Reviews / September 2016 (Issue 33)

Fanning the Past: K'ung Shang-jen's The Peach Blossom Fan

by William B. Noseworthy


K'ung Shang-jen (author), Chen Shih-hsiang, Harold Acton and Cyril Birch (translators), Judith T. Zeitlin (introduction), The Peach Blossom Fan, New York Review of Books, 2015. 370 pgs.


Any reading of The Peach Blossom Fan unpacks layers of Chinese culture and history. The play is an example of Southern Drama (Ch.: nan-his/nanxi), which was a popular dramatic form that developed in the 12th century during the Song dynasty. However, Southern Drama declined after the 16th century, as it was deemed a "crude" form, and as such, The Peach Blossom Fan by K'ung Shang-jen (1646–1718 CE) may represent one of the last widely successful plays of the genre. The author was a distant descendant of Confucius, although he makes points supporting both Confucian and Taoist ideals in the work.

K'ung composed the play in 1699 to explain the decline of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644 CE), from the perspective of a Qing dynasty (1644–1911 CE) subject. Despite its Ming setting, however, The Peach Blossom Fan contains many references to previous dynastic cultures, including Tang (618–907 CE), Song (906–1279 CE) and Qin (Ch'in) (221–207 BCE). Fortunately, the translators took care to make useful note of these references within the play, thus taking on the tremendous task of both translating and analysing K'ung's classic work, a task that they accomplished with great success.

In some ways, Chen Shih-hsiang, Harold Acton and Cyril Birch's achievement in translating The Peach Blossom Fan into English paralleled the success of the first production of the play in 1700, during K'ung Shang-jen's appointment to the Imperial Academy: appreciation for both only came in waves. I found it surprising to learn that the play was only published eight years after its initial performance, when K'ung had already left the academy. I am less surprised that Acton, Chen and Birch's 1976 translation of the play is being republished by the New York Review of Books with a new introduction by Judith T. Zeitlin—it is a work of tremendous scholarship and artistry.

Their translation was first published by University of California Press, with an introduction to explain the text written by Acton. In this most recent version of the manuscript, Zeitlin importantly intercedes in Acton's original interpretation—which linked the author's resignation of his post at the Imperial Academy to the play's production—and summarises the existing scholarly consensus, concluding that the two events were not linked. Zeitlin also fills in some other overlooked elements of the play's composition and translation. For example, in the many previous analyses of the play, few have written about how—even though the conventional date for the end of the Ming is set at April 25th, 1644 and the play is mostly set between 1643 and 1645—the last elements of Ming resistance were not destroyed until 1662. Zeitlin also draws the play into connection with contemporary events, arguing that one could "[s]ubstitute 'president' for 'emperor' and [the author] could easily be talking about the upcoming American election." The play therefore has been revived with new socio-political significance, even though few scholars have written about what made its initial translation—which was an exhaustive, two-decades-long "side-project"—so ripe for publication and reception in 1976. The Sino-Soviet split of 1972, the increase of immigrants from Honk Kong, Taiwan and the Mainland to the West and Mao's death in 1976 all contributed to a growing interest in Chinese and East Asian Studies among American academics, as well as the broader public.

One reason that the initial release of The Peach Blossom Fan has not been widely historicised is because Harold Acton and Chen Shih-hsiang undertook its translation as a personal project to help them study classical Chinese, and had initially not intended for it to published, let alone for this publication to occur at a politically significant moment. Indeed, its release in 1976 seems as much coincidence as an attempt to capitalise on the political and cultural atmosphere of the day—Acton's motivation was simply to finish the project off after Chen's death in 1971 had halted the translation of the final scenes. For Acton, completing the translation was a final dedication to a lifelong friend and colleague, although he proved unable to complete the work until Cyril Birch, a British expat who worked with Chen in California, offered his contributions to the play.


Harold Acton, who was born to a prominent Anglo-Italian family at their estate Villa La Pietra near Florence, lived a privileged life of scholarship and literature. After attending Eton (at the same time as George Orwell and Anthony Powell), he entered Oxford in 1923 to read Modern Greats. While there, he was active in the literary scene, founding the avant-garde magazine The Oxford Broom and publishing his first of nearly thirty books, the poetry collection Aquarium (1923). During his time at Oxford and afterwards, Acton knew many of Britain's most important intellectuals and writers, including Evelyn Waugh, who at least partly modelled the character of Antony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited on him.

After Oxford, Acton later spent time studying in Europe and in Parisian literary circles, and it was during this period that he began to become enchanted with "the East," eventually travelling to China in 1932 to lecture and study Chinese literature. It was here that he met Chen Shih-hsiang, who was a student at Peking University. The two began to work together after Chen graduated in 1935, studying classical Chinese literature and collaborating on a few short translations, including Chen's contributions to an edited collection on the Chinese "Literary Revolution" that Acton published in 1936.

Acton, however, was forced to leave China in 1939 in the midst of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the first rumblings of World War II. He returned to Europe and joined the RAF, moving permanently to his family estate in Florence after the war. Throughout this time, however, he managed to keep up a frequent correspondence with Chen, who'd left China for the United States, where he took up a series of teaching posts at Harvard, Columbia and Berkeley. Chen also managed to publish a few new translations during the mid to late 1940s. The two began collaborating on the translation of The Peach Blossom Fan in the 1950s as a means of continuing the shared study of classical Chinese literature that they'd begun in Beijing in the 1930s. Acton said of the project that it was a means for him to get back to a China to which he felt he could no longer return.

Although the close friends and "intellectual partners" also worked together on other projects, it is easy to see why they became so engrossed by The Peach Blossom Fan. The play is named after the favourite fan of the central female protagonist Li Hsiang-chun and which is decorated by blood stains that have been artfully rendered into the blossoms of a flowering peach tree. Even though it is often read as a "historical play," the narrative moves beyond "court chronicle" to explore the romance between Hou Fang-yu (1618–1655) and "the Fragrant Princess" Li, a "working woman," primarily employed in Nanking's pleasure quarter. They appear as "true patriots" of the Revival Society (Fushe), a scholarly, political and literary group of the late Ming focused on devotion to Confucian ideals. The Fushe believed that greed and selfishness had led to the collapse of the dynasty and were thus critical of those "villains" who claimed to be Ming loyalists but whose self-interested actions the Fushe felt undermined the cause.

Li and Hou are separated throughout the drama, although they are finally reunited toward the end of the narrative. In the reunion of the lovers, one may expect Confucian ideals to appear as a message about loyalty. Instead, in the climax of the play, a monk tears the symbolic fan of the title, which everyone wishes to possess. The imagery suggests that it is impossible to possess anything, and, therefore, the Taoist concept of renunciation emerges as the ideological hero of the drama.

The play cannot be described as "Shakespearean" per se, as there is no direct evidence of the influence of Shakespeare's works on The Peach Blossom Fan. Nevertheless, as several footnotes make clear, Acton and Chen have examined Shakespeare's works as a point of comparison. Furthermore, the language of the translations does not appear to be in 20th century English, but instead reads as a form of "stage English," that is somewhat timeless yet clearly influenced by Shakespearean language. The danger in this approach is that it becomes possible for the reader to be influenced by the subtle linguistic hints of the translation and thus read the story of Li and Hou as a form of "separated lover" text, such as Romeo and Juliet or, to draw from a possible Chinese influence upon such narratives, The Butterfly Lovers. Each separated lover text is historicisable in a fashion, but also focuses upon the narrative of the romantic partners. This is not the case in The Peach Blossom Fan. Its narrative is much broader.

Rather than comparing The Peach Blossom Fan to separated lover narratives, then, it may be more instructive to read the text alongside the classical epic of India, Valmiki's The Ramayana. Although The Peach Blossom Fan is decidedly more historical and less religious than Valmiki's text, the play's action and focus upon "proper kingship" provides a distinct echo of the Indian work. The Peach Blossom fan additionally parallels popular South and Southeast Asian interpretations of The Ramayana in that both feature deeply dramatic interludes, infectiously comedic interventions and performances of court poetics that must be fantastic to witness on the stage.

All told, the republication of The Peach Blossom Fan comes, again, at a fascinating historical moment, where the position of an "old regime" (the West) is being questioned, as China's influence in the world seems to be growing. Because of the form of the play, this work will be enjoyed not only by students of history and Chinese culture, but also by those of literary studies and of religious studies. Finally, the new introduction by Judith T. Zeitlin offers a fabulous summary-analysis of the text, unveiling K'ung Shan-jen's humour and masterful sense of the Southern Drama genre.


Works Referenced


Goldblatt, Howard. 1977. Review: Peach Blossom Fan. Books Abroad. 50(4): 951–952.

Li Wai-yee. 1995. The Representation of History in the Peach Blossom Fan. Journal of the American Oriental Society. 115(3): 421–433.

Liu Chun-jo. 1977. Review: Peach Blossom Fan. Journal of Asian Studies. 37(1): 97–99.

Lu, Tina. 2001. Persons, Roles and Minds: Identity in Peony Pavilion and Peach Blossom Fan. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Lynn, Richard John. 1977. Review: Peach Blossom Fan. Journal of Asian History 11(1): 84–85.

Strassberg, Richard. 1983. The World of K'ung Shang-jen: A Man of Letters in Early Ch'ing China. New York: Columbia University Press.

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