06 October 2017

Zhao the Orphan, reimagined as Tory jeremiad


I have recently been reading popular Yuan Dynasty zaju 雜劇. As my gentle readers will know, I was overcome by a slight bout of nostalgia about a month back, and began watching Maison Ikkoku again. (I was always more of a Ranma ½ fan, but I did occasionally pick up Maison also.) It struck me on this watch-through that it was a slightly-satirical modernisation of the caizi jiaren 才子佳人 tradition of Chinese literature, with a particular resemblance to the Yuan zaju, The Romance of the Western Bower 《西廂記》. In the same volume that I’ve been reading, there is a retelling of another, very different, Yuan zaju, Zhao the Orphan 《趙氏孤兒》. And I came across an interesting little historical tidbit related to the story that was certainly of interest to me, and I hope would also be of interest to my gentle readers.

In short, Zhao the Orphan is a grand tale of revenge. It begins with the descriptions of two ministers in the State of Jin 晉國, Zhao Dun 趙盾 and Tu’an Gu 屠岸賈, who were courtiers of the Duke of Jin, who was given to drunkenness, vapid entertainments and an opulent and lascivious lifestyle. He had a resentful and cruel personality, and thought nothing of torturing and killing servants and ladies who displeased him. Zhao Dun, the prime minister of Jin, missed no opportunity to remonstrate with the Duke on his cruelties and excesses; on the other hand, Tu’an Gu did everything to encourage the Duke in his dissolute habits, with the aim of taking the State of Jin for himself. Zhao Dun was righteous, but lacked caution – Tu’an Gu succeeded in framing him for an attempt on the Duke’s life, and ordered the extermination of the entire Zhao clan. Tu’an Gu oversaw a bloodbath which murdered 300 innocent Zhaos, and then moved against Zhao Dun’s son Zhao Shuo 趙朔, who was the brother-in-law of the Duke. He forged a letter ordering Zhao Shuo to commit suicide, leaving only his pregnant wife, the Duke’s older sister Zhuang Ji 莊姬. Tu’an Gu then made plans to murder the infant as soon as it was born; however, Zhuang Ji managed to smuggle her son out of the palace with the help of a maid, her family doctor Cheng Ying 程嬰 and a righteous general named Han Jue 韓厥. Han Jue, Zhuang Ji and her maid thereupon killed themselves to escape Tu’an Gu’s wrath.

Cheng Ying fled into the countryside, but Tu’an Gu published notices to the effect that if the Zhao orphan was not handed over to him within five days, he would send soldiers to kill all children under half a year old. Cheng Ying then drew up a ruse with Zhao Dun’s old friend from the court, the righteous official Gongsun Chujiu 公孫杵臼, to pass off his own infant son Bo, in place of the Zhao orphan. Gongsun Chujiu was taken and killed by Tu’an Gu, along with Cheng Bo, and the Zhao orphan – thought to be Cheng Bo – was taken into the Jin palace to be raised by Tu’an Gu jointly with Cheng Ying.

Cheng Ying taught the Zhao orphan letters and manners, while Tu’an Gu taught him the military arts. When the last of the Zhaos reached the age of twenty, Cheng Ying – omitting all of the names so that he would be believed – began to tell him about the tragedy of the Zhao family and the deaths of the righteous people who had fallen to save the orphan. Zhao, roused to indignation and fury by so grievous an injustice, asked where the last of the Zhaos could be found – and then at last it dawned on him that his ‘father’ was the doctor in the story, and that his ‘adopted father’ was the villain who had murdered his entire family. As the lecherous and cruel old Duke had died, Zhao the Orphan went to the new Duke Dao of Jin 晉悼公 (a better man than his predecessor), told his tale as he’d learnt it, and begged the right to take vengeance upon Tu’an Gu.

That’s the story, as scripted by Ji Junxiang, in the rough strokes. As can likely already be noticed, it explores, in a high tragic tone, the dialectic between the Confucian duties of family loyalty and justice absolute, with Cheng Ying and Han Jue being subjected to the greatest degree of tragic choice, left with no options but those which can bring disgrace, pain and death upon them. But the interesting historical tidbit is this: a full score years before Voltaire butchered the story with his adaptation, a more faithful French translation of Ji Junxiang’s opera had been made by a Jesuit priest named Joseph Henri Marie de Prémare.

Prémare’s French version, in turn, was adapted into English by William Hatchett – a Yorkshire actor, pamphleteer and possible lover of actress Eliza Haywood – who also happened to be a Jacobite sympathiser and a ‘violent Tory of the old school’. Hatchett’s The Chinese Orphan was written primarily as a scathing attack on the Whiggish prime minister Sir Robert Walpole, particularly for his high-handed treatment of Field-Marshal John Campbell, Second Duke of Argyll, who opposed the Walpole government’s increasing authority over the king, and was sacked for it. Hatchett’s royalist tweaking of Zhao the Orphan makes the Duke of Jin a much more sympathetic character, and attributes all of the wrongdoing to Tu’an Gu (who is renamed ‘Siako’ and clearly made to stand in for Walpole), whereas Zhao Dun and possibly Han Jue are meant to stand in for the Duke of Argyll. The Chinese Orphan was never performed, and indeed was not even published until 1741 – the year Walpole was to be dismissed.

Even though Hatchett makes a deliberate (and polemical) reversal of the ‘literary’ and ‘military’ noble roles in the play from Ji Junxiang’s original in order to drive home his domestic political point, it’s still an interesting early use of the ‘orientalist’ motif in Western European literature. (And – I will be blunt – one I’m much more sympathetic to than Voltaire’s, for blatantly partizan and political-philosophical reasons.) Perhaps once I’m done with my current reading, I’ll have to make a foray into Hatchett’s adaptation!

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