Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period/T'ang Hsien-tsu

T'ANG Hsien-tsu 湯顯祖 (T. 義仍, H. 若士, 海若, 清遠道人), 1550–1616, dramatist, contemporary of Shakespeare, was a native of Lin-ch'uan, Kiangsu. A chin-shih of 1583, he was appointed to a minor post in the government at Nanking, and after two years was promoted to a secretaryship in the Board of Ceremonies. In 1591 he submitted a memorial to the throne, accusing the Grand Secretaries of usurpation of power, which so offended the Emperor that he was degraded to the lowest rank of officialdom and made a district police magistrate and jail-warden of Hsü-wên, Kwangtung. After four years in disgrace, he was promoted to the post of district magistrate of Sui-ch'ang, Chekiang. He retired from this post in 1598, and two years later was deprived of his titles in consequence of a triennial examination of yamen records undertaken by the Board of Civil Appointments.

T'ang's indifferent success as an official stands in sharp contrast to his popularity as a dramatist. Four of his plays, or ch'uan-ch'i 傳奇 (literally "spreading strange tales"), bear the titles: 邯鄲記 Han-tan chi, 南柯記 Nan-k'o chi, 紫釵記 Tzŭ-ch'ai chi, and 還魂記 Huan-hun chi. Because they all relate to dreams, they are known collectively as "The Four Dreams of Yü-ming t'ang" (玉茗堂四夢), after the name of his studio. These plays, in addition to another called 紫簫記 Tzŭ-hsiao chi, which is really the first draft of the Tzŭ-ch'ai chi, are his only dramatic works that are now available, for it is said that his sons burnt all his unpublished manuscripts. In fact, his fame rests almost entirely on the Huan-hun chi, otherwise known as 牡丹亭 Mu-tan t'ing, completed about 1588. It is a play of fifty-five scenes, with an original plot and forcefully worded songs, which have been printed and reprinted many times. Several of its scenes are still often enacted and the original tunes are preserved. T'ang Hsien-tsu did not always suit his words to the established music, and for this reason some of his plays are difficult to sing. To correct this difficulty several playwrights of his time attempted to reword parts of his dramas, which explains why there existed, early in the seventeenth century, at least four different versions of the Mu-tan t'ing. Later some writers tried to preserve the author's original wording and others attached their own comments and notes to the play. Thus more editions appeared, the best now available being one printed in the Nuan-hung shih hui-k'o ch'uan-ch'i (see under Liu Jui-fên) in 1908, with reproductions of Ming illustrations. It may be added that several translations of the play have appeared in Japanese.

T'ang Hsien-tsu's collected essays, poems, and letters were printed in 1621 in 46 chüan under the title Yü-ming t'ang chi (集). He himself became the hero of a play by Chiang Shih-ch'üan [q. v.], entitled Lin-ch'uan mêng which, aside from certain mysterious and legendary features, presents an intimate account of his life. Though he confined himself primarily to dramatic works and belles-lettres, he is said to have compiled a new history of the Sung dynasty (960–1279) which was never printed. The manuscript was once in the possession of Lü Liu-liang and his son, Lü Pao-chung [qq. v.], and later was owned by a family named Chin 金 of Tai-ts'ang, Kiangsu. Whether it is still in existence is not known.


[M.1/230/7a; Lin-ch'uan-hsien chih (1870) 42 hsia 17b; Sui-ch'ang-hsien chih (1835) 5/6a; Chang Shih-i 張師繹, 月鹿堂集 Yüeh-lu t'ang chi 8/33a; Ch'ien Ch'ien-i [q. v.], Lieh-ch'ao shih-chi 12/28b; Ssŭ-k'u 179/15a, 43/7b, 116/5b; Yü-ming t'ang chi 8/6a; Translations of Mu-tan t'ing huan-hun chi into Japanese by Miyahara Tamihei 宮原民平 (printed 1921), and by Suzuki Hikojirō 鈴木彥次郎 and Sasaki Seikō 佐佐木靜光 jointly (printed 1926–27); M.32/61/62a; M.86/15/36a; Ch'üan Tsu-wang [q. v.], Chi-ch'i t'ing chi wai-pien 43/4b.]

Fang Chao-ying