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钱锺书:Tragedy in Old Chinese Drama  

2008-04-01 12:24:50|  分类: 钱锺书英文文集 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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The critical pendulum has once more swung back and there are signs that our old literature is coming into favour again. Knowing persons have also told us that tfiere is just at present even a craze for our old literature among foreigners and that our old drama especially has all the cry in the West. We are quite proud to hear of these things. That our old drama should lead the way of the craze need not surprise us; for, though the real power of drama, as Aristotle says in his Poetics, should be felt apart from representation and action, drama can for that very reason appeal to the majority of persons whose interest does not rise above mere representation and spectacle. Moreover, our old drama richly deserves the epithet "artificial" which Lamb applies to the comedy of manners. To Western readers surfeited with drab realism and tiresome problem plays our old drama comes as "that breathing-place from the burthen of a perpetual moral questioning" which must be as refreshing as (say) Barrie's pleasant fancy and pathos after an overdose of Pinero and Jones. But whatever value our old dramas may have as stage performances or as poetry, they cannot as dramas hold their own with great Western dramas. In spite of the highest respect for the old dramatists, one cannot sometimes help echoing Coleridge's wish as regards Beaumont and Fletcher that instead of dramas, they should have written poetry, i. e. poetry in the broad sense inclusive of te'u () and ch'u () as well. I say this without the least prejudice, because I yield to none in my enthusiasm for our old literature and would definitely range myself on the side of the angels and the ancients, should a quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns break out in China.
  The highest dramatic art is of course tragedy and it is precisely in tragedy that our old playwrights have to a man failed. Apart from comedies and farces, the rank and file of our serious drama belong to what is properly called the romantic drama. The play does not present a single master-passion, but a series of passions loosely strung together. Poetic justice is always rendered, and pathetic and humorous scenes alternate as regularly as the layers of red and white in a side of streaky bacon, to borrow a homely smile from Oliver Twist. Of the tragic sense, the sense of pathos touched by the sublime, the sense of Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach! , in meiner Brust," the knowledge of universal evil as the result of partial good, there is very little trace. True, there are numerous old plays which end on the note of sadness. But a sensitive reader can very easily feel their difference from real tragedies: he goes away from them not with the calm born of spent passions or what Spinoza calls acquiescentia with the workings of an immanent destiny, but, on the contrary, haunted by the pang of a personal loss, acute, disconsolate, to be hidden away even from oneself. One has only to compare Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and Dryden's All for Love with Pei Jen-fu's Rain in the Oil Trees (白仁甫《梧桐雨》) and Hung Shen's The Palace of Everlasting Life (洪昇《长生殿》
) in order to perceive the difference. The story of Emperor Hsuan Tsung of the T'ang dynasty and his lady-love Yang Kuei-fei is presented in both Chinese plays just as that of Antony and Cleopatra is presented in both English plays. And both are stories of "the world well lost" for love. The parallel between the two Chinese plays and Antony and Cleopatra is particularly close, because they all throw the unities of time and place by the board; and in the first half of all of them, tragic scenes and events are entirely absent. They all begin idyllically, but how differently they end! In reading the two Chinese plays, we are not lifted beyond personal sympathy to a higher plane of experience. The piercing lyricism of Rain in the Oil Trees and the sensuous and emotional luxury of The Palace of Everlasting Life are fine things in themselves, but they are not to be confused with tragic power. Instead of a sense of reconciliation and fruition, they leave us at the end weakened by vicarious suffering, with a tiny ache in the heart, crying for some solace or support and a scheme of things nearer to the heart's desire. This is surely worlds away from the full tragic experience which, as Mr. I. A. Richards describes so finely in Principles of Literary Criticism, " stands uncomforted, unintimidated, alone and self-reliant." Now, one kind of experience may be as precious as another, but one kind of experience cannot possess the same feeling-tang as another.
These Chinese plays leave the reader yearning for a better scheme of things instead of that feeling of having come to the bitter end of everything. This impression is heightened by the structure of the plays. The curtain does not fall on the main tragic event, but on the aftermath of that event. The tragic moment with passion at its highest and pain at its deepest seems to ebb out in a long falling close. This gives the peculiar effect of lengthening-out as of a trill or a sigh. It is significant that in Rain in the Oil Trees Yang Kuei-fei dies in the third act, leaving a whole act to the Emperor to whine and pine and eat away in impotent grief the remains of his broken heart, and that in The Palace of Everlasting Life, the bereavement occurs in the twenty-fifth scene only to prepare us for the happy reunion (more or less after the fashion of Protesilaus and Laodamia in Wordsworth's poem) in the fiftieth scene. What is more important still, one is unable to rise beyond a merely personal sympathy with the tragic characters because they are not great enough to keep us at a sufficient psychical distance from them. The tragic flaw (***) is there, but it is not thrown into sharp relief with any weight of personality or strength of character. The Emperor, for example, appears in the plays as essentially a weak, ineffectual and almost selfish sensualist who drifts along the line of least resistance. He has no sense of inward conflict. He loses the world by loving Yang Kuei-fei and then gives her up in the attempt to win back the world. He has not character enough to be torn taut between two worlds; he has not even sense enough to make the best of both worlds. In Pei Jen-fu's play he seems a coward and a cad. Pressed by rebels for Yang Kuei-fei's life, he says to her: "I cannot help it. Even my own life is at stake." When Yang Kuei-fei implores him, he replies: "What can I do!" When finally Yang Kuei-fei is led away by the rebels, he says to her: "Don't blame me, my dear." We have no love for rant and fustian, but these speeches are understatements with a vengeance. They stand self-convicted; any comment on them is superfluous. In Hung Shen's play, the Emperor indeed puts on a bolder front. Yang Kuei-fei meets her death bravely, but the Emperor will not let her, and talks of the world well lost for love. After a little hedging, however, he delivers her over to the rebels with these parting words: "Since you have made up your mind to die, how can I prevent you?" To do justice to the Emperor, these words are spoken very feelingly with tears and much stamping of foot. But compare them with Antony's speech in Shakespeare's play:
"Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space." or ever with Antony's more plain words in Dryden's play:
"Take all, the world is not worth my care! Indeed, it is almost a critical gaffe to compare things so radically different. To cling bloodthirstily to life in face of calamity and then to luxuriate in grief is anything but tragic. I know very well that as a matter of historical fact, the Emperor did not die as Antony did. But my point is that while there is tragic quintessence enough and to spare in this situation even without the Emperor's death, our old dramatists in handling the situation have not produced plays which give us the full tragic experience.
  Hence I beg to differ—with great diffidence, to be sure—from such an authority on old Chinese drama as the late Wang Kuo-wei (王国维). In A History of the Dramas of the Sung and Yuan Dynasties(《宋元戏曲史》), Wang Kuo-wei says: "Dramas written since the Ming dynasty are all comedies. But some of the Yuan dramas are tragic. In plays like The Han Palace in Autumn 《汉宫秋》, Rain in the Oil Trees, etc., there is neither recognition nor happy reversal of fortune. The most tragic of all are Kuan Han-ch'ing's The Gross Injustice to Maid Tou (关汉卿《窦娥冤》) and Chi Chün-hsiang's Chao's Orphan (纪君祥《赵氏孤儿》). In these two plays, although the calamity comes through the machinations of the villains, yet the tragic heroes assert their will-power to the full in precipitating the calamity and facing it without wince. Thus, they are quite worthy of the company of the greatest tragedies of the world." These bold words are quoted from the twelfth chapter on "The Yuan Drama considered as Literature" (元曲之文章)
We have already discussed Rain in the Oil Trees . As Augustine Birrell wittily puts it: "The strength of a rope may be but the strength of its weakest part, but poets are to be judged in their happiest hours ; so we shall examine the two plays which Wang Kuo-wei has singled out as "the most tragic." If we may multiply distinctions, we can see no less than three claims made by Wang Kuo-wei for the two plays in question. First, they are great literary masterpieces, to which we may heartily agree. Second, they are great tragedies because the hero's assertion of will issues in calamity, about which we have some reserves to make. Third, they are great tragedies in the sense that, let us say, Oedipus and Othello and Berenice are great tragedies, with which we beg leave to differ. Indeed, Wang Kuo-wei's whole conception of the tragic as springing from the assertion of will seems definitely Corneillian; and the tragic conflict as conceived by him is even less inward than that as conceived by Corneille who, however perfunctorily, does sometimes touch upon the rudes combats between propre honneur and amour as in the case of Rodrigue in Le Cid. The proof of the pudding lies in the eating: let us examine the two plays briefly in turn.
We shall take The Gross Injustice to Maid Tou first. Tou Tien-chang, a poverty-stricken scholar, leaves for the capital to participate in the competitive examination and hands over his daughter Tou Tuan-yün to a widow to pay for some old debt. After eight years Tou Tuan-yün marries the widow's son who dies of consumption two years later. The villain Chang Ltl-er takes a fancy to her, but she adheres to the traditional moral code of constancy to one man and will have nothing to do with him. Finally Chang poisons his own father and accuses her of the murder. Then comes the blood-curdling law-court scene in which she claims the whole guilt to herself in order to avert the suspicion from her mother-in-law. She is sentenced to death. On the scaffold, she invokes Heaven to have pity on her and visit a drought of three years upon the people. This takes place in Act III. In Act IV, Tou Tien-chang who has been away for a long time, and who now becomes the Lord Chief Justice, ferrets out the case and revenges for his daughter's death. This is a rough summary of the main incidents of the play. The characteristic poetic justice in the last act is very soothing to our outraged feelings, but the pertinent question is: does it heighten the tragic event? Even if we waive the question for a moment and leave the fourth act out of account, can we say of the three preceding acts that they give us a total impression of tragedy "unintimidated, uncomforted, self-reliant and alone"? One looks into one's own heart and answers no. One feels that Tou Tuan-ytin's character is so noble and flawless, her death so pathetic, and the wrong done to her so outrageous that the fourth act is imperatively called for to adjust the balance. In other words, the playwright has so presented the situation that the play is bound to end in poetic justice and not in tragedy. Why? Tou Tuan-yün perishes neither for any fault of her own nor by any decree of Fate. If there is any tragic flaw in her character, the playwright has turned the blind spot to it and evidently wishes us to do the same. The playwright's own sympathy is certainly with her, our moral judgment is with her, and even Divinity or Fate, is with her—teste the drought and the fall of snow. Why then—in the name of all gods and wanton boys who kill for sport—not a little poetic justice? Again, the tragic conflict as presented in the play is a purely outward one. Her mind is all of a piece: there is a pre-established harmony between her constancy to the dead husband and her repugnance to the new suitor. She opposes the villain and meets the challenge with an undivided soul. The assertion of one's will in such a case is comparatively an easy matter. The conflict, however, may be made internal by showing Tou Tuan-yün's love of her own life warring with the wish to save her mother-in-law's life. Significantly enough, the dramatist fails to grasp this.
Our criticisms of The Gross Injustice to Maid Tou apply more or less to Chao's Orphan too. The hero of this play is Ch'eng Ying, the family physician of Chao, who sacrifices his own child to save the life of the orphan and finally instigates the orphan to take vengeance on the villain. The play closes with ample poetic justice and universal jubilee: the villain is cruelly done to death, the orphan recovers his lost property, and Ch'eng Ying receives rewards for his sacrifice. Here the tragic conflict is more intense and more internal. Ch'eng Ying's self-division between love for his own boy and the painful duty of sacrifice is powerfully presented.2 But unfortunately, the competing forces, love and duty, are not of equal strength and there is apparently no difficulty for the one to conquer the other. Ch'eng Ying obviously thinks (and the dramatist invites us to think with him) that it is more righteous to fulfil the duty of sacrifice than to indulge in paternal love—"a little more and how much it is!" The combats here are not rudes at all. The taut tragic opposition is snapped and the scale tips towards one side. This is shown most clearly in the case of Kun-sun Ch'u-chiu who in sacrificing his own life to protect the orphan, shows not the slightest hesitation in choosing between love and duty. This play which gives high promise to be a tragedy "worthy of the company of the greatest tragedies in the world" ends in material fruition rather than spiritual waste. I hasten to add that I make these criticisms without in the least denying that Chao's Orphan is a very moving play and shows even greater promise of tragic power than The Gross Injustice to Maid Tou.
  There are, according to Dr. L. A. Reid (to whose lucid discussion of tragedy in A Study of Aesthetics I am much indebted), two main types of tragedy. In the first, the interest tends to be centered on character. In the second, Fate itself draws the attention. Shakespearean tragedies belong to the first type, while Greek tragedies to the second. Our old dramas which can be called tragedies only by courtesy tend towards the Shakespearean type. like Shakespearean tragedies, they dispense with the unities and emphasise characters and their responses to evil circumstances. But they are not tragedies because, as we have seen, the playwrights have but an inadequate conception of the tragic flaw and conflict. In a note on "Chinese Primitivism" in Rousseau and Romanticism, the late Irving Babbitt ascribes our lack of tragedy to the absence of ethical seriousness among our people. The phrase is ambiguous and a little explanation would be welcome. Perhaps Babbitt means by it that "artificiality" which we refer to in the beginning of this article. If our own analysis above is true at all, then the defect seems to arise from our peculiar arrangement of virtues in a hierarchy. Every moral value is assigned its proper place on the scale, and all substances and claims are arranged according to a strict " order of merit." Hence the conflict between two incompatible ethical substances loses much of its sharpness, because as one of them is of higher moral value than the other, the one of lower value fights all along a losing batde. Thus we see a linear personality and not a parallel one. The neglect of the lower ethical substance is amply compensated by the fulfilment of the higher one so that it is not "tragic excess" at all—witness Mencius' epigram on the conduct of the "great man" (大人) in Li-lou (《离娄》) and Liu Tsung-yuan's superfine essay On Four Cardinal Virtues (柳宗元《四维论》) . This view is certainly borne out by our old dramas. We are supposed to be a fatalistic people. It is therefore curious that Fate is so little used as a tragic motif by our old dramatists. But tragic Fate has at bottom nothing to do with fatalism. Fatalism is essentially a defeatist, passive, acceptant attitude which results in lethargy and inaction whereas tragic irony consists in the very fact that in face of mockeries of Fate at every endeavour, man continues to strive. Moreover, what we ordinarily mean by Fate is something utterly different from Fate as revealed in Greek tragedies. Professor Whitehead points out in Science and the Modern World: "The pilgrim fathers of the scientific imagination as it exists today, are the great tragedians of ancient Athens— Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides. Their vision of fate, remorseless and indifferent, urging a tragic incident to its inevitable issue, is the vision possessed by science. . . . The laws of physics are the decrees of fate." Now, our idea of Fate has not such scientific vigour and is really poetic justice which Dr. A. C. Bradley in Shakespearean Tragedy asks us to distinguish sharply from tragic injustice—that prosperity and adversity are distributed in proportion to the merits of the agents. In other words, our conception of Fate is the equivalence of action and award rather than that of cause and effect. It is not the ethically neutral idea that the doer must suffer, but the sentimental belief that virtue is its own reward with additional rewards to be forthcoming. It is not merely a case of as you sow, so you reap"; it is the case of "as you sow in joy, you cannot reap in tears." Thus, whereas the effect cannot be in disproportion to the cause, the award may quite conceivably be disproportionate to the action. We usually explain away this disproportion by the theory of metempsychosis: we either have owed scores in a previous life or will receive compensations in a future one. This idea and the Greek idea stand at opposite poles. Again, Fate as we usually conceive of it, is menschliches, allzumenschliches as Nietzsche says in another connection. Its irony is not awful, but petty, malign and "coquettish" as Hardy says of Providence—witness the interesting play The Monument of Tsien Fu Monastery («荐福碑»)by Ma Chih-yuan (马致远
). Mr. E. M. Forster's criticism of Hardy in Aspects of the Novel holds good also with this play.
We have so far accounted for the absence of tragedy in old Chinese literature by reasons suggested by the dramas themselves. Of course we can explain the absence by racial and cultural reasons. We can make it a jumping-off place to plunge into some interesting sociological and anthropological guess-work. We can even take the hint from Whitehead and explain the backwardness of our science by the absence of tragedy. But these things I must leave to more competent persons. After all, we can only do one thing at a time. Our comparative study of Chinese and Western dramas is helpful for two reasons. First, it dispels many illusions cherished even by Chinese critics about our own drama. Second, it helps students of comparative literature to assign old Chinese drama to its proper place in the Palace of Art. It has been my conviction that if students of comparative literature can include old Chinese literature in their purview, they will find many new data which may lead to important modifications of those dogmata critica formulated by Western critics. For students of the history of old Chinese criticism, such a comparative study of actual literatures is especially important, because only by means of it can they understand how the data of our old critics differ from those of Western critics, and why those first principles of Western criticism are not seized upon by our own critics and vice versa. This has ever been my aim in my various studies of our old literature. To have our fill of some aesthetic experiences, we must go to foreign literatures; to have our fill of others, to our own. Asceticism in the study of literature is bad enough, but patriotism which refuses to acknowledge "good things" coming "out of Nazareth" is even worse.


  1. In writing the present article, the writer has profited by discussions with his former teacher Professor Y.N.Wen and his friend Dr.W.F.Wang.
  2. Dr. W. F. Wang reminds me of the similarity of situation between this play and the story of Abraham and Isaac.

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