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the complete review - drama
The Peach Blossom Fan
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- Chinese title: 桃花扇
- Translated by Chen Shih-hsiang and Harold Acton with the collaboration of Cyril Birch
- With a Preface by Harold Acton
- With an Introduction by Cyril Birch
- The 2015 New York Review Books re-issue includes a New Introduction by Judith T. Zeitlin
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B+ : very wide-ranging, but good entertainment
See our review for fuller assessment.
|J. of Asian Studies
From the Reviews:
- "This emphasis on historical accuracy is typical of K'ung Shang-jen, who must be the only Chinese playwright ever to furnish his play with a bibliography. True, his definition of historical accuracy seems to have been an elastic one (.....) But apart from these theatrical distortions and exaggerations, it remains true that, for a dramatist, K'ung Shang-jen is accurate and remarkably well-informed. (...) If this labour of love does not entirely avoid moments of unintended flatness or comicality, that is no fault of the translators but of the pantomime-like style of the original. The reader who bears constantly in mind that he is reading an operatic libretto will, I think, find this a moving and revelatory work." - David Hawkes, Times Literary Supplement
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The Peach Blossom Fan is a massive, two-part drama, over three hundred pages in this translation, with forty scenes as well as two Prologues and an Epilogue; as Cyril Birch notes in his Introduction, 'southern plays' of this kind were often performed over several days, and the two-part division of this one even acknowledges that at least two days were necessary for this one.
Completed in 1699, it looks back at relatively recent historic events, the bulk of the action taking place between 1643 and 1645 (with the Epilogue then a postscript set in 1648) as the play chronicles the collapse of the Ming Empire and some of the power-struggles of the time: "The rise and fall of an empire are evoked in a story of meeting and separation", the Master of Ceremonies sums up in the Prologue.
Practically all the characters in the play are real and include many of the generals involved, as well as Emperor Hung-kuang (Zhu Yousong; 1607-1646).
So also the lovers Hou Fang-yü and 'Fragrant Princess' Li Hsiang-chün (Li Xiangjun) were real figures, as was the story's (main) villain, Juan Ta-ch'eng (Ruan Dacheng, 1587-1646), a noted dramatist of his time.
[The New York Review Books edition (2015) is a reprint of the 1976 University of California Press original, and preserves the Wade-Giles romanization of the Chinese of that edition -- beginning with the playwright's name as K'ung Shang-jen.
Current practice is, of course, to use pinyin, and the Wade-Giles-usage gives this edition a slightly musty feel, but, beyond the temptation to read/pronounce 'Juan' as in the Spanish (when, as the pinyin suggests, the pronunciation is in fact closer to 'Ruan') it shouldn't really affect the reading of the play too much.]
When the play begins the country is basically besieged from all sides, and crumbling: already: "The fate of the dynasty is sealed".
The action begins with Hou Fang-yü, the son of a government minister; he is a young scholar with: "brilliant prospects as well as literary genius".
Yang Wen-ts'ung (Yang Wencong), a well-connected artist and retired magistrate thinks he'd be the ideal man for young Li Hsiang-chün, now sixteen and having blossomed into: "the greatest beauty in the land".
Though her foster mother, Li Chen-li, is the: "hostess of an elegant house of pleasure", Li Hsiang-chün -- now given the name Fragrant Princess -- is still a pure innocent.
She and Hou Fang-yü are brought together and hit it off -- but there's one problem: as Hou explains, he can't afford the expected trousseau: "I'm short of ready cash. I'm afraid I couldn't make a suitable offer".
Yang offers to help out, providing the necessary funds -- though in fact they're not his, but rather come from Juan Ta-ch'eng, who seeks to ingratiate himself with Hou and get his support.
Juan's reputation precedes him -- and it is not a good one.
Sure, he's: "a distinguished Doctor of Literature, descended from a famous family", but he's widely reviled as a traitor; his: "crimes are heavy and solid as lead".
He needs help restoring his reputation -- and the plan is to win over Hou to help make the case for him.
When Hou learns who the money is from he's not disinclined to accept it and maybe try to help Juan out -- but Fragrant Princess is outraged by the thought of any leniency towards the traitor, and her righteous stance convinces Hou as well.
Fragrant Princess must do without the jewels the money has bought -- casting them aside in disgust -- but the two lovers are happy enough just with each other.
Juan, however, is vengeful, and soon later sees to it that Hou is threatened with arrest, leading Hou to decide it would be better to hide out and lay low for a while, separating him from Fragrant Princess.
Fragrant Princess carries with her the peach blossom fan of the title, inscribed with a poem by Hou as his pledge; it is: "the tangible token of our vow".
In the increasingly turbulent times, the lovers long remain separated, but the fan eventually comes into Hou's hands again -- bloodied by marks from Fragrant Princess, which Yang has transformed into a painting.
The lovers remain true to each other all the while, too -- even as Yang tries to act as matchmaker for Fragrant Princess again.
She won't let herself be forced into marriage with a relative of the Prime Minister, T'ien Yang, however, and avoids this fate by her mother taking her place.
Meanwhile, she long remains cut off from the outside world -- and Hou.
Opportunistic Juan seizes the opportunities that present themselves when Emperor Ch'ung-chen (the Chongzhen Emperor) commits suicide, hitching his horses to the faction supporting Prince Fu for the succession.
As Emperor Hung-kuang the prince does assume power, and while Juan starts in lowly position he knows he'll quickly be able to maneuver himself into a powerful position.
He feels no shame about briefly losing his official rank -- "Others may mock, but I need feel no shame" -- and, indeed, he makes his way up the ranks soon enough, and is soon ensconced in the Inner Court.
The center will not hold, however, and Hung-kuang's reign is an ill-fated one; soon enough he doesn't care about upholding the long tradition and preserving the nation, admitting: "My sole concern at present is for my personal safety. I have no desire to continue as Emperor".
The generals struggle against the many forces attacking the country, but they are overwhelmed -- a situation leading one to moan: "I have wept until my tears are of blood".
It is in this chaos that Hou and Fragrant Princess are finally reünited -- but here the now-Taoist priest Chang Wei tears their precious peach blossom fan from their hands and berates them for defiling the sacred grounds they are on as: "Two piteous passion-clinging bugs !"
The apparent happy end, of the two long separated lovers finding each other again, is only fleeting: they see the wisdom of the Taoist's ways and choose to follow similar paths, each going their own way.
Talk about anticlimactic -- or rather anti-romantic-- conclusions: Fragrant Princess' parting words are:
All is illusion; I know not that man before me.
As to the fan, Chang shreds it -- and with it any: "Dreams of revival".
The Peach Blossom Fan is a busy play in which the romance between Hou and Fragrant Princess plays only a small part -- though their separation is well-used in some of the other strands of the play, as they must deal with others pursuing their own interests and agendas.
For all the overlap, however, the story -- or rather stories -- don't unfold entirely neatly; the huge, far-flung cast of characters, and their different actions and interests, often proceed in different directions.
Still, the quick sequence of scenes, and several threads -- notably Hou and Fragrant Princess, and the question of whether they will ever find each other again, as well as the machinations of Juan -- are drawn strongly enough through the entire play to readily pull readers along.
The action does range far and wide, following power-struggles, plots, and attempts to deal with enemies, as well as scenes of less dramatic encounter and conversation; despite the fact that the empire is being pulled apart and in turmoil, the focus is often on smaller-scale events and turns (though these often have the potential of having outsized consequences).
It is a very colorful drama -- complete with beheading and quite a few suicides, and dramatic scenes of, for example, a boat being rowed through stormiest weather.
An appealing aspect is the presence of so many characters with an interest in literature, from the many scholars to Nanking bookseller Ts'ai Yi-so (whose one worry in the on-going power struggles is: "To avoid any book-burning First Emperor of Ch'in").
Even the otherwise unpleasant Juan is an enthusiastic littérateur, and his rise in the ranks is helped by his talents, as: "Luckily the Emperor has a passion for literature".
If most of his conniving harms others, he still genuinely puts in an effort to present his plays as well as is possible.
(Early on already he wondered: "What have politics to do with art ?" and he genuinely seems to try to separate the two, but his (im)politics -- separate from his art -- inevitably sink him.)
Meant to be performed, The Peach Blossom Fan obviously comes across very differently in written form.
In some ways it is (much) more manageable as such, given its great length; sitting through a staged version would certainly be taxing.
As Cyril Birch notes in his Introduction, 'southern plays' like this one used no sets, so the written text does not differ that much from the staged version in leaving much to the imagination (prodded by the: "scenic description (vicarious stage-setting) in dialogue and songs").
Missing, also, when read, is the presentation of so much of the dialogue in song -- obviously a major factor in performance, but coming across quite differently (as just text) when read.
(And song is very important -- they practically all are constantly breaking out into it at some (or many ...) points -- and it occasionally even plays a role in the action, as when one character insists on singing annoyingly late into the night in order to attract attention that he otherwise couldn't.)
If not exactly lyrical, the translation manages the balancing act between the poetic and more straightforward dialogue reasonably well.
Bits are stilted and awkward -- "A riot is likely to break out at any minute. Please come down and tranquilize the people" is perhaps not quite the right expression -- but for the most part the language seems to give a good impression of what is after all a seventeenth-century play.
Fragrant Princess' strong conviction and refusal to compromise make her an appealing figure that K'ung uses well, and she and Juan are the stand-out figures in the play.
If Juan is presented in comic excess, he nevertheless is a striking, fascinating character, and far from a simple villain.
He is reprehensible -- but at least in surprising variety of ways.
Too over the top for readers to sympathize with him, he's nevertheless good fun to follow.
(And, no worries: he gets his in the end, too.)
If The Peach Blossom Fan is arguably overflowing with action and characters, it's almost surprisingly approachable, and while not the most straightforward of stories it's not really hard to follow.
It is considerably more than just the story of two separated lovers -- and, yes, there's almost too much to it -- but K'ung's scenes and action are for the most part gripping and engaging.
It might be a bit hard to sit through in performance -- though the musical element, missing from the printed version, would certainly add to the experience -- but it's a solid and entertaining read.
- M.A.Orthofer, 20 September 2020
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The Peach Blossom Fan:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Chinese scholar Kong Shangren (孔尚任; K'ung Shang-jen) lived 1646 to 1718.
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