William Dolby

Classical Chinese Translations and Research

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9. West Wing Chantefable by Tung Chieh-yüan

Book Details

"West Wing Chantefable by Tung Chieh-yüan, around AD1200" as translated by William Dolby was self published in 2005. This work represents the 9th of 33 of the Chinese Culture Series.

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West Wing chantefable (Hsi-hsiang chi chu-kung-tiao) is a long sung-story ballad composed in northern China around AD 1200. It's the only whole surviving example of its genre, and the most extensive extant poem before more recent ages.

Its theme is that of China's most famous romance story, set, of all places, in a Buddhist monastery, and involves a life-threatening siege by mutinied soldiery, a rousing battle between an ex-bandit monk and the besieging generals, surprisingly direct sex, the machinations of a slanderous ex-fiancé, and loads of fine feelings and uproarious humour. Its language in the Chinese is a wonderfully at-ease mingling of the most high-flown Classical with the raciest and most slangy colloquial of the times, and all ranges in-between, the contrasts and clashes of linguistic levels exploited as delightful foils to each other.

Although it's based on a sad short story, itself probably based very much on real life events, from several centuries earlier, this ballad is an enormous creative expansion, unique in verse and narrative ingenuity. It had a huge influence on later entertainments and literature, largely inspiring China's most famous stage drama, and, by its gusty dramatically, its confidently eclectic use of language and its most effective musical organisation of core arias, it no doubt encouraged and informed the blossoming of China's first great Golden Age of drama, which emerged in the 13th and 14th Centuries AD. Subsequent centuries, and modern times, saw a great deal of later theatre and other kinds of literature on the same story cycle, including a big novel in the 1950's and various screen representations.