The Tsa-chu of the Ch'ing Period:
a study of its place in Ch'ing literature and some of its outstandin~ authors
( An Abstract )
Most studies in Chinese seem to stop at Yuan chlu ill) ,
or, in a few cases, at Ming chIll; there is little awareness
of the importance of Ch'ing tsa-chii#~IJ ? vlang Kuo-wei's
~ ~ #./.. Sung-yuan hsi-ch' u shih 0Z .?~ 'dfI f-, for example,
does not go beyond the Yuan Dynasty. And even with writings extend their interest into the Ch'ing Dynasty, their primary concern is with chuan-ch'i1~ ~- and other local theatres (hua-p I u 1.'~ ~) of the period, and hardly touch on the ~chu. Such a phenomenon, of course, is due to the popular view that tsa-chu came to its full development in the Yuan,. began to decline in the Ming and bec~ae negligible in the Ch'ing Dynasty-a view with which I cannot agree.Ch'ing tsa-chu is an evolution from Yuan tsa-chii as a developed genre, and should not be compared with the latter in the
same terms of reference. When one considers the theme and characterization, the form and style of these Ch"ing works, one can see that they are not without their merits. The achievement of the eh' ing dr?mati sts inwri ting of tuan-chu ~ j~ (I 'short plays I), in particular, should not be forgotten. Ch'ing drama has its own importance in the h:is?ory of' the Chinese theatre and is not at all unworthy of a detailed and extensive study?
Bef'orean attempt at a close examination of Ch'ing ~chu is made., I have tried to set down the scope of' my study, i.. .?e .? tof'ind out?heexact number of' writers and works to be dealt wi th?Thisis not so easy a task as expected. On
dramatists of the Yuan and Ming, this exercise has been carried out in such studies as Fu Hsi-hua' s ~ .?~ ,m..:~ Yuantai tsa-chu ch' \.ian-mu 1t ~~ $ itd It?E] and Ming-tai tsachu ch' uan mu 19J1 ),\'itii jlJ & j?,and Hsu Tiao-fu' s 14.:- yl1-~
,-(~1 --< .?'>1 ' . .}.' ;f'- 1>..:,
Hsien-ts I un yuan-.ign tsa-chu shu,...;Ll! M~, ~ ::iGA-1nl ,..!fiJ .~J::~~
But as far as the Ch'ing Dynasty is concerned, no definite number is yet available. vii th bi ts and pieces of information obtpined from bibliographies on ch'4 conpiled in the Ch'ing Dynasty, in addition to the material taken from the ch'u-hua'~ t~ (criticisms on ch'u), and from recent works on the history of ch'u, together with the bibliographies of modern private and public collections, I have arrived to an extremely tentative conclusion that 144 playwrights were at work and produced 484 plays (19 of which are anonymous). Now there are about )00 plays extant, but since they are scattered allover the world, among public and private libraries, a first-hand examination has its
Then I proceed to study the general conditions of the dramatists, and find that these 144 writers, living in 14 different provinces, were all socially and academically 'respectable' and respected. This is quite different from the conditions in the Yuan Dynasty when many of the dramatists came from the middle and lower classes. In the case of the Ch'ing dr~atists, nearly all belonged to the gentry, some
of' them were chin-shih ~ ..}. and others were chu-.ien # /"-.
and chien-sheng ~~. Most of them were well-educated, being famous scholars, poets, advocates of ku-wen t 3t or p'ien wen\~ ~of the age. Plays were written as a kind
of' literary exercise, and an outlet for one's personal grievances, regardless of their suitability for the stage
or musical accompaniment. Some of' the plays were even like autobiographies and often impossible to stage. In such a
case, we find that many 01' the Ch'ing tsa-chu can only be read not acted.
I have also attempted to detect the differences between Ch'ing tsa-chu and those of Yuan and Ming in their basic structure. Having read many of the plays written in these three periods, I find that the structure of tsa-chu has undergone a metamorphosis in the Ming period, and the structural chenge was slight, if any, in the Ch'ing Dynasty, so generally speaking, the Clting tsa-chi.i simply inherited what was handed on from the Ming Dynasty. We can see that the number of acts in the Ching tsa-chu is not so limited as the Yuan drama which is restricted to its four ~ 1~ ('act') formula, the chia-men )~r~ originally used in chuanch'i is adopted, and the t' i-rou ch@ng-ming ~ 'eJ if:. ~ is placed before the play. Also there is scarcely any dissimilarity between the C~ing tsa-chu and the ~ tsa-chu ,t] 1ft Jj wri tten in the Bing period.
In my opinion, the greatest difference between Ch'ing tsa-chu and those of the yrran and Hing rests in the choice of material and its presentation. The Ching tsa-chu, especially those written in the nineteenth century, is marked by a certain high-seriousness in the attitude of the writers. They never failed to aim at subtlety and exactness, or strive at transcending the mundane and escaping the unrefined. After making detailed study of over 200 plays of the period, I find that the subject matter of the tsa-chU, for the wast part, was taken from historical writings, collections of miscellaneous incidents, old and modern tsa-chu, chuan-ch' i, fiction and vUeh-fu poer;Js~ it. Events with topical relevance such as the much praised
administration of some virtuous men were a~so brought under the brush. Of course, there are plays that are pure~y fictional in which case romantic love is a favourite theme.
Roughly speaking, the stories can be class~fied into six categories. Some are written about the c~ash between good and evil, or the relationship between the emperor and his ministers. Some are concerned with contemporary ~ife and a cross-section of society is
set before our eyes, with a poignant exploration of
the ethical complexity that exists between father and so~n, brothers and sisters ,husband and wife. But plays about the glamour at court or the quiet contentment of seclusion form a ma~ority in Ch'ing ~a-chu. For many of the writers were men bestowed with rare gifts but destined to suffer frustration in the official careers, so they had to give vent to their untold bitterness and their acute awareness of injustice in the songs. They either' turned to the achievements of the ancients as a source of consolation; or indulged in the age-long sorrows of unfortunate men just to voice their own unhappiness. Or further still, they might singl.e out several historical models of sublime optimism as a means of self-emancipation. As a result, two types of plays:. 'The successful courtier' and 'The Taoist recluse' were produced, and their very existence represents the true outlook and spirit of Ch'ing tsa~chu. The fifth type
is the highly romantic tales which disclose the inter~ esting affairs of vari.ous gre at writers of the past ~ Finally, deeds of chivalrous knight-errants, or generous bandits, and Budhist and Taoist tales tinged with the supernatural and the marvellous are also a source of inspiration. The former occupies a
comparatively small portion, but the latter was wellreceived and its popularity with the Ch'ing audience indicates the technical development of the stage and the ever-improving organization of the theatre. All in all, Ch'ing tsa-chu is certainly a product of the literati, a vehicle for lyricism, no matter what subject matter is favoured. This is a point I would
like to emphasize.
Judged from the craftsmanship and the pervading spirit manifested in Ch'ing drama, the tsa-chu has undergone three stages of development: the early,the middle, and the late periods. The first period begins with t-he reign of Emperor Shun Chih \l~ '* (A.D. 16441661) and pr6e:e~d8 right on to the reigns of Emperors
>- . ,
K' ang Hsi lit )~,~ (A.D. 1662-1722) and Yung Ch:eng 9i ?..
(A.D. 1723-1735). During this stretch of about ninety years, the stage was not a place of desolation. There were at least 49 artists devoted to the writing of tsa-chu. They lived from the Ming to the Ch'ing dynasty, so most of the plays bear the influence of
the Literary Revival originated-in Late Ming. Though
the form is not exactly modelled after Yuan drama,
the skeleton still follows closely the earlier mode. Dominating figures include Wu Wei-yeh ~ ~ ~ (A.b. 1609-1671), Yu T'ung YG ~~ (A.D. 1618-1704), Hsu Shihch I i ~#: ;G JUt (early seventeenth century, exact date
not known), K' ung Shang-j~n:1L \~ ~-:i (A.D. 1648-1708), and Hung Sheng :)Jt: .it (A.D. 1659-1704). viu '\tlei-yeh was the genius of his age, whose fame rests on his inimitable style. His plays are of high literary value. But the plots are uninteresting and the construction unimpressive, and can be regarded as dramatically unsuccessful. His fai~ure is pa.rtly attributable to the general
standard of Ch'ing .i:,?.?--chU.
Wu's contemporary, Yu T'ung, was a famous tz'u
poet and dramatist. After making detailed investigation into his plays, I find that his melodies are unrestrained and charged with vigour, while his style is condensed
and coolly beautiful which savours strongly the taste
of Yuan drama. His plays are meticulously arranged with intricate plots, strokes of astounding creativity can
be encountered here and there, and the denouement is never predictable. These elements certainly help to explain why his works are so often extolled.
Besides Wu and Yu, other major figures as Hsu Shihchli, Klung Shang-jen and Hung Sheng also produced plays of high standard, and I have made detailed discussion about them in my thesis. Before moving on to the writers of the second period, I have to say something about the minor playwrights of the early period, as
they have often been neglected. I find in their plays the display of a strong sense of social consciousness
and a reflection of the inner feelings of the playwrights. For among the composers of tsa-chu of this age, there
are 'survivals' and patriots of the previous dynasty
who were forced to seek seclusion, they had resorted to mourn over the~r beloved country in words of tears.
Their grief over?ows their writings, and their plays
are deeply-moving outbursts of the oppressed people.
I would like to stress on the point that these writers did not write to entertain the audience, but were urged by the compulsion to make known their overwhelming emotions, the bitterness shared by so many of their fellow-sufferers. Therefore, the approach is essentially that of a poet, and the dramatic structure is somewhat neglected. And this particular type of plays
is far removed from the exquisite and melliflouous style of later products.
The second stage lasts through the reigns of Emperors Ch'ien Lung ~t ~ (A.D. 1736-1795) and Chia Ching i ~ (A.D .?1796-1820), a period of about 80 years, when there was general prosperity and this period is commonly known as 'Ch I ien-chia sheng"" shih ' ~i J~ J~ -tJt" ? The tsa-chu written in this age does not possess the ruggedness and robustness that mark the earlier works. The content admits infinite variety, and fantastic stories were written and presented in an elaborate
style which is more mannered and terse than the works
of the early period. Also, there a~e innovations in
the metric. Ch'ing tsa-chu, at this stage, is moving farther and farther away from their Yuan originals.
Out of the 25 w-ri.:ters in :this, period, I have discussed about 10 of them in the thesis, through whose works we
are able to draw a general outlook of the tsa-chu
written in this period. Chiang Shih-ch"uan Yrf --:l- ,~ (A.D. 1725-1784) and Yang Ch' ao-kiian #; ;#JI 1M> (A.D.17121791) are the dominating figures. In style, Chiang is
an imitator of the famous dramatist in the Ming Dynasty, T'ang Hsien-ts'u ~ $i i1L(A.D. 1550-1617), but he succeeds in toeing the line and following closely the metrical rules which is a rare attribute in the followers
of the T'ang school of writing ch'u.
Out of poor
material, he is able to produce something enriched with allusions and delicately woven. I have made much effort in studying his plays and come to a conclusion that Chiang's influence on his contemporaries and successors is more than a matter of style, his
conviction about the didactic function of literature opens a new trend for his imitators.
In my thesis I have also discussed in details the works.of Yang Ch'ao-kuan. His plays are not the outcome of fits of inspiration, but have a deeper meaning beneath the surface eloquence. The Yin-feng-ko tsa-chU '* ?Jt] ~ j~ ' as his plays are called, reflect to a considerable degree the burden of the poor of' which the writer is a witness. Also, the devouring officials are attacked, while temperance and righteousness are exalted in his tsa-chu ? The satirical power enforces the central ideas of the plays. Technically speaking, Yang's plays caru justly plume itself on its achievement, and they stand on the pinnacle of the composition of tuan-chu. The pin-pai ~ Ia (, spoken verses') are direct and fluent, laden with verbal wit. The 'arias' are graceful and refreshing with high poetic value. Whether it be performed on the stage or read in the study, they are likely to give satisfaction.
Apart from Chiang and Yang, there are others like Kuei Fu M :tt (A.D. 1736-1805), T' ang TingA Jj (died A.D. 1755, birth date not known), K'ung Kuang-lin JLJi :ff-, Wu Hao J.. ~, and Ch' en Tung f;f At (the above 3 flourished in the early nineteenth century, exact dates not lrJlown). Their works are main1y products of' selfexpression, often highly polished stories of the
literati in history.
The third and last period covers the reigns of' Emperors Tao Kuang.!.;}t (A.D. 1821-1850), Bsien Feng ~' ~ (A.D. 1851-1861), T'ung Chih}..~ ~ (A.D. 18621874), Kuang Hsu1., #Ji(A.D. 1875-1908) and HsUan T'ung
J]:. ~ (A~D. 1909 .... 1911). In this period, Ch'ingtsa __ chii began to deteriorate while hua .... pu (local theatres) was flourishing. In my thesis I have attempted to give a general description of the writers and plays produced
in this period when ~a-chu was breathing its last. I have made special emphasis on Huang Hsieh-ch' ing 1i! j~ ~ (mid-nineteenth century, exact date not known)whois regarded as the most brilliant writer after Chiang Shihch'uan of the eighteenth century. His plays, possessing a clarity of style, conciseness of expression and superb diction, serve to illustrate the characteristics of the tsa-chu produced at this stage. His verses are arresting enough, but the arrangement and the setting are unattractive, and the plot is too conventional to be interesting. This defect is extremely common in the plays of' this period, many of them can only be read but not suitable for performance. The works of Yen T'ingchung 1.>t:. Jt t (late nineteenth century, exact date not known), Liang T'ing-nan -* .Jt ~ (A.D. 1796-1861) ,Chang Sh~ng-chieh 4: :!5t ,111 (A.D. 1803-1848), and HSll Ao 1~':~p (late nineteenth century, exact date not known) are like this, for the interest of the writers is in the versification, not the structure. A brief account of these writers is given in the thesis.
Besides paying attention to those traditional writers who endeavoured to prop up the collapsing
genre, I have also spent much time in studying and discussing the group of 'angry' writers who appeared during the reigns of Emperors Kuang Hsu and Hsuan T'urtg. The reason why I would like to emphasize on the existence of these writers is that their plays reflect to a great extent the political and social delineation of the
las t days of the Hanchu regime ? In. the writings of
YUan Yin ~ f~ ' P' ang Shu-pai)[i, -t~i #<3 , Chiang Chinghsien :,flr -Jt ~~ , Juan Meng-t I ao 0t ,1j ;t:rg, , Lu En-hsu ~~" Av' , and vfang Yuan-chang .:t ,~~ (they all lived in the early twentieth century, exact dates not known), the characters are no longer frustrated artists, but men bent on laying bare their feverish love for their country and their nationalistic consciousness, while diction and rhythm were neglected, and foreign words were introduced into the songs. The plays are martial and imposing, in which heroic deeds rising to epic magnitude that happened in Sung and Ning dynasties were dramatised. Strictly speaking, their works did not attain high literary value, their importance lies in the fact that they present a different approach in the writing of tsa-chu, and a detailed study of the writers and the plays in the last twenty years of Ch'ing Dynasty would be a worthwhile task. But the difficulty in collecting primary materials has hindered me to delve deeper and all I could give is a brief account of the characteristics and ideas as reflected from the works
of this period.
In general, my thesis is an attempt to give a general view of the .:t~a-.?1u in the Ch I ing Dynasty, and to study the lives and thoughts of the writers in this period. Owing to the difficulty in obtaining the ~~ chu manuscripts, not all the writers are dealt with in the thesis, but I have tried with the greatest effort
to give an account of most of the important playwrights of this age. By writing such a thesis on this topic so o?en been neglected, I hope that it will help to arouse the interest of research scholars on the study of Ch ',ing tsa-chu and to estimate,in a more justified way, their
School:The University of Hong Kong
School Location:China - Hong Kong SAR
Source Type:Master's Thesis
Keywords:chinese literature history and criticism drama
Date of Publication:01/01/1971