Tang Xianzu,(1368-1644) also known by his courtesy name Yireng (義仍), is one of the most celebrated playwrights in Chinese history. Born in Linchuan, Jiangxi province, Tang lived during the Ming dynasty and served as an official during the reign of the Wanli Emperor. However, it was his masterpieces in playwriting that truly made him famous.
One of his most well-known works is the ‘Peony Pavilion,’ also known as ‘Mudan Ting (牡丹亭).’ This play has been translated into English several times and is regarded as a masterpiece in Chinese literature. In fact, a complete translation of Tang’s dramatic works was published in China in 2014 and in London in 2018.
Despite the vast differences in theatrical traditions between China and England, Tang has been compared to both Shakespeare and Philip Sidney, who both maintained similar methods of writing. Tang’s plays are most noted for their depiction of true feelings, as seen in his four most famous works: ‘Peony Pavilion(牡丹亭),’ ‘Legend of A Purple Hairpin (紫钗记),’ ‘A Dream under the Southern Bough (南柯记),’ and ‘A Dream of Handan (邯郸记).’
Tang also had a major impact on Chinese literary theory. In his work, ‘Epigraph for the Theater God Master Qingyuan in the Yihuang County Temple (宜黄县戏神清源师庙记),’ he touches upon the perception that art is the imitation of nature. However, he transcends the literal meaning of “imitation” and proposes a higher demand for artistic creation.
Tang’s literary theories explore the relationship between the physical world’s form and spirit. He believed that the charm of a painting or play goes beyond superficially physical or textual manifestations. Instead, a dramatist should prioritize the intent and intention of a play, the liveliness of language, spirit, and style.
Tang’s artistic theory owes a debt to the time-honoured Chinese xing shen lun 形神论, or “form-spirit” theory, which touches upon the imitation of nature in artistic creation. In the dialectic balance between physical form形 and spirit 神, Tang believed that pursuing the internal spiritual 神似 resemblance was more important than mimicking the external form形似. In Chinese philosophy, the nonrepresentational and ambiguous spirit is preferred due to the deep-trenched influence of Daoism.
In the Daoism classic, Tao Te Ching道德经, Lao-tzu says that what can be described is not the most worthy thing that people should seek after. Instead, one shall pursue what cannot be named, described nor explained, like the Dao and shen. In Chinese xing shen lun, unreasonable elements in a work are justified as long as the work captures the shen.
名可名, 非常名。道可道, 非常道.”The Dao that can be named is not the real Dao. Dao 道 =“the way,
Tang Xianzu’s legacy as a playwright and literary theorist has had a lasting impact on Chinese culture. His works continue to be celebrated and studied, and his theories on artistic creation remain relevant to this day. Tang’s ability to capture the true essence of human emotion in his plays is what makes him one of the greatest playwrights of all time.