Celebrating the two bards: China’s Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare

Monday 26 September 2016

‘All the world’s a stage’ and China’s bard, Tang Xianzu, trod its boards at the same time as our own William Shakespeare. This week a unique collaboration between Senate House Library, the School of Advanced Study and SOAS will honour China’s most famous playwright with a lecture at Senate House (27 September, 5.30–7pm).

Entitled Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare in Chinese cultural context, it will be delivered by Professor Pei-kai Cheng (above), an expert on Tang’s works, president of the China Institute and chairman of the Hong Kong Intangible Cultural Heritage Committee.

Like the Bard, Tang Xianzu, died in 1616, a ‘coincidence’ that raises intriguing questions among Chinese literary scholars. This has led many of them to conduct comparative studies of their works, which remain highly influential to this day.

He may not have been as prolific, and nor is he as internationally renowned as Shakespeare, but Tang Xianzu was a liberal thinker ahead of time. His four masterpieces – The Peony Pavilion, The Legend of the Purple Hairpin, The Story of Handan and The Dream of Nanke – collectively known as The Four Dreams of Yuming Tang, are the most significant works in the Chinese operatic canon. The Ming dynasty dramatist’s best-known opera, The Peony Pavilion, continues to be performed worldwide.

Both Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare were popular among theatre viewers in the 1600’s, and recognised for centuries as great masters in literature. But why did Tang Xianzu’s reputation diminish while Shakespeare became a household name in 20th century China?

And why was Tang Xianzu resurrected from the oblivion of the past and heralded in recent years as a grand master in Chinese cultural aesthetics, and his plays compared to those of Shakespeare? These are some of the questions that will be discussed at the 27 September event in the context of China’s modern transformation and promotion of vernacular literature since the 1919 May Fourth Movement.

The talk will use The Peony Pavilion, which depicts a young woman’s longing for love, to demonstrate Tang’s mastery of his medium and to explore his sophisticated interest in female consciousness as a parable of his lifelong pursuit in the emancipation of self to find universal ‘innate nature’ (liangzhi).

The event will also include a short performance of scenes from The Peony Pavilion, by two leading performers from the Suzhou Kunqu Opera company. (The opera academy will perform The Peony Pavilion in full on 28–30 September at the London’s Troxy theatre).

The Senate House lecture is free and open to the public but registration is required: http://bit.ly/2cHiH8R.

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Notes for Editors
1. For further information
please contact Emily Stidston at Senate House Library, University of London at emily.stidston@london.ac.uk / 020 7862 8417. Images available on request.

2. Senate House Library (SHL) is one of the world’s most significant collections in the arts, humanities and social sciences. With its partner libraries of the institutes of the School of Advanced Study, it provides services to readers from the School of Advanced Study, the colleges of the federal University of London, and from London, regional, national and international research communities. All are welcome to join the Library through a membership programme for the University of London, other UK universities, overseas universities, or as a member of the public. The Library and its collections have been continuously developed since the 1870s. It now holds more than two million printed books, thousands of printed and electronic journals, and the highest proportion of historic collections of any university library in the UK. Modern materials in printed and electronic formats are collected at research level and in Western European languages to support cross- and inter-disciplinary research in subjects such as English studies, history, philosophy, music, Romance and Germanic languages, palaeography, art history and area studies. Senate House Library also holds the University of London Archive – the historic record of the university – and is responsible for the University of London Artworks Collection. Acquisitions are also made to the Historic Collections, and notable collections include the Goldsmiths’ Library of Economic Literature, the Sterling Library and the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature. Learn more about Senate House Library at http://senatehouselibrary.ac.uk/.

3. The School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London, is the UK’s national centre for the promotion and support of research in the humanities. SAS and its member institutes offer unparalleled academic opportunities and facilities across a wide range of subject areas for the benefit of the national and international scholarly community. In 2014-15, SAS welcomed 805 research fellows and associates, held 2,073 research dissemination events, received 23.1 million visits to its digital research resources and platforms and received 213,456 visits to its specialist libraries and collections. The School also leads the UK’s only nationwide festival of the humanities, Being Human. Find out more at www.sas.ac.uk or follow SAS on Twitter at @SASNews.

4. The University of London is a federal university and one of the oldest, largest and most diverse universities in the UK. Established by Royal Charter in 1836, the university is recognised globally as a world leader in higher education. It consists of 18 member institutions of outstanding reputation and nine prestigious research institutes. Learn more about the University of London at http://www.london.ac.uk.

5. Professor Pei-kai Cheng gained his PhD in Chinese cultural history from Yale University, and has taught at the State University of New York at Albany, Yale University and Pace University, New York. From 1991–95, he was a visiting professor at National Taiwan University and National Tsing Hua University. In 1998, founded the Chinese Civilisation Centre at the City University of Hong Kong. He is now president of the China Institute and chairman of the Hong Kong SAR Intangible Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee. His main research interests include the history of Chinese cultural aesthetics, Chinese theatre tradition and modern films, intangible cultural heritage and its modern predicament, tea and cultural aesthetics, and Chinese export porcelain and maritime trade. He has published and edited more than 100 books and numerous articles and essays exploring the changing nature of Chinese material culture and cultural aesthetics.

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