Tang Xianzu - He may not have been as prolific as William Shakespeare, and nor is he as internationally renowned, but Tang Xianzu, who, like the Bard, died in 1616., penned four of the most significant works in the Chinese operatic canon

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Tang Xianzu, The Complete Dramatic Works of Tang Xianzu, Bloomsbury China, 2018.
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Tang Xianzu (1550–1616) is acclaimed as the 'Shakespeare of the East' and widely regarded as China's greatest playwright, yet his work has not reached Western readers in its entirety.
The Complete Dramatic Works of Tang Xianzu represents a literary landmark: this is the first English-language collection of the revered dramatist's most important works to be made available outside China.
Translated over two decades, the collection showcases the playwright's major pieces, including The Purple Flute, The Purple Hairpins, The Nanke Dream, The Handan Dream – and The Peony Pavilion.
The Peony Pavilion is the playwright's most celebrated work and has drawn comparisons to Homer's Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, Dante's Divine Comedy and John Milton's Paradise Lost.
Known for his lyrical use of metaphor, Tang Xianzu weaves the beauty of nature with the tragedy of emotion. His plays offer an extensive exploration of love, and remain at the heart of Chinese culture. This important collection represents an opportunity for a wider audience to discover the profound and poetic works of this classic playwright.

The Purple Flute
The Purple Hairpins
The Peony Pavilion
The Nanke Dream
The Handan Dream

"Shakespeare of the East." - President Xi Jinping

"[Tang Xianzu’s] The Peony Pavilion is China’s most popular play… a deeply emotional and poetic work considered as the Ming dynasty’s literary high point." - Culture Trip

"The very moment William Shakespeare was sitting down to pen Romeo and Juliet, a Ming-dynasty Mandarin called Tang Xianzu was composing the most celebrated epic of Chinese opera." - The Independent

"One needs to read beyond Peony Pavilion to fully grasp the fascinatingly complex world of Tang Xianzu's Four Dreams and truly appreciate his literary mastery." - Tian Yuan Tan

Sample Pages Preview:
My hometown is by the beautiful Wujiang River. 
When I served as a singing girl in Jiankang, 
I often sang the song of"Cherish while Ye May" 
Till I was separated from my beloved one. 
After my youthful life was ruined, 
I seemed to be half-tinted with autumn bleakness. 
Later I served the young Crown Prince with all my heart, 
But was given the cold shoulder in the house of Prince Huo. 
Now that I am practicing Taoism, 
What's the use of talking about make-up? 
I am nothing but a lonely azalea. 
Shancai, go and see whether there are ladies burning joss-sticks in the Queen Mother Hall! 
Who will come after noontime? 
Have a look outside for all that! 
(Enter Zheng Liuniang and Huo Xiaoyu) 
ZHENG LIUNIANG (To the tune of Yijiangfeng): 
This is a clean and serene place, 
With tall green trees around 
And drifting white clouds above. 
Look, my daughter! 
Rising into the sky, 
The magnificent mansion 
Stands against the setting sun. 
When the beaded curtain is raised, 
Fragrant incense smoke permeates the place. 
Here comes Sister Shancai! 
SHANCM (Comes out and greets in a pleased surprise): 
It turns out to be Liuniang and Princess Xiaoyu! Judging from your headwear, are you married,Princess?

If they are their country’s respective greatest playwrights, Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu share more than status: both wrote during the same period, and died in 1616. One can see why excited comparisons between the two have prospered for so long.
Tang Xianzu was born in 1550 in Linchuan, now known as Fuzhou, in the Jiangxi province. He initially joined the civil service after passing China’s famous government examinations: the provincial exam at the age of 21, and the imperial one at 34. Despite leading a successful, if undistinguished, career as a minor official, he retired in 1598 to devote himself to writing. His reputation in China is that of a very straight, honest figure—one strictly against the bureaucratic corruption so typical of the time—and it is said he left government employment because his coworkers didn’t like him for it.
Although he was also a poet, novelist, doctor, astronomer, fortune teller, and geographer (!), Tang is known predominantly for four plays, banded together under the name The Four Dreams of Linchuan. The individual plays are: Zi chai ji (The Purple Hairpin), Nan ke ji (A Dream Under a Southern Bough), Handan Meng (Dream of Handan), and, most famous of all, the Mu Dan Ting (The Peony Pavilion).
First performed in 1598, the full text of that last work contains a grand total of 55 scenes, and can run, depending on the production, for more than 20 hours. Most performances however, do without its many subplots to focus on the two main characters: Du Liniang, the daughter of a governor, and Liu Mengmei, a scholar. The former dies after dreaming of meeting a young man in a peony pavilion; the latter meets and falls in love with her in a dream three years later. The rest of the play features resurrection, a disbelieving father, and a merciful emperor (among other things).
Why Tang Xianzu is considered China’s greatest playwright
There’s no going around it: the Mu Dan Ting is China’s most popular play, to the point of being included in the repertoire of every kunqu theater troupe. It also encapsulates why Tang Xianzu himself has been, since then, so revered: At once a deeply emotional and poetic work—considered the Ming dynasty’s literary high point—it also set its premise in direct opposition with the time’s feudal ethics. ‘True love’ is portrayed as a more worthwhile pursuit than simple observance of strict mores, and calls for freedom and emancipation. This spirit is followed through by the play itself, with Tang’s work flouting the period’s dramatic conventions, mixing—as Shakespeare did—‘low’ comedy with high tragedy.
Tang wrote and participated in his country’s literary Renaissance, when theater texts, rather than being read (as it was Chinese tradition), started to be adapted into popular operas. Although he regarded his works primarily as written plays, the adaptations cemented his fame—a popularity that lives on to this day. - Simon Leser

This year the Library celebrates one of the greatest literary figures of all time, William Shakespeare (1564–1616), with a major exhibition and a rich series of events and on-line resources. Coincidently, two other world-famous writers died in the same year: Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616), and the Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu 湯顯祖(1550–1616). To commemorate these two writers, the Library recently presented in its permanent free exhibition space, the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, the display Imagining Don Quixote, and is currently showing a selection of woodblock printed editions from Tang Xiangzu’s work. For those who cannot visit the British Library to see the display on Tang in person, this blog post presents some information on the exhibits.
Tang Xianzu is one of the greatest Chinese playwrights. He was a native of Linchuan, Jiangxi province, and worked as an official during the reign of the Wanli Emperor (1572–1620) of the Ming dynasty. Tang Xianzu’s masterpiece is called the ‘Peony Pavilion’ (牡丹亭 Mudan ting). The ‘Peony Pavilion’ was written and staged for the first time in 1598 and performed at the Pavilion of Prince Teng, one of the great Chinese towers in Southern China. It is still one of the most beloved and famous Chinese traditional operas today.

Tang blog 1 by Sara
Xu xiang mudan ting, 繡像牡丹亭, ‘Illustrated Peony Pavilion’ in 8 chapters, c. 1840, woodblock printed edition. In this illustration from a Qing dynasty edition of the text, we can see the opening scene, when the sixteen-year-old Du Liniang falls asleep in the garden and starts dreaming. British Library, 15327.b.15 Noc

The term ‘opera’ is often used in reference to Chinese theatre as it was common for dramatic performances to be highly choreographed and punctuated by singing and musical accompaniment. There are many forms of Chinese opera, but the ‘Peony Pavilion’ is traditionally performed as a kunqu or ‘Kun opera’, a style developed in the early Ming period, which combines spoken parts with singing and dance movements.

Tang blog 2 by Sara
The Peony Pavilion performed in Venice on 15th of June 2010 (photo by the author). The original version of the Peony Pavilion runs for 20 hours, and comprises a total of 55 scenes, but it is now usually performed in shorter adaptations.

The ‘Peony Pavilion’ is sometimes referred to as ‘A Ghost Story’, because part of it takes place in the underworld and the protagonist returns from the afterlife. It narrates the love story between a girl from a wealthy family, Du Liniang, and the scholar Liu Mengmei. After seeing Liu in a dream and falling in love with him, Du dies of sorrow. Her spirit keeps looking for the young scholar and the Judge of the Underworld promises to resurrect her so that she can see him again. After appearing in Liu’s dreams as a ghost, her body is exhumed by Liu and the couple live happily thereafter.

Tang blog 3 by Sara
Xu xiang mudan ting, 繡像牡丹亭, ‘Illustrated Peony Pavilion’ in 8 chapters, c. 1840, woodblock printed edition. British Library 15327.b.16, another copy of the same edition of the work as in 15327.b.15. Noc

The ‘Peony Pavilion’ is one of the so-called ‘Four Dreams’ (Lin chuan si meng), four of Tang’s most important plays in which dreams play a significant part in the story. They include also ‘The Purple Hairpin’, ‘The Dream of Handan’ and ‘The Dream of the Southern Bough’. The latter two in particular contain themes of rejection of traditional feudal values and the possibility of escape through love and compassion in order to achieve happiness.

Tang Blog 4 by Sara
The ‘Dream of Southern Bough’, in the collection Shi er zhong qu十二種曲, ‘Twelve operas’, by Li Yu, 1785, woodblock printed edition. British Library, 15327.a.3 Noc

The ‘Peony Pavilion’ has been translated into many languages and adapted several times for television and theatre productions such as contemporary opera, ballet and musical performances, both in China and abroad. The escape from the conventions of feudal society, the power of true love to conquer even death, and the cathartic role of dreams are central themes of the ‘Peony Pavilion’. Together they created a story that is universal and beloved by students, readers and audiences around the world.

Tang blog 5 by Sara
‘Die Rückkehr der Seele’ (The Return of the Soul), translated by Vincenz Hundhausen. Zürich/Leipzig, 1937. This edition of the ‘Peony Pavilion’, translated and edited by Vincenz Hundhausen, is accompanied by forty reproductions of Chinese woodcuts from the Ming period. British Library, 11101.f.28

Further reading:
Tan, Tian Yuan and Santangelo, Paolo 'Passion, Romance, and Qing: The World of Emotions and States of Mind in Peony Pavilion' (3 vols.),  in Emotions and States of Mind in East Asia, Vol. 4. Leiden: Brill, 2015.
Tan, Tian Yuan, Edmondson, Paul and Wang, Shih-pe, 1616: Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu's China. London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2016.

China and Britain will honour their most famous playwrights, Tang Xianzu and William Shakespeare, with a series of events this year.
The dramatists were contemporaries who lived thousands of miles apart, and both died in 1616. This has led numerous scholars to conduct comparative studies of their works, which remain hugely influential to this day.
Shakespeare’s plays are a mainstay of the British school curriculum, while Tang’s best-known opera, The Peony Pavilion, continues to be performed worldwide.
Both were “great men in the circle of world drama”, said Aoki Masaru, the Japanese scholar and sinologist, who many credit as being the first to link the Bard with Tang in his 1943 book A History of Chinese Literary Thought.
To mark the 400th anniversary of the writers’ deaths, plays, seminars, book fairs and lectures will be held to celebrate their legacies in China and Britain.
“Celebrations for Shakespeare and Tang will be the highlight of China-British cultural exchanges in 2016,” said Xiang Xiaowei, minister counsellor for culture at the Chinese embassy in London.
The celebrations will include a special stage production, A Midsummer Night’s Dream Under the Southern Bough, which has been billed as “when Shakespeare met Tang”.
Aimed primarily at student audiences, the show is a blend of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Bard’s comedy of magic and mismatched love, and Tang’s A Dream Under the Southern Bough, an opera about a soldier’s fantastical journey through a kingdom of ants.
“Through art and performance, we can examine ourselves, our culture and our humanity,” the director, Steve Ansell, said. “And by examining the art and performance of another culture, we’re able to dynamically articulate our similarities and our individualities.”
The play, to be staged in Leeds, Edinburgh and three cities in China from July to September, is being organised by the University of Leeds Staging China, its Business Confucius Institute, and the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing.
As the cast will mostly be made up of Western actors, the show will be a spoken-word performance with musical accompaniment. “Spoken word presents an opportunity to break with convention while still being inspired by it, and creates a new world for Tang’s characters to inhabit,” Ansell said.
Last month Zou Yuanjiang, a philosophy professor at the University of Wuhan and vice-president of the Tang Xianzu Research Society, was invited to talk on The Peony Pavilion at several British universities.
Such tours “not only illuminate the work of a legendary Chinese writer to audiences in Britain, but also have a great impact” among young Chinese people, said Li Ruru, a professor of Chinese theatre studies at the University of Leeds, who helped organise Prof Zou’s visit.
By comparing the literary greats “we’re raising awareness among British scholars and readers, so that they look more carefully at what is out there in terms of Chinese classics”, said Tian Yuan Tan of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, who co-wrote the book 1616: Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu’s China.
Adam Strickson, a fellow in theatre and writing at the University of Leeds, who has studied the works of Tang and Shakespeare, said both “shared a love for mixing the low life or the bawdy with the sense of a tortuous moral journey of self-discovery”.
They also use dense and layered poetry to go beyond the surface, he said, and the metaphor of the dream as a journey of confusion and enlightenment is central.
“I have the sense both were involved in a religious quest for meaning, and that this revolves around an exploration of loss, grief and reconciliation in the family.”
The difference, he said, is that Shakespeare’s works represent people of all backgrounds and classes, whereas Tang’s seem to reflect a more aristocratic and esoteric background. -

Tang Xianzu | ©Symane/Wikimedia Commons

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Tang Xianzu (1550-1616) is considered China's greatest playwright and is revered in a country of great literary and dramatic traditions. The writer's most famous works, known collectively as the Four Dreams, are still performed throughout China today on the Chinese Kun opera stage.