Book III in Wang Shifu's The Story of the Western Wing

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Book III in Wang Shifu's The Story of the Western Wing

One of China’s most popular love comedies, The Story of the Western Wing (Xixiang Ji) by Wang Shifu (1250-1300) dramatizes a scholar-and-beauty romance. Zhang Sheng, a promising student, and Cui Yingying, a beautiful maiden, meet in a temple, fall in love at first sight and after a series of thwarted attempts, they end up happily marrying each other, after the student has passed the civil exam as the top one, of course. Among the five books of The Story of the Western Wing, Book III stands out in the very middle of the whole play with interesting characteristics in terms of both theatrical features and thematic complexity. First of all, while dan and sheng share most of the
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Structurally speaking, Book III appears between two climaxes. Book II promises a marriage for the two lovers but ends up damping their expectations as well as that of the audience all of a sudden when Madam Cui takes back her word. Book IV begins with the long-awaited climactic scene in which Zhang Sheng and Yingying consummate their love. Put in between these two episodes of dramatic tension and emotional intensity, Book III may at the surface merely serve as a buffer, that is, a temporary relief from the breath-taking conflicts on the part of the audience. Actually, the dramatic rhythm at this stage does slow down. As the central character, Hongniang frequently evokes laughter from the audience with her quick repartee and satirical comments on the pretentious lovers. Apart from all this, however, by making Hongniang sing all the time and keeping the lovers relatively reticent—they are only heard in dialogues—Book III complicates the interrelationships between the three characters and significantly contributes to the psychological depth of this play. In other words, while foregrounding Hongniang and exploring the complexity in her motivation, the play also employs her as a vehicle for the off-stage conflicts between Zhang Sheng and Yingying and their inner conflicts, which are much less spectacular than they are psychological.

However, one has to begin with the question

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