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Top Graduate Zhang Xie
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B+ : solid theater and good fun, and with a clever (if far-fetched) resolution
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
Top Graduate Zhang Xie is, as the subtitle explains, 'The Earliest Extant Chinese Southern Play' -- i.e. the oldest known example of the nanxi (南戲) tradition.
Nanxi dates back to ca. the twelfth century, and Top Graduate Zhang Xie appears to be an early example, but in the version that has been passed down here probably dates to around the fifteenth century.
Top Graduate seems to come out of nowhere -- a giant leap of sophistication for early Chinese theater.In fact, only a very small number of the many nanxi texts survive -- a mere twenty, according to the Encyclopædia Britannica (as well as 283 titles). As Llamas notes, "the theme of the ungrateful scholar play" was among the most popular among them, and Top Graduate Zhang Xie would seem to be not only the first but also the prime example of it. (Gao Ming's The Lute is another variation on the theme.)
The play is, as Llamas explains: "the work of a collective author, the Nine Mountain Society [九山書會], a writing society first mentioned in a thirteenth-century memoir". As is noted in one of the introductory scenes:
The Nine Mountain SocietyAnd:
If you, illustrious gentlemen who crowd our halls,The Yongle version was not divided into acts, nor was the script size adjusted to differentiate between singing parts and spoken ones; this translation does, however, follow a modern edition that divides the play into (53) acts, as well as noting which parts are sung. (There is also a useful 'Synopsis of Acts'-appendix, concisely summing up the action in each act, though in fact the action is easy to follow.)
In her Introduction, Llamas explains the use of 'roles' in Chinese drama quite well, and a dramatis personæ gives an overview of which parts and characters correspond to which roles; while of some interest, readers who can't be bothered can readily enjoy the play without concerning themselves too much with the details of the 'roles'-concept. (As Llamas acknowledges: "we do not know if and how the main male and female roles utilized a specific manner of singing, employed a set group of gestures, or were costumed in a codified manner that would be widely understood by the audience".) Similarly, the obviously important musical element -- much here is sung -- can, in its essence, only be guessed at, as, as Llamas notes: "these texts reveal nothing of the aural nature of the song, rendering a reconstruction of what the music actually sounded like with any precision impossible".
Despite so many open technical questions -- as there are also about classical Greek drama --, Top Graduate Zhang Xie is familiar enough in its basic form, presentation, and story to make for what we readily recognize as a play, and can be simply enjoyed as such. (The technical details, from the function of the 'roles' in Chinese drama to what the music might have sounded like, obviously do add to appreciation of the work, but are not essential.)
The story is a simple one. The main male character is the Zhang Xie of the title, who since childhood has focused only on his studies with the full support of his family, who never asked him to help with the farming. ("Truly, he has been thoroughly been spoiled !" is the way this is interpreted.) When he is eighteen, the imperial exams -- held every couple of years -- are held, and he heads for the capital to take them. Zhang Xie is ambitious and driven -- he has his eyes only on the prize. Success at the exams would mean an important government position, professional success of the highest order -- and Zhang Xie can imagine only complete success: to come in first in the exams and be the 'top graduate', earning him fame throughout the country.
Barely has he left home, however, before Zhang Xie is beaten up and robbed of everything he has, even his clothes. He is saved and nursed back to health by Poorlass, a girl who has already been enduring misery much longer:
I comePoorlass barely gets by, though locals Grandma and Grandpa Li are supportive where they can be. Still, she has lived on her own for years now, and struggles to make ends meet; it's not much of a life:
This village is isolated and forlorn,A recuperating Zhang Xie, kept from his one great ambition, isn't too thrilled about being stuck there either:
I feel lonely and desolate;Finally, he is well enough to head on -- but before he does, he proposes to Poorlass, promising to come back for her after he passes his exams and then take her to his hometown -- "Wouldn't that be wonderful !" he says. Poorlass has her doubts about the propriety of his proposition but eventually agrees. They get married, and Zhang Xie heads off to the capital, leaving her behind.
Meanwhile, in the capital, a leading government official, the Military Affairs Commissioner at court, Wang Deyong, has a daughter, Shenghua, who has just become of marriageable age. Lady Wang is eager to find the perfect match for her -- and is convinced only the top graduate in the coming exams will do .....
Zhang Xie, of course, place first in the imperial exams, bringing him to the attention of the Wangs. He, however, has other ideas, focused entirely on his career. Already before he even sat for the exams he had soured on Poorlass:
Recently I was forced to marry Poorlass,(He chooses to overlook the fact that he was the one who proposed to Poorlass and pushed for the marriage, and promised to return to her; much later, he explains to her: "I married you without thinking".)
When he has become top graduate and the Wangs want to foist Shenghua on him he doesn't use Poorlass as an excuse -- indeed, he claims: "I have no wife" -- but also turns the offer of a union with this illustrious family down. As he bluntly puts it: "I am not looking for a wife, just for fame". (He does, however, also trot out the excuse that his foremost duty is to return home to inform his parents of his success.)
Shenghua does not take rejection well:
Medicine to her is like water splashed on the stones, like hot liquid sprinkled on snow. She seems ill, and yet it seems not like an illness, as if she were drunk or crazed. She heaves long sighs, her tears fall continuously, and she does not eat or sleep.Meanwhile, Poorlass, disappointed that she has heard nothing from her husband for so long, eventually ventures to the capital. She even finds and confronts him -- but Zhang Xie wants nothing more to do with her:
Your appearance is squalid, your family poor, and people look down on you. You know nothing of sacrificial rites. How could we be a compatible couple ? Now I am rich and noble, and you are still called Poorlass. How dare you come and harass me, calling yourself my wife !Zhang Xie gets appointed to an official post, in Zizhou -- passing through Poorlass' village on his way there. It comes to another, even worse, confrontation between husband and wife, and Zhang Xie moves on. Meanwhile, however, Wang Deyong has taken the rejection of his daughter and how she handled that very, very badly, vowing revenge on Zhang Xie -- and going so far as to get himself appointed to a post in Zizhou, to make the top scholar's life hell. On their way to Zizhou, the Wangs run across Poorlass (though without making the connection to Zhang Xie). A semi-sympathetic Wang Deyong suggests she join them -- "Miss, you are so lonely here. Why don't you follow us to my post and take care of our latrines ?" -- but Lady Wang is more taken by her (not least because of her striking resemblance to Shenghua ...) and insists they adopt her as their daughter.
Zhang Xie isn't exactly contrite when faced with Wang Deyong's obstructionism in Zizhou, but he is willing to do whatever needs be done to get in the powerful lord's good graces, allowing for the ingenious resolution to the whole play.
It's a happy end, of sorts -- the world set right -- though a bit odd as a romance. Zhang Xie's behavior, in particular, would seem to make it hard for the audience to root for him, his treatment of the women who might or do fill the surely important role in his life of wife beyond just cold and calculating. (Among other things: he arguably kills one of them -- and does his best to kill the other.)
Zhang Xie is no traditional sort of hero, romantic or otherwise. His sense of duty is only in some ways admirable -- specifically, his dedication to making something of himself --, but especially in familial regards he falls horribly short. Even the sense of obligation to his parents that he claims isn't particularly convincing, as he doesn't go much out of his way to include them in his success. Basically, he is just looking out for number one (and feeling sorry for himself when things don't go exactly his way) -- though not always doing so in the most sensible fashion; certainly, he could have tried to be more diplomatic in his rejection of Shenghua (especially since he actually had the perfect excuse: he was already married).
Supporting this main part of the story, Top Graduate Zhang Xie actually offers a great deal of comedy, with many scenes played up for their humor. The tragic element -- almost entirely in the persons of Poorlass and Shenghua -- is certainly played up, but again and again there is comic relief, quite a bit of which is quite funny.
A (very) long play by contemporary Western theater standards, the work obviously allowed for pick-and-choose performances, selected scenes rather than every last one; with the main action/story a very simple and straightforward one, it's easy to re-shape the play depending on one's preferences (more humor; more tragedy, etc.).
Regina S. Llamas' translation reads well, and Top Graduate Zhang Xie is a consistently entertaining play. While it is perhaps literary-historically significant that it is the: 'Earliest Extant Chinese Southern Play' it also happens to be good. Aspects of it remain somewhat baffling -- Zhang Xie is an odd character, and some of his behavior near-unfathomable -- and the significant musical/song element remains largely elusive for contemporary readers, but it's a play that easily holds it own as part of the global canon. This edition -- with its lengthy, thorough Introduction -- is a fine introduction to Chinese drama for those new to it.
- M.A.Orthofer, 6 June 2021
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Top Graduate Zhang Xie is the work of a collective author, the 'Nine Mountain Society' (九山書會).
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© 2021-2022 the complete review