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Gender, Loyalty, and the Reproduction of the Wang Zhaojun Legend: Some Social Ramifications of Drama in the Late Ming

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Scholars have long noted a heightened concern over female virtue in late Ming literati society; more recently, this social trend has been connected with the boom in print production of drama, and many other types of popular and elite texts, which occurred during the Jiajing through Wanli periods. Ming print circulation of the legend of Wang Zhaojun, a palace woman of the Han dynasty who was given in marriage to a northern leader, further illuminates these connections. Through detailed analysis of the text, and its reproduction during the late Ming, and through comparison with other versions of the story also in circulation during this period, this essay argues that the zaju play, Autumn in the Han Palace, was at the center of a significant reconfiguration of the Wang Zhaojun legend — one in which both the exquisitely tragic beauty of her departure across the Han border, and her loyalty to the emperor are foregrounded. Further, this reconfiguration was conditioned by, and in turn conditioned, late Ming social constructions of woman as both cultural and commercial commodity.

Affiliations: 1: Colby College


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