An Example a Chinese Literary Masterpiece

This complex narrative about love, its dangers and intoxicating power requires a background study. The serious student inquiring about the masterpiece needed to know the background not for the sake of being technical or conscientious; but for the simple reason that by doing so, one is assured that it is the proper way of enjoying this work of art – fully savoring its intended effect.

But even before going into the details of providing a historical background that includes the life story of the author, a minor problem about translation issues has to be addressed first. Being of an ancient origin and being a foreign literary work from the ancient Middle Kingdom in a time and place where almost nothing can be compared to, the student looking into the story will encounter different translations of the title, author’s name and those of the characters in the story.

The Story of Ying-ying is also known as the Encounter with a Fairy; which is also sometimes translated as An Encounter with an Immortal. The author popularly known as Yuan Chen whose name can be also rendered as Yuan Zhen. And for the protagonists in the story the male lover’s name is Chang which is also rendered as Zhang while the lady lover is Ying-ying who also is known as the young Ms. Ts’ui or Cui. A Historical Approach

For being a work written a long time ago it is to its advantage that the story be first introduced as a product of a the Tang Dynasty, written between 803-806 C. E. According to Lu Hsun in his book A Brief History of Chinese Fiction, the author’s name was Yuan Chen (779-831) of Honei in Honan Prefecture, wrote very little compared to other great poets of that time, yet he was extremely well known and influential. Lu Hsun also adds that Yuan Chen was a government scholar and appointed as an imperial compiler; and then he gave a summary of Chen’s life:

Early in the ninth century he came first in the government essay test and was made an adviser, later a censor; subsequently he was demoted and sent to Chiangling, became secretary of Kuochow, was recalled to court as secretary to the privy councilor, later made senior academician, then was appointed vice-minister of works and deputy prime minister, then sent to be prefect of Tungchow and Yuchchow and intendat of Chetung; in the beginning of the Tai Ho period (827-835) he became prime minister and military governor of Wuchang, as well as prefect of Ngochow (p. 194).

There can be many things that one can glean from this body of information. First of all, the author was no ordinary artist wandering around the countryside looking for inspiration for his great masterpiece but instead one finds a man in high positions in government. If it is difficult to succeed in government today then it must have been more difficult in the time of Yuan Chen when education was not yet considered a right of a child but a privilege.

This brings the student of history to another conclusion that the author is extremely gifted not only as a master of linguistics but also as an expert on law, leadership, politics and management. Fatima Wu as quoted by Robin Wan in his work, Images of Women in Chinese Thought and Culture, saw another side of Yuan Chen – perhaps basing her conclusions on the events that happened in the author’s life as well as his high position in government – she asserts that this “tale of an illicit relationship between a scholar and an innocent young woman in order to warn men of the vice of lust” is in fact an autobiographical work.

Of which Fatima Wu concluded, “The story gained much popularity during its time and continues to evoke many responses from later scholars and writers the most well-known of which are Deng Jieyuan’s medley (Chugongdiao), the Western Chamber Romance in the Song dynasty, and the Romance of the Western Chamber (Xixiangji) by the master playwright, Wang Shifu, in the Yuan dynasty” (p. 391).