A Survey of Scholarship on Late Ming Drama

By Shen, Grant | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 2003 | Go to article overview

A Survey of Scholarship on Late Ming Drama


Shen, Grant, Shakespeare Studies


THIS PAPER COVERS the state of scholarship on late Ming drama, a period that coincided roughly with the Elizabethan (1558-1603), Jacobean (1603-25), and Caroline (1625-42) theater of Renaissance England. (1) Scholarly writings on Ming drama (1368-1644) are fewer than those on the zaju opera of the Yuan dynasty (1234-1368), or those on the regional genres of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). The first work (1901) to attempt a history of Chinese literature includes one chapter on drama. (2) The author outlines the plots of three zaju operas of the Yuan, gives an eyewitness account of Qing theater in performance, but omits any reference to Ming drama. Similarly, a book on oriental drama published sixty years later does not include a single Ming work although it discusses some thirty translated plays of the Yuan and Qing dynasties. (3)

Ming drama was first introduced to the English-speaking world in 1936, when Yao Hsin-nung wrote about the development of the national theater of the late Ming. (4) His views are still valid today, although much has been added to that brief survey by subsequent scholarship. Yao's article evidently benefited from the then recently published History of Early Modern Chinese Drama by the Japanese Sinologist Aoki Masaru. (5)

Aoki's book had also benefited from the scholarly studies of his colleagues (Aoki 734-35), and especially Wang Guowei's multivolume study that initiated academic investigation of traditional Chinese theater. (6) Aoki's survey is still one of the most complete and respected works to date, despite its neglect of the performative aspects of Ming drama, a shortcoming that has yet to be fully rehabilitated even in scholarly studies today.

Another quarter-century elapsed before the surge of interest in the 1960s in the West in things Asian brought in its wake three books on the history of Chinese literature, each with a section on Ming drama. In Chinese Literature: A Historical Introduction, Ch'en Shou-yi discussed one music composer, no fewer than eight playwrights, dozens of plays, and introduced the structural features of the drama as well. (7) Lai Ming's A History of Chinese Literature covered a single playwright and one play, mistaking its heroine of sixteen years for twenty. (8) Liu Wu-chi's An Introduction to Chinese Literature focused on the librettos and intentions of the literati playwrights. (9) More detailed was Josephine Huang Hung's pocket-size Ming Drama, covering major playwrights and their representative works. (10) Both Liu and Hung also introduced the schools of dramatists of the late Ming.

In the sixties, scholarship was largely limited to the literary study of masterpieces about which scholars tended to disagree with each other. In fact, Ch'en and Liu provided two sharply contrasting views of Ming drama. While Ch'en portrayed Ming theater as contemporary, realistic, and entertaining, (11) Liu saw it as historical, poetic, and elitist. (12) If one uses Ming Feng Ji (The Phoenix Singing), a play about contemporary politics, as example and holds innovations in theater as intended to please the theatergoing public, one may agree with Ch'en. But if one reads the allusive and symbolic librettos that are a staple feature of the masterpieces of Ming drama, and regards their verses as incomprehensible to the mostly illiterate common folk, one may concur with Liu's interpretation. (13) Nevertheless, the fact remains that scholarship in the 1960s explored only a small number of plays and adopted narrow investigative angles.

In the 1970s, scholarship gradually saw a more equitable balance between attention to literature and to performance. C. T. Hsia focused on the philosophical ideas encompassed by the four dream plays of Tang Xianzu. (14) Colin Mackerras viewed Ming drama from the performative angle, and traced its historical development to the level of individual genres. (15) Combining the learning of the East and the West, Mackerras examined a large number of primary materials of the Ming era, such as the writings of Wang Jide and Zhang Dai, as well as many scholarly reports in Chinese, including the works of Zhou Yibai and Wang Gulu.

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