The Yuan romantic drama Xixiang ji, or The Story of the Western Wing, is one of China’s greatest and most influential literary works. With its intricate story, tortuous plot, distinct characters, and fine language, it is a classic among pre-modern Chinese dramas.
Xixiang ji originated from the short story Yingying zhuan (The story of Yingying, or Tale of Oriole) written by Yuan Zhen (779–831) in the Tang dynasty (618–907). The tale focusses on the tragic love affair that develops between the young scholar Zhang Sheng and the high-ranking young woman, Cui Yingying. There is, however, a contradiction at the heart of this work. The author presents Yingying’s situation which involves intimacy outside of marriage with great sensitivity but at the same time adheres to standards of feudal morality and thus condemns her as an “evil doer.” Despite this, later readers continued to show deep sympathy towards Yingying. This discrepancy between the effect of the work and the author’s apparent intent provided room for later adaption. In the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127), this tale was widely circulated by story telling, prosimetric narratives, dancing, and other art forms. And then, in the Jin dynasty (1115–1234), the scholar Dong Jieyuan (n.d.) made a radical change to the story: from tragedy to comedy. The lovers Cui Yingying and Zhang Sheng were ultimately reunited to presumably live happily ever after. Expanding upon earlier versions of the story, Dong Jieyuan created a long work of about 50,000 characters. Its formal title is Xixiang ji zhugongdiao (Story of the Western Wing in all keys and modes). “Zhugongdiao” is a type of prosimetric narrative written in a mixture of prose and verse. A common name for this work is “Dong Xixiang” (Dong’s Western Wing). Compared with Yingying zhuan, this has two significant differences. First, it replaces the sad ending of the original with a happy one. After falling in love and eloping, Zhang Sheng and Cui Yingying are eventually and triumphantly reunited. Second, it changes the focus of conflict from the relationship of Cui Yingying versus Zhang Sheng to that of the two lovers versus Yingying’s mother, who represents the power of feudalism, as they seek to be together. The anti-feudalism theme of the work is evident. In addition, Dong Jieyuan added many characters and sub-plots to the original story, and also composed many fascinating and memorable song lyrics. These all laid the foundation of Wang Shifu’s (1250–ca. 1337) drama Xixiang ji.
In the beginning of the Yuan dynasty (early thirteenth century), the dramatist Wang Shifu wrote Xixiang ji, which extols free love and opposes feudal morality. It is usually referred to as “Wang Xixiang” (Wang’s Western Wing). It features a logical and well-organized narrative structure of the tortuous conflicts and intricate plot. The character types are distinctive—fresh and lively. In addition, there are many elegant songs and lyrics. Both comic and poetic, it became and remains beloved in China and eventually in other lands. Wang’s Xixiang is significantly different from Dong’s Xixiang. Dong’s Xixiang is the text for popular story singers’ use in the genre known as zhugongdiao while Wang’s Xixiang is the script used by drama performers. Therefore, there is a great contrast between genre structure and presentation. In addition, Wang’s Xixiang and Dong’s Xixiang have more significant differences in their plots, character types, and themes. With regard to the plot, Wang’s Xixiang changes many aspects, removing improbabilities and inconsistencies. As for characters, in Wang’s Xixiang, Zhang Sheng is changed from a vulgar, weak, and indecisive man to a sincere person who steadfastly pursues love. Cui Yingying changes from a person wishing to pursue love while observing the traditional ritual code to one who regards love as paramount. As for the theme, Wang’s Xixiang is a clearer celebration of the inexorable power of love. Cui Yingying and Zhang Sheng fall in love at first sight, and the development of their love is so unstoppable it causes them to engage in behaviors condemned by feudal morality every time it meets obstruction. Yingying’s unconventional actions are no longer excused as repaying a debt of gratitude. In the end of the drama, free love is even openly celebrated. These valuable changes make the content of Wang’s Xixiang more profound, and the theme of anti-feudalism far more significant than in its sources. Indeed it is far more advanced than both earlier and contemporary works.
Since its appearance, Xixiang ji has had a continuing and profound effect and influence on generations of Chinese. In the literary and artistic reception history of this drama, this drama has an outstanding reputation, and has been deemed the “top-ranking drama of the Yuan period.” As a precursor of the anti-feudalism theme, Xixiang ji was studied and imitated by many dramatists. The Ming dynasty Tang Xianzu’s (1550–1616) drama Mudan ting (The peony pavilion) and the Qing dynasty Cao Xueqin’s (1715–1763) novel Honglou meng (Dream of the red chamber) both obviously inherited much from Xixiang ji in terms of their main ideas, conflicts, character types, and many other aspects.