Tang Xianzu and His “Four Dreams”
Tang Xianzu (汤显祖)was the greatest dramatist of his time. The “Four Dreams” are the most influential Chuanqi created by him, among which the most outstanding one is “The Peony Pavilion” (牡丹亭).
Tang Xianzu, a Linchuan native, was born into a family of literati. However, he experienced a lot twists and turns in his official career since he could not subject himself to the restraints of power. He resigned and returned to his hometown in 1598 when he was 49. Being in touch with advanced notions, Tang showed a clear tendency toward democratic ideas and anti-feudalism. He had distinguished himself with his talent in creating poems and prose when he was young. He spent most of his later years creating dramas. His achievement in drama had exceeded that in poem and prose, and was thus recognized primarily as a dramatist by the later generations. His representative works which came down from ancient times to today are four legends, namely, “Legend of the Purple Hair Pin” (紫钗记), “The Peony Pavilion” (牡丹亭), “Dream of Nanke” (南柯记), and “Dream of Handan” (邯郸记), and they are called “Four Dreams” (四梦) collectively. “The Peony Pavilion” is the most renowned one, attaining an extremely high level in terms of its theme and its artistic value.
The writer endeavored to show in his work “The Peony Pavilion” the meaning and vitality of love, reflecting the writer’s audacity of fighting against the feudalist rites and conventions and of disclosing the darkness inside the officialdom. Du Liniang, a daughter of the governor of Nan’an Province in the Southern Song Dynasty, is the heroine of the play. It tells the story of death and life experienced by Du Liniang on her road of pursuing true love and ideal life. Du is a character bearing conflicting qualities. She was born to an official family and is thus influenced and suppressed by feudalist rites and conventions on the one hand, and is a young lady devoted to “true love” and seeking fervently the free new life on the other hand. The image of Du is attached with profound implications and emanates irresistible glamour. Setting “true love” as the subject, the writer created a dreamland in which the dead and the living are interchangeable governed by the power of true love. The reality and the dreamland become interdependent and interactive with the dramatic scenes and romantic environment properly depicted in the play. By putting much of his ink on the true love, Tang expressively criticized the “ethics” held by the feudal society. It speaks out boldly for the young people in the feudal society who were strongly longing for the emancipation of characters and freedom in pursuing love and marriage. This is exactly why the play “The Peony Pavilion” is so outstanding.
“Legend of the Purple Hair Pin” was rewritten by the writer on the basis of one of his early works. “True love” is again the subject of this play. It tells a surprising and intricate romance of a pair of lovers. “Dream of Nanke” and “Dream of Handan” are both the works created by the writer in his later years, and are usually referred to as “the two dreams”. Throughout these two plays the writer expressed his denial of the ideal of democratic politics and the reality. A strong tendency of Taoism can be sensed from the two plays. Keeping his ground of taking true love as his major subject, the writer went a step further to criticize the affectation that leads to the degradation of human beings. The style of his plays in this period changed in a certain degree and became more poignant in its criticism of society.
source: Chinese Kunqu Opera, published by Long River Press