Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare in Chinese Cultural Context

The 400th Anniversary for Tang Xianzu (1550-1616) and Shakespeare (1564-1616) raises intriguing questions among Chinese literary scholars. Aside from comparison between their literary skills and mastery of the art of language, the historical “coincidence” that they died in the same year always raises puzzles: does their life span have particular significance in the development of world history to beget the great stars in literary imagination?

Both Tang and Shakespeare were popular for contemporary theatre viewers around the 1600s, and well recognized as great masters in literature for centuries, but why was the reputation of Tang Xianzu diminished while Shakespeare became a household name for any educated person in 20th Century China?

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

The talk will use The Peony Pavilion as an example to show his mastery of depicting a young woman’s longing for love and to unravel Tang’s sophisticated interest in female consciousness as a parable of his lifelong pursuit in the emancipation of self to find universal “innate nature” (liangzhi).

This event will also include a short performance of scenes from The Peony Pavilion, presented by two leading performers from the Suzhou Kunqu Opera Academy. The opera academy will be performing The Peony Pavillion in full between the 28th - 30th September at the Troxy Theatre.

There will also be a short drinks reception following the event.

Pei-kai Cheng

President, China Institute (HK) ; Chairman, Hong Kong SAR Intangible Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee

Professor Pei-kai Cheng, Ph.D in Chinese Cultural History from Yale University (1980), had previously taught in the U.S. for twenty years at State University of New York at Albany, Yale University, and Pace University at New York City. He was also a visiting professor at National Taiwan University and National Tsing Hua University during 1991-1995. He founded Chinese Civilisation Centre in 1998 at City University of Hong Kong and since then served as the founding Director and Professor of Chinese culture. He is now serving as President of China Institute and Chairman, Hong Kong SAR Intangible Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee.

His main research interests include 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. In these diverse but interrelated areas, he has published and edited more than 100 books in addition to numerous articles and essays exploring the essential issues concerning the changing nature of Chinese material culture and cultural aesthetics.

This lecture has been organised in conjunction with the School of Advanced Study and the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Event details

  • 27 September 2016 17:30
  • Pei-kai Cheng
  • Senate House Library Event