Chen Hongshou carved the woodblock print above as a scene for the 1639 edition of The Romance of the West Chamber (Xixiang ji 西厢记), published by Zhang Shenzhi. The 21-act play is based on Yingying's Story, and revisits Zhang and Yingying's romance, though with a happy twist at the end.
This is a Tang story that could almost as easily have been written in the Song. As we discuss, think about the important role that Confucianism plays in the backdrop (a set of ethical norms that would become more pronounced in the Song with the advent of what has become known in the West as “Neo-Confucianism”). This work also foreshadows some of the themes that we will engage with after Thanksgiving break.
“Yingying’s Story” is credited to Yuan Zhen (元稹, 779-831) due to the extended poem in the latter part that is introduced by Stephen Owen, the translator, with the phrase “I, Yuan Zhen of He-nan, completed . . .” (Owen, 547). The first person reference is not present in the original (“河南元稹，亦續生 . . .”), though this may be a reasonable reading at a time when deliberate ambiguity may have served to shield the author from being dismissed for engaging in such a trivial pursuit as short-story writing. It is even possible that this is something of “an autobiographical work” (Owen, 540). Today, Yuan Zhen is remembered for what Victor Mair describes as “perhaps the most celebrated of all classical-language short stories. . . [and] probably the best known of all Chinese love stories” (Mair, 851).
Image: Fan Bingbing portrays Wu Zhao in the television series Empress of China (Wei meiniang chuanqi 武媚娘传奇)