15 October 2017

The meta-Confucian rage of The Peach Blossom Fan

Still going strong on my Rumiko Takahashi-inspired Chinese opera kick. I just finished reading a prose translation of The Peach Blossom Fan by Kong Shangren 孔尚任, a descendant of Confucius who lived during the decline and fall of the Ming Dynasty and the rise of the Qing – the backdrop which sets the tragedy of his dramatic work.

Kong Shangren’s work indeed shows a strong streak of Confucian moralism, as is to be expected. Hou Fangyu 侯方域 is a sympathiser with the reformist Donglin Movement 东林党 (a critical neo-Confucian movement focussed on reforming the bureaucracy, and a predecessor of the Changzhou New Text revival and the broader jingshi 经世, or ‘statecraft’, ethos which took hold in the early Qing), and his lover, a hooker with a heart of gold named Li Xiang 李香, has an even greater sense of moral scruple than he does – refusing dowry gifts from corrupt officials, refusing any other suitors than Hou, rebuking the evil Ruan Dacheng 阮大铖 to his face. The same shared moral outlook which brings the two of them together in the beginning and strengthens their relationship as the play progresses, also ultimately makes it impossible for them to end up together. They find, ultimately, that in a world without a moral centre, where there is no possible safe haven and no way to retain their moral standing, they cannot at once retain their integrity and remain a couple. Kong has them both undertake vocations in Daoist monasteries by the end of the play.

But despite the tone of moral outrage that accompanies Kong’s descriptions of the persecutions of the Donglin clique, the each-man-for-himself betrayals among the military and the civil service, the decadence and cowardice of the Imperial court in the face of foreign invasion, there’s something of a nihilist streak that runs through the play. As in Zhao the Orphan, most of the ‘righteous’ characters are rendered powerless either by being too trusting or too stubborn, and the vast majority of them end up either dead, in hermitages, or on the lam from both the Ming and the Qing courts. But there is a significant difference here. If, in classical Confucian thinking, righteousness and virtue nucleate the people around a salvific leader, a ‘worthy’ with charismatic power – here those ‘worthies’ are notable by their absence. There is no orphan of Zhao in whom the ‘righteous’ people can put their trust. The play ends with Nanjing occupied, most of the Ming loyalists scattered or dead, and three of the ‘good’ characters being pursued by the new Qing Dynasty’s police into the mountains, with no hope of salvation in sight. The world of the Ming has come to an end. Nothing noble has replaced it, unless it is the path of total renunciation proclaimed by the guard-turned-Daoist-monk Zhang Wei in the final scenes.

It’s this very streak of nihilism – this very apocalypticism – which renders The Peach Blossom Fan such a beautiful, poignant and masterful tragedy. The heartbreak which accompanies the failure of Hou Fangyu’s relationship with Li Xiang is rendered all the more piercing by the broader failures of Ming governance and Chinese morality more broadly around them. But there’s something in it which smacks much more of the Russian sensibility. Under the quasi-Daoist resignation of Hou and Li, there is an unspoken call to apocalyptic revolt in the sense meant by Berdyaev. There is a finger of accusation which Kong Shangren points at the very people who would enjoy The Peach Blossom Fan as a merely æsthetic work, which the constant allusions to other operas (particularly The Peony Pavilion) as vehicles for narcissistic enjoyment by corrupt officialdom make plain. It’s not light amusement. When Zhang Wei tears the eponymous fan in half at the end of the play, it’s almost a dare to the audience that they find any reason to be happy in the result. It’s also a mistake to see it as simply a ‘loyal’ tribute to the Donglin movement of the Ming Dynasty’s final years – the Donglin partizans, however righteously aggrieved, are hardly effective heroes in the face of the Manchu threat. There is something prefiguring Lu Xun’s all-consuming rage against his own social milieu present in the play, barely contained below the poetic verse, that comes off even in the English translation.

I can certainly see why the work is considered a dramatic masterpiece. I’m still not sure if it’s my ‘favourite’ of the several dramas and operas I’ve read recently – the sheer bulk of the historical background Kong Shangren brings forward makes his opera appear a trifle overstuffed in my (admittedly-biased) Western view – but I can understand its importance and appreciate its tragic sensibility. Highly recommended reading. I’ve read only Chen Meilin’s novel adaptation rather than the Zhen-Acton-Birch translation, but the latter will certainly be on my list!

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