Dylan Suher reviews Kong Shangren's The Peach Blossom Fan
Translated from the Chinese by Chen Shih-hsiang and Harold Acton (NYRB Classics, 2015)
Political disappointment, when keenly felt, is as good a topic for great literature as the most tumultuous romances or private crises. I vividly remember my first such disillusionment. I walked the streets of New York City bleary-eyed one morning in early November 2004, having spent the preceding night staring at a screen, hoping for the impossible. I looked at the faces of the people passing me on the street, and I tried to imagine what those people who would vote the other way, as alien to me as denizens of another planet, must look like. Could such people really be my fellow citizens? How could the world that I had so naively assumed was predisposed to justice be so perverse? It was perhaps not so pronounced a heartbreak as that first lost love, but the scars have lasted longer.
The greatest masterpiece of the literature of political disappointment is The Peach Blossom Fan by Kong Shangren, first performed in 1700, which recounts the fall of the Ming dynasty half a century earlier. (In Sir Harold Acton, Chen Shih-Hsiang, and Cyril Birch's translation, recently reissued by New York Review Books, and in the Wade-Giles transliteration on which it relies, the author's name is rendered as K'ung Shang-jen.) In the last decades of the Ming dynasty, China was struck by a catastrophic series of plagues, famines, and natural disasters. The Chinese state, riven by factional conflicts between the Confucian stalwarts of the Donglin party and a state bureaucracy hijacked by the corrupt eunuch Wei Zhongxian, was unable to respond effectively. Nonetheless, the dramatic collapse of the dynasty came as an abrupt shock. As peasant rebels sacked Beijing, the Chongzhen Emperor, unable to rally his still-numerous supporters because of his palace officials' and eunuchs' intransigence, hanged himself on a hill outside the Forbidden City. These rebels were in turn driven from the city by the armies of the Manchu, a Tunguistic people from the northeast who were soon to establish the Qing dynasty. The dynastic transition led to the deaths of tens of millions of people, and Kong's play appropriately ends with a mourning service for the conflict's many, many dead.
The collapse of the dynasty profoundly challenged the ethos of Chinese scholar-officials like Kong, who was a sixty-seventh generation descendant of Confucius. For these men, the fall of the Ming was not only a social but also a metaphysical failure. Because the right to rule was conferred by heaven, a change of dynasty meant not only that the government had failed its people, but that the entire society had somehow strayed from the celestially ordained path. Nevertheless, the Confucian values of the scholar-officials demanded unstinting loyalty to the old dynasty and undying hostility to the new, usurping dynasty. Many believed their only ethical choice was to retire from government service, thus forfeiting the only respectable path to success and wealth in imperial Chinese society. Kong's father was among the principled retirees, and Kong, though he was born two years after the fall of the Ming and eventually served the alien dynasty, spent his entire life in the company of loyalists. Their stories became the sources for Kong's play, and the loyalists themselves formed much of Kong's audience. A contemporary account of an early performance of The Peach Blossom Fan recalls that many of the spectators, having lived through the events portrayed in the play, were moved to tears. For Kong, the play was a magnificent, culminating tribute to the currents of loyalism that had formed his identity. He never again wrote drama.
The heroes of The Peach Blossom Fan are the young scholar Hou Fangyu and his lover, the courtesan Li Xiangjun ("Fragrant Princess"), both historical personages. A visitor in Nanjing—where, for the time being, the chaos in the north remains a distant rumor—Hou decides to linger a while and take a lover from the city's famed courtesan district. He also joins the Revival Society, a faction of young scholars who oppose the corruption of eunuch-aligned officials like Ruan Dacheng, the play's chief villain. Hearing of Li's talent and noble character, Hou falls in love with her, but lacks the money to purchase her favors. Ruan, out of power and seeking the good graces of the Revival Society, secretly backs his suit through an intermediary. When Hou and Li find out the source of the dowry, Li dramatically destroys the trousseau before Ruan's eyes. Shortly after, Hou leaves the city on a mission of vital importance to the dynasty. In his absence, the news of the Chongzhen Emperor's death reaches Nanjing, and Ruan shrewdly helps to engineer the coronation of the wastrel Hongguang Emperor, who, out of gratitude, returns Ruan to power. The vengeful Ruan spreads a rumor that Hou is a traitor, and tries to force Li to marry another man. Hou spends the rest of the play on the run from Ruan's forces, valiantly trying to assist the defense against the Manchus. Meanwhile, Li remains faithful to Hou, against daunting odds. I will not reveal the shocking ending; it suffices to say that, like much great literature, The Peach Blossom Fan gives readers not their wished-for fantasies, but a feared, inexorable truth.
All of these dramatic events are related in some of the most elegant Chinese ever written—a density of poetic expression that rivals Shakespeare's. Unfortunately, the style of the New York Review Books translation fails to come close to the excellence of the original. Chen Shih-Hsiang and Sir Harold Acton, the primary translators, led lives worthy of Josh Billings's "Lives of the Translators" series on the Asymptote blog. Chen, who as a young man knew personally many of the most distinguished Chinese modernists, fled to the United States after 1949, where he became a scholar of Chinese poetics. Acton, the Oxford-educated scion of a wealthy Anglo-Italian family, befriended a dizzying array of Modernist luminaries, including Gertrude Stein, Aldous Huxley, and Langston Hughes. Acton was the model for Anthony Blanche in his friend Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. He began to collaborate with Chen on this translation during his time as a lecturer on English literature at Peking University in the 1930s.
Yet, as Anthony Powell wrote in Acton's obituary in The New York Times, Acton himself had "no great individual talent save that of representing his generation." Powell's statement is sadly proved by the quality of this translation. Acton and Chen purposely trim out many of the play's allusions. Considering the difficulty of translating those allusions readably, their choice would be understandable if it produced good prose. But the English prose is largely pedestrian. At their worst, Acton and Chen overreach, attempting to emulate the original's elegance with a pseudo-Shakespearean pompousness. The strategy backfires, as forced rhymes and archaism-filled lines like "On yonder heavenly terrace the comely pair / Will enter the 'broidered haven of scented curtains" are more reminiscent of Renaissance Faire than of Shakespeare.
While English readers will miss the beautiful Chinese, they will surely appreciate the acuity with which failed politics and feckless politicians are drawn. Ruan Dacheng is a fascinating character. No cartoonish villain or brutish thug, he too is a man of letters—an accomplished playwright and a patron of the arts. Ruan's faults are all too familiar to the modern age. He is the politician who plays the political game for the sake of the game, who manages to twist every noble public sentiment into a justification for his self-aggrandizement.
Yet the play's heroes come off only slightly better. A feud needs two sides, and the self-righteous focus of the Revival Society on their domestic adversaries harms their country. From the broad, sweeping historical perspective of the play's second half, the activities of the Revival Society—assaulting Ruan at a Confucian ceremony, or chasing his boat away during the Dragon Boat Festival—seem ineffectual and sophomoric. Worse yet, perhaps these would-be heroes do not even want to save the country all that much. Hou spends nearly as much time composing poetry and pursuing Li as he does militating for political reform. The play is filled with arias that recall the Southern Dynasties of which Nanjing was capital. The political elites of these dynasties were infamous in Chinese history for being too consumed with cultural refinement to concern themselves with crucial matters of state. Perhaps, these allusions suggest, even the "good guys" of the late Ming were too comfortable, too inclined to indulge themselves, to make the changes that needed to be made. It is a critique that serves as a stern warning for the contemporary audience of The Peach Blossom Fan, well-heeled scholar-officials enjoying the prosperity of the early Qing dynasty. Even the Kangxi Emperor is said to have expressed sympathy for the Hongguang Emperor as depicted in the play. There but for the grace of Heaven went he himself.
Yet in the end, The Peach Blossom Fan throws the very idea of the political and social utility of literature into question. The play is filled with performances of songs, poems, and scenes from other dramas that warn against the solipsistic indulgence that will lead to the fall of the dynasty, and yet all these crystal-clear messages delivered to the best and the brightest of the Ming go unheeded. Art cannot protect against the vicissitudes of history, the play suggests; perhaps nothing can. The complex self-referential meditation on literature and history that takes place within The Peach Blossom Fan is best encapsulated in the title object of the play. The fan is initially a pledge of love that Hou Fangyu inscribes with a poem. In order to avoid remarriage, Li Xiangjun bashes her head against a pillar and accidentally spatters the fan with blood. The painter Yang Wencong then paints around the bloodstains to transform them into peach blossoms. Is he redeeming historical trauma through art? Or does aesthetically appropriating the violence of the past only compound the ugliness of inerasable bloodstains? For those who would seek to escape an ugly world in a three-hundred-year-old book, these are questions that continue to be deeply unsettling.