Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period/Li Yü

LI 李漁 (T. 笠翁, 謫凡, H. 笠道人, 隨菴主人), 1611–1680?, dramatist, poet, and essayist, came from a family whose ancestral home was in Lan-ch'i, Chekiang, but he himself was born in Ju-kao, Kiangsu. On receiving his hsiu-ts'ai degree, about the year 1635, he competed several times in the provincial examination, but failed to qualify. With the collapse of the Ming régime (1644) he abandoned all political ambitions and devoted his life to writing. Dependent entirely on his pen to support a household of forty members, he was compelled to seek the patronage of high officials, and for that purpose travelled over every part of China except the southwestern provinces. Wherever he went he presented himself as a literary guest, producing plays which were performed in the houses of high officials by a troupe of singing girls which he maintained.

The turmoil of the last few years of the Ming dynasty was for Li Yü a source of much poverty and affliction. For two years (ca. 1645) he lived without satisfactory prospects in the office of Hsü Hsi-ts'ai 許檄彩, sub-prefect of Chin-hua-fu, Chekiang, and sometime after 1647 he sold his retreat, I-shan pieh-yeh 伊山別業, covering a hillock of a hundred mou west of his home village in Lan-ch'i, and moved to Hangchow where he took the sobriquet Hu-shang li-wêng 湖上笠翁, "Fisherman of the Lake" (i.e. West Lake).

In 1657, or shortly thereafter, Li Yü made his first journey to Peking. Upon his return to Central China he settled near the South Gate, Nanking, where he built the so-called Mustard Seed Garden (Chieh-tzŭ Yüan 芥子園), and opened a bookstore with the same name. Concerning this garden he remarked, "This is my Chin-ling [Nanking] villa. It occupies only a hillock, hence the name 'Mustard Seed' to designate its smallness. When visitors who come and go notice that the place has hills and dales they remark that it brings to mind the saying 'Mount Sumeru is contained in a grain of mustard seed'". In 1666 he was again in the capital. From there he went to Sian, stopping on the way at P'ing-yang, Shansi, where he acquired his favorite concubine, Ch'iao-chi 喬姬, who was highly talented in singing and acting and who became the most distinguished actress in his small troupe. After a sojourn of four months in Sian (1667), he proceeded to Kansu. This tour proved to be the most satisfactory of all, both from the standpoint of financial returns and from the welcome he received. In 1670 he was in Fukien and from there proceeded to Kwangtung. During the years 1672 and 1673 he was in Hupeh, and in the summer of 1673 was invited by the prefect of Taiyuan to go to Shansi. In the winter of that year (1673) he was again in Peking, but took his leave in the following spring. Again he was plagued with poverty, being forced by heavy debts to sacrifice his beloved garden in Nanking where he had resided for twenty years. In 1675, when he accompanied his two sons to Yen-ling, Chekiang, where they competed for the hsiu-ts'ai degree, he conceived a longing to return to his native province. With the help of certain well-to-do friends he succeeded in purchasing an old garden on a hillock in the city of Hangchow, which he repaired in 1678 and called Ts'êng-yüan 層園. After he had moved (1677) he was ill for some months, and at the same time endured great poverty. In his helplessness he wrote to friends in the capital beseeching financial assistance. His last journey was to Wu-chou, Chekiang (summer of 1677), where his sons again competed for the hsiu-ts'ai degree. Thereafter his health failed, and most probably he died in 1680. There is no indication of the exact year of his death. But judging from his preface, dated December 3, 1679, to a work, entitled 千古奇聞 Ch'ien-ku ch'i-wên, and from another preface written by him for the Chieh-tzŭ-yüan hua-chuan (畫傳), December 24, 1679, it is clear that he lived at least through that year. It is known from various sources that his funerary inscription was composed by Liang Yün-chih 梁允植 (T. 丞篤, H. 冶湄) in his capacity as magistrate of Ch'ien-t'ang. Since, however, this magistrate was promoted in 1680 to become prefect of Yen-p'ing, Fukien, it is likely that Li Yü died in that year.

The literary works of Li Yü covered various fields. The dramas that can with certainty be attributed to him were brought together under the title 笠翁十種曲 Li-wêng shih-chung ch'ü. One of these, the 風箏誤 Fêng-chêng wu, is still frequently played on the Chinese stage, although with alterations. Li Yü also revised some famous dramatic works of his predecessors, such as the P'i-p'a chi (see under Ts'ao Yin), the 明珠記 Ming-chu chi by Lu Ts'ai 陸采 (1497–1537), and the 南西廂 Nan Hsi-hsiang by Li Jih-hua 李日華. The revision of the twenty-ninth scene of the P'i-p'a chi and the twenty-fifth scene of the Ming-chu chi were published in his 閒情偶寄 Hsien-ch'ing ou-chi, 16 chüan, preface dated 1671. His fiction includes two collections, the 無聲戲 Wu-shêng hsi and the 十二樓 Shih-êr lou. The Wu-shêng hsi, comprising sixteen stories, was printed not earlier than 1654 nor later than 1658. The title was later changed by printers to 連城璧 Lien-ch'êng pi—a copy with this title being preserved in the Library of the South Manchurian Railway at Dairen. The Shih-êr lou, containing twelve stories printed in 1658, was also called 覺世名言 Chüeh-shih ming-yen. Partial translations of this work were published in English by John Francis Davis (see under Ch'i-ying) and in French (1819) by Bruguière de Sorsum and Abel Rémusat (1827) without indication of authorship. Two long novels attributed to Li Yü are the 肉蒲團 Jou p'u-t'uan in 6 chüan and the 廻文傅 Hui-wên chuan in 16 chüan, the former being an erotic work banned in later years. The poems of his early years, collected under the title 齠齡集 T'iao-ling chi, seem now to be lost. The poems of his mature years are found together with his essays in the 笠翁一家言 Li-wêng i-chia yen. The first series of this collection with a preface dated 1672, but which was not printed prior to 1673, comprises 8 chüan of poems and 4 chüan of essays and letters. One supplement, entitled I-chia yen êr-chi (二集), 12 chüan, has a preface dated 1678. Another supplement, entitled I-chia yen pieh-chi (別集), 4 chüan, whose preface is dated 1664, contains his comments on episodes and characters in history. His most interesting and original essays and comments appear in the Hsien-ch'ing ou-chi. They give his ideas on dramatic composition, methods of acting, feminine charm, notes on architecture, travel, recreation, diet, and hygiene. The fourth section concerning architecture, and the fifth concerning household equipment, were reprinted separately in 1921 by the Chinese Architectural Association (中國營造學社). The section on charm in women was recently translated into English by Lin Yutang (see bibliography). Other works of Li Yü are the 笠翁詩韻 Li-wêng shih-yün, a dictionary of rhymes in 5 chüan published in 1673, and various anthologies of poems, essays, and letters from writers of repute. The best known of these anthologies is the 資治新書 Tzŭ-chih hsin-shu containing two collections of short essays by various authors on subjects dealing with governmental administration. The first collection, in 14 chüan, was issued in 1663; and the second, in 20 chüan, in 1667.

The Chieh-tzŭ-yüan hua-chuan, although named after his garden, was not his own work. He wrote only the preface to the first series containing specimens of landscape paintings gathered by his son-in-law, Shên Hsin-yu 沈心友 (T. 因伯), the elementary methods of painting being described and illustrated by Wang Kai 王概 (T. 節安, H. 東廓). The second, the third, and the fourth collections were issued long after Li's death. The work was translated into French with annotations by Raphael Petrucci, and printed in 1918 under the title Kiai-tseu-yuan houa tchouan: les Enseignements de la Peinture du Jardin grand comme un Grain de Moutarde, Encyclopédie de la Peinture Chinoise. Three of Li Yü's works, the I-chia-yen, the 古今史略 Ku-chin shih-lüeh, and the 四六初徵 Ssŭ-liu ch'u-chêng were listed among the books to be wholly or partially destroyed in the eighteenth century—possibly because they contain many comments by or references to Ch'ien Ch'ien-i [q. v.].

Li Yü possessed great creative talent and a keen sense of humor. All his writings have an original and entertaining quality. The expression is bold and free, the language is simple and easy. His ten dramas show inventive genius and exploit more fully than most of his contemporaries the dramatic possibilities of the stage. His experience as a producer and as a director enabled him to understand thoroughly the secret of the stage and to exemplify in practice the principles of acting and play-writing which he formulated in the Hsien-ch'ing ou-chi.


[3/426/46b; Lan-ch'i hsien-chih (1888) 5/41a, 8/59a; Hang-chou fu chih (1922) 170/1b; 浙江新城縣志 Chekiang Hsin-ch'êng hsien-chih (1679) 15/10b; Chu Tung-jun 朱東潤, 李漁戲劇論總述 Quarterly Journal of Liberal Arts, Wuhan University, vol. III, no. 4 (1934) pp. 727–53; Sun K'ai-ti 孫楷第, 日本大連圖書館所見小說書目 Jih-pên Ta-lien t'u-shu-kuan so-chien hsiao-shuo shu-mu t'i-yao (1931) pp. 23–26; idem, 李笠翁箸無聲戲即連城璧解題, Bulletin of the National Library of Peiping, vol. VI, no. 1 (1932) pp. 9–25; idem, 李笠翁與十二樓 Library Science Quarterly, vol. IX, no. 3–4 (1935) pp. 379–441 with portrait; Lin Yutang, "On Charm in Women," China Critic, vol. XII, no. 11 (March 5, 1936), p. 231.]

Man-kuei Li