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Political Drama in the Ming-Qing Transition: A Study of Four Plays

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image of Ming Qing Yanjiu

In the late Ming dynasty, a new genre of drama arose, which presented on stage recent political events, featuring real historical persons; this genre continued across the Ming-Qing transition. The earliest and one of the best known examples is The Cry of the Phoenix (Ming feng ji), dramatising the conflict between corrupt minister Yan Song (1481-1568) and upright official Yang Jisheng (1516-1555), and probably written by someone in the literary circle of Wang Shizhen (1526-1590). The genre reached its apogee in Kong Shangren’s (1648-1718) The Peach Blossom Fan (Taohua shan). Around the Ming-Qing transition, in the Chongzhen and Shunzhi reigns, a considerable number of plays focused on the conflict during the preceding Tianqi reign between the Eastern Grove (Donglin) faction and the chief eunuch Wei Zhongxian (1568-1627). Eleven plays on this subject are known, of which three survive: Fan Shiyan’s Eunuch Wei Grinds Down the Loyal (Wei jian mo zhong ji), the Clear-Whistling Scholar’s (Qingxiaosheng) A Happy Encounter with Spring (Xi feng chun), and Li Yu’s 李玉 A Roster of the Pure and Loyal (Qing zhong pu). Basing my argument on an examination of these plays and of another play by Li Yu, Reunion across Ten Thousand Miles (Wan li yuan), also based on contemporary events, I suggest that the lively version of events given by these political dramas both reflected and helped to develop and spread the popularly accepted view of late-Ming and Southern Ming factional conflict leading to the fall of the Ming dynasty. According to this view, broadly following the Eastern Grove and Revival Society (Fushe) narrative, the decline and fall of the Ming dynasty was the fault of corrupt officials and evil palace eunuchs who misled the Emperor and were bravely resisted by righteous and incorruptible officials who fell as martyrs to their unprincipled opponents. This simplistic view, endorsed to a great extent in the official Ming History (Ming shi), which was mostly written by former Eastern Grove and Revival Society adherents, has persisted in the popular mind to the present day. I also argue that, after the establishment of the Qing, political drama could serve as a vehicle for the covert expression of Ming loyalism.


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