Famous Figures in Chinese Opera and in Chinese History

It is important for us to discern between fact and fiction as many storylines in traditional Chinese opera draw references from historical events. (Photo credit:

Traditional Chinese theatre has a unique designation known as “Xiqu” (戲曲) or “Chinese opera”. The appellation was coined by Tao Zongyi (陶宗儀) during the Yuan dynasty (元代), who stated in his work The Retirement to the Countryside: Yuanben Categories (南村輟耕錄• 院本名目》) that “There were short stories (傳奇, Chuanqi) in the Tang dynasty (唐代) and opera in the Song dynasty (宋代).” Chinese opera is renowned not just for its exquisite language and melodious music, but also for its vivid depiction of historical stories with  complex and captivating plots. Due to its great popularity among the people, Chinese opera has been widely spread and deeply ingrained in their hearts. They thus often mistook the tales told on stage as actual historical events. This topic aims to guide you through the layers of mist and reveal the true face of these historical events.


In The Peregrinations of Confucius (《孔子之周遊列國》) depicts a deep affection and loving relationship between Confucius and his wife Madam Qiguan (亓官氏). Confucius resolved to embark on a journey to the states in search of an enlightened ruler to save the people. He received great support from his wife, regarding his ambition to benefit society. In reality, however, their marriage was not harmonious. Confucius abandoned Madam Qiguan after she gave birth to their children. A year after her death, Confucius scolded their son Kong Li (孔鯉) for his excessive grief when he cried in mourning for his deceased mother.


The Autumn Moon over Han Palace (《漢宮秋》) reshapes the historical narrative of a strong Han dynasty (漢代) and a weak Xiongnu (匈奴) to the opposite. It fabricates a story where Emperor Yuan of Han (漢元帝) was forced to give up his love and send Wang Zhaojun (王昭君) to marry the Xiongnu ruler. Contrary to the opera, rather than a result of forced marriage, Wang’s departure to the frontier was a reward from Emperor Yuan to the vassal Xiongnu.  She volunteered to offer herself to marry the Xiongnu ruler and was not in a romantic relationship with Emperor Yuan.


Many of the characters in The Hongfu’s Story (《紅拂記》) are based on real historical figures, such as Yang Su (楊素), Li Jing (李靖), Li Shimin (李世民), and Liu Wenjing (劉文靜). Their deeds are recorded in historical records. However, the talented but unrecognised scholar Li in the play was indeed from a noble family in reality. As for the two main characters in the opera - Qiuranke (虬髯客, Dragon Beard Man) and Hongfu (紅拂女, Red Tassel Lady) are fictional.


Both The Generals of the Yang Family (《楊家將》) and The Crown Prince Replaced by a Lame Cat (《貍貓换太子》) are set in the Song dynasty (宋代). In The Generals of the Yang Family, the treacherous minister Pan Renmei (潘仁美) plotted and schemed to bring the downfall of Yang Ye (楊業). According to historical accounts, however, the military inspector Wang Shen (王侁) was to bear the main responsibility for Yang’s death. The heroic characters She Taijun (佘太君) and Mu Guiying (穆桂英) are fictional. The Crown Prince Replaced by a Lame Cat is about the political struggles in the Song court. The crown prince in the opera was Zhao Zhen (趙禎), the future Emperor Renzong of Song (宋仁宗), whose birth mother was indeed Consort Li (李妃) in history. However, Empress Liu’s (劉皇后) plot to swap the newborn with a lame cat to frame Consort Li is fictional.


In The Purple Hairpin (《紫釵記》), Li Yi (李益) is depicted as not only eloquent and charming, but was also deeply devoted in love. He was someone who was uninterested in fame and fortune and was deeply in love with Huo Xiaoyu (霍小玉) in the opera. According to historical accounts, however, Li was an overbearing man who imposed strict control over his wife and concubines. The characters Huo, Cui Yunming (崔允明), and Grand Commandant Lu (盧太尉) are fictional.


The comical Tang Bohu Approaches Qiu Xiang (《唐伯虎點秋香》) has always resonated deeply with audiences. While Tang Bohu was indeed a historical figure, he was not as charming and dashing as portrayed in the opera. In reality, he was a disappointed scholar whose life was full of frustrations. Tang’s entry to the House of Hua (華府) and his romantic encounters with Qiuxiang (秋香) are nothing more than a creative fiction. Qiuxiang was 20 years older than Tang, and the two were never romantically involved.


In the opera The Flower Princess (《帝女花》), Empress Zhou (周皇后) and Consort Yuan (袁妃) chose to end their lives for the country voluntarily without any regrets. The Ming dynasty (明代) records, however, showed that it was Emperor Chongzhen (崇禎) who forced them to commit suicide. The opera also depicts a scene that Zhou Zhong (周鐘) saved Princess Changping (長平公主) after the emperor tried to kill her, but the fact is she was rescued by by He Xin (何新), who worked for the Bureau of Costume. He then sent the princess to her grandfather Zhou Kui's (周奎) home for medical treatment. Moreover, Princess Changping and her husband did not commit suicide by consuming poison together after their wedding. In history, she fell into depression due to the pain of losing her country. She passed away at the age of 18 from illness during pregnancy a year after her marriage.


The opera The Peach Blossom Fan (《桃花扇》) tells the touching love story between the gifted young scholar Hou Fangyu (侯方域), a member of the Revival Society (復社), and Li Xiangjun (李香君). Li is depicted as an ethereal and untainted orchid emerged from the mud. She was even compared to the loyalty and martyrdom of Shi Kefa (史可法). However, the historical record contradicts the romantic depiction of Hou and Li’s relationship in the opera. In fact, they were together for only a few months. Their relationship was not as passionate as portrayed, and the connection was brief and transient like a temporary encounter. Later, Tian Yang (田仰), who held the position of Censor-in-Chief and Grand Coordinator of Sichuan (四川) at that time, offered 300 ounces of gold to meet with Li, but was firmly rejected. This caused him to be angry with Hou. To protect himself, Hou then wrote to Tian to dissociate himself from Li.

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