Tong Xianzu and “The Four Dreams of Linchuan”


Tang Xianzu (1550–1616) was an outstanding playwright, literatus, and thinker of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). He is honored today as “the Shakespeare of the East.” His oeuvre includes four complete plays: Zichai ji (Purple hairpin), Mudan ting (Peony pavilion), Nanke ji (Record of southern bough), and Handan ji (Record of Handan), each of which features a dream in its plot. Together they are referred to as the “Linchuan simeng,” or "The four dreams of Linchuan," as Tang’s hometown was Linchuan, in modern Jiangxi province.


Tang Xianzu lived during the middle and late Ming dynasty. The emergence of a capitalist mode of production at this time challenged earlier orthodoxy of Lixue (also known as Neo-Confucianism), stimulating various responses, among them the philosophy of Wang Yangming (1479–1529) and those who developed and expanded his ideas such as Wang Gen (1483–1541), the founder of the Taizhou school, named after his home region. Tang Xianzu was especially influenced by Luo Rufang (1515–1588), a disciple of a disciple of Wang Gen, who advocated theories of the “innocent heart of a child” and “suppressing desires is not experiencing benevolence.” This belief in intrinsic from birth benevolence and virtue affected Tang Xianzu’s choice of lifestyle. It also stimulated him to self-reflect on life. Eventually Tang Xianzu came to formulate a “theory of emotion,” which unified his concepts of life, literature, and politics.   


At the core of Tang Xianzu’s philosophy is his focus on qing (emotion) as it is described in his famous “theory of utmost emotion.” This defines emotion as an objective law, which is the opposite of the doctrines of traditional neo-Confucianism of feudalism.


The essence of Tang’s literary view is “expressing emotion.” “Valuing authenticity” is one of the aesthetic principles that Tang Xianzu advocated and it is key to expressing emotion. Emotions expressed or reflected in literary works must be authentic or they will not move the audience or reader. Writers should thus use “authentic words.” Other aesthetic principles emphasized by Tang are “natural disposition” and “adaption to the circumstance,” which along with “valuing authenticity,” are the main principles of his literary practice, and among the primary reasons for his literary success. 


The plays comprising Tang Xianzu’s “Linchuan simeng” are a unified body of work, however expressing the author’s thoughts and literary views from four different angles of setting and time-frame as well as his own development.


Zichai ji retains the realistic spirit of the Tang dynasty story “Huo Xiaoyu zhuan” (Story of Huo Xiaoyu) by Jiang Fang (fl. 785) on which it is based but to this are added ingredients derived from Tang Xianzu’s “theory of utmost emotion”—an attack on feudal grandees and a eulogizing of ideal love. Mudan ting expresses Tang Xianzu’s “theory of utmost emotion” through its heroine, Du Liniang who dies for love and then comes back to life because of love. It also shows the author’s idea of drama: emotion makes a dream and a dream makes a play. Nanke ji and Handan ji were written later after Tang Xianzu had retreated from official life. Disappointed with that life, Tang sought relief in the nihilistic ideas of Buddhism and Daoism and this is reflected in these two plays whose focus is less on love and more on dream and illusion.


The "four dreams of Linchuan,” especially Mudan ting, not only have had a profound impact in China but also have been internationally influential. As early as the seventeenth century, Mudan ting was already circulating overseas and has remained world-famous for more than three hundred years. Since the twentieth century, many foreign language translations have been published one after another and there have been an increasing number of scholars who studied this work.


Tang Xianzu was also an outstanding poet and writer of prose. His poems reveal the darker aspects of late Ming society acting as a mirror of that era. His short poems, which describe nature and express his feelings display features derived from the field and garden poetry of Tao Yuanming (365–427) and also the landscape poetry of Wang Wei (699–759) and Meng Haoran (689/691–740). Many are quite famous. Tang’s poems written in response to those of others are noteworthy for their authentic display of emotion and straightforward statements of feeling. These poems are natural and simple. Their artistic value should not be underestimated.


As for prose, apart from the well-known “Lun fuchen kechen shu” (A memorial on ministers and censors) and “Mudan ting ji tici” (The preface of Peony Pavilion), Tang Xianzu’s most characteristic works are letters that “respond to other people, but are only concerned with his own heart.”

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