, excites us to motions and dances." With theater, TANG found that "love causes us to dream, and dream wakes up the drama." Through the limited space of the stage and a small group of performers role-playing, " figures of the past thousands of years are brought back to life, dreams come true, curving our lips and drawing tears from our eyes without contriving an explanation", "enabling the proud and the prestige to be humble, calling the poor and the miserly to share, the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the dumb to sigh, the lame to bounce." "Dispersing hunger from the empty stomach, awakening the inebriated from drunkenness, keeping the sojourner from wandering, restoring the bedridden to be on their feet; allowing the snobbish to praise and the stubborn to embrace new ideas."  TANG Xianzu concluded that the unfathomable potential of drama and the magic of the stage was due the operation of theater and how it "turned on the button of humane feelings" within the deliverers and the receivers, allowing all to freely live and own the delight, the rage, the sorrow, and the joy. Furthermore, TANG found that feudal ethics and purposed indoctrination was the greatest transgression to the instinctive attachment between man and his compatriots and human and nature. He argued against the claim of emotion and reasoning were two forces through the interaction of which to achieve homeostasis. Rather, they were irreconcilable opponents, and "the utter objective of each was to extinguish the other." "Were there any exceptions that when the logical mind had to push for one direction, the instinctive reaction was certain to lead to another?" The "love", "emotion", "feelings", or "instinctive reaction" referred to by TANG Xianzu were denoting the fundamental needs of human existence. The "reasoning" and "logic mind" were the process of justification for the rules and conventions designed to maintain the running of the cultural-political-economic units known as a society. These two conflicting powers were manifested in all civilizations. The battle grew most fierce when a set of regulations were corroded by corruption, and when the established social order was going through a transition. Liberation from the constraint of the prescriptions, and welcoming the call of human desire was what TANG Xianzu and the humanist philosophers stood for, and the motivation for their academic and creative endeavors.

Emotion was inseparable from sincerity and sincerity was the feature and proof of the value of feelings. Yet through the intervention of the mind, feelings got distorted, producing what was known as "faked love and false devotions". For this reason. TANG was particularly fond of LI Zhi's espousal of "Uncontaminated Childishness", a state of being that was capable of rectifying fraudulence and pretension. In "Response to Gan Yilu", TANG stated that "the man was neither good nor evil, the approach to emotions made him true or false." From TANG's plays, it was obvious to see he was against crooked sensual desires, excessive indulgence in delicacy and sex, as well as the accumulation of wealth, power, and status through devious means that extended far beyond the basic needs.

The third feature of TANG's works was their "strangeness". Compositions of Ming and Qing were named "marvel tales" for their eccentric content and convoluted plot. The "strangeness" of TANG Xianzu's plays was presented through his authentic and innovative characterization and the romantic ambiance that invited the audience to contribute through their imagination. In "A Prologue to The Manuscript of Qiu Maobo", TANG observed that "…the compelling writings were all full of life, and this liveliness was sponsored by the ingenuity of the playwright. Being in harmony with his quirks and oddities, the playwright acquired the liberty to exist as he might. With the freedom to be as he would, the writer developed the wings to fly—to dive below the waves and to rise above the sky; to step back to the past and to leap into the future; to stretch, to bend, to broaden, to shrink, to emerge, to vanish at their will. Being in command of his own will, obstacles disappear and the reality became pliable." TANG Xianzu felt that every master writer was a unique being with a perceptive heart empowered by imagination and creativity, enabling them to breathe life into their compositions.

When The Peony Pavilion was circulating widely, dissatisfied with the rhyming and arrangement of melodies, the leader of the Wujiang School SHEN Jing 沈璟 and his followers appropriated the play and made changes to suit their taste. The enraged playwright lodged a fervent protest, affirming that "the essence of a piece was the free flow of its charm and interest". The clever retort was in line with TANG's composition principle."[2]

Works available in English[edit]

  • The Peony Pavilion (trans. Cyril Birch). Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.
  • The Peony Pavilion (trans. Wang Rongpei). Changsha: Hunan People's Press, 2000.
  • A Dream Under the Southern Bough (trans. Zhang Guangqian). Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2003. ISBN 7-119-03270-4.
  • The Handan Dream (trans. Wang Rongpei). Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2003
  • The Complete Dramatic Works of Tang Xianzu (trans. Wang Rongpei & Zhang Ling) Bloomsbury: London, 2018. ISBN 9781912392025

Studies available in English[edit]

  • Peony Pavilion Onstage : Four Centuries in the Career of a Chinese Drama (Catherine Swatek). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Center for Chinese, 2003.
  • Tan, Tian Yuan and Paolo Santangelo. Passion, Romance, and Qing: The World of Emotions and States of Mind in Peony Pavilion. 3 Volumes. Leiden: Brill, 2014.


  1. ^ Tian Yuan Tan; Paul Edmondson; Shih-pe Wang. 1616: Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu's China.
  2. ^ a b c Liu, Wenfeng (2013). The History of Chinese Traditional Theater 《中国戏曲史》 (in Chinese). SDX Jointed Publishing Company. pp. 105–111. ISBN 978-7-108-04375-7.
  3. ^ Dillon, Michael, ed. (1998). China: A Cultural and Historical Dictionary. London: Curzon Press. p. 312. ISBN 0-7007-0439-6.
  4. ^ Wang, Huimin (2021). "Tang Xianzu and Philip Sidney: A Comparative Study of Chinese and English Drama Theories". Comparative Literature: East & West. 5: 74–87. doi:10.1080/25723618.2021.1943607. S2CID 237597148.
  5. ^ Liao, Ben (2000). An Illustrated History of the Chinese Theater (in Chinese). The Elephant Publishing House. p. 216. ISBN 7-5347-2579-8.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]