Theses Doctoral

History as Meta-Theater: Kong Shangren’s (1648-1718) The Peach Blossom Fan

Bernard, Allison Elizabeth

This dissertation examines the uses of meta-theater in The Peach Blossom Fan, an early Qing historical drama by Kong Shangren (1648-1718), arguing that the meta-theatrical elements of the play serve as an innovative form of historiography. Kong Shangren, a member of the Confucian Kong lineage, is unusual for a Chinese playwright: he was steeped more deeply in the world of Confucian ritual music than the work of writing lyrics for dramatic arias, yet The Peach Blossom Fan is recognized as one of the last great chuanqi dramas of the Ming-Qing period. Kong wrote at a time of great social and cultural transformation, completing The Peach Blossom Fan not long after the violent conflicts of the mid-17th century Ming-Qing dynastic transition were finally coming to an end. At the same time, the literary genre of chuanqi drama was also in the midst of its own transitions, as writers of the early Qing increasingly turned to other literary genres beyond this popular late Ming form. I argue that The Peach Blossom Fan marks a key transition in the development of the chuanqi drama, owing both to the play’s formal innovations that exceed the traditional chuanqi form, such as its rejection of the conventional “grand reunion” finale and re-envisioning of the role-type system, and also to its synthesis of historiographical judgements with the world of theatrical performance.

Focusing on the play’s uses of meta-theater, I show how The Peach Blossom Fan models the work of historiography by guiding its readers to cultivate the “cold, clear eyes” of a historical witness. Kong Shangren’s methods as a playwright-historian are at their best in The Peach Blossom Fan’s engagement with Ruan Dacheng (1587-1646): a blacklisted late Ming politician who was also a well-received playwright in his own time. Ruan’s life and work have been largely neglected in previous scholarship, despite his significance as a 17th century dramatist. The Peach Blossom Fan uniquely places Ruan Dacheng on stage as a dramatic character at the same time as it turns Ruan’s own chuanqi drama, The Swallow Letter, into an unsuccessful play-within-a-play. In so doing, The Peach Blossom Fan invites reflection on the writer alongside his work, synecdochically turning The Swallow Letter into the music of the collapsing Ming Dynasty and pronouncing Ruan’s fate as the villainous playwright who wrote it. Kong thereby creates a new dramatic motif of the “playwright on stage” — a method of meta-theatrical literary criticism that is picked up by later playwrights, such as the mid-Qing writer Jiang Shiquan.

In The Peach Blossom Fan, Kong Shangren also creates a new vision for the worldly stage within and around his play; one in which the problems of social and theatrical performance are tied up in the formal world of the printed chuanqi drama. I analyze the textual dimensions of the play’s meta-theatrical innovations by focusing on Kong’s engagement with the late Ming Linchuan drama school, from The Peach Blossom Fan’s performative re-casting of the familiar female self-portrait motif, to the play’s meta-theatrical reflections on Kong’s own position as its early Qing playwright. The Peach Blossom Fan is framed through a series of paratexts, including an account of how the play itself came into being. The self-reflexivity of The Peach Blossom Fan as a literary text thereby extends its meta-theatrical frames to Kong Shangren’s world as its playwright, using notions of theatrical performance to examine the work of reading, writing, and ritual. Taken together, I contend, these layers of The Peach Blossom Fan theatricalize the literary genre of the chuanqi, drawing attention to the representational limits of historical narratives and capturing the ways in which writing is yet another form of performance.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Shang, Wei
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 5, 2019