Based on ratings and online buzz alone, the costume drama “A Dream of Splendor” might just become the most talked about new show of the summer. Some of that can be attributed to a big-name cast featuring Liu Yifei from Disney’s “Mulan,” but the series’ producers have also attributed the show’s success to its roots in Chinese literary tradition – particularly the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1361) the opera “Saving a Courtesan” by playwright Guan Hanqing.
Sandwiched between the poetry of the Tang and Song dynasties on the one hand, and the rise of Ming and Qing vernacular literature on the other, the Yuan have long been the odd dynasty of the Chinese literary canon. This is particularly true of zaju, a kind of popular musical during the Yuan. The genre differs so radically from contemporary plays in its format that even works by masters like Guan are rarely staged today.
So it’s a shame that the producers’ bragging is misleading at best. A true adaptation of Guan’s play would be fascinating, but the only thing the first eight episodes of “A Dream of Splendor” take from “Rescuing a Courtesan” are the names of its heroines, Zhao Pan’er and Song Yinzhang; its tame, fairy-tale romance couldn’t be further from Guan’s more transgressive original.
Not much is known about Guan Hanqing’s life. Even the exact dates of his birth and death are unknown, although scholars speculate that he was born before the Mongol takeover of the Jin Dynasty in 1234 and died sometime after 1300. He spent most of his life in Dadu, in the modern era. Beijing, where he worked as a doctor at the Imperial Yuan Hospital. In his later years, he settled south of the economic and cultural center of Jiangnan, at the mouth of the Yangtze River. It was there that he wrote his best-known work Sanqua kind of lyrical poetry which, like zajuwas popular in the Yuan period.
There is evidence that Guan wrote at least 67 plays in his lifetime, 18 of which have been preserved. The content of these works varied widely, from tragedies and comedies to crime and historical dramas. He was also heavily involved in the management, production, direction and acting of theater troupes, with his combination of productivity and hands-on approach to theater earning him comparisons with Shakespeare.
An illustration for “The injustice towards Dou E.” CGV
Perhaps Guan’s best-known play is “The Injustice to Dou E”, which tells the tragic story of the titular young widow as she is harassed and framed by corrupt officials. Eventually executed as a result of judicial corruption and bribery, her dying wish is for her blood to fly as high as the white silk floating above, for snow to fall in June and cover her body, and for the region experiences a three-year drought. Working from a mixture of official historical biography and oral history, Guan Hanqing elevates this previously obscure young woman into a tragic figure. Trapped in the lowest rungs of society and with nothing to her name, Dou E nevertheless vehemently rebels against a world in which those in power can do whatever they want. “What kind of land are you that can’t tell the difference between good and bad? And what use is a sky that takes value for madness? she asks in a famous monologue.
The characters in “Rescue of a Courtesan” exist in a similar milieu. At that time, playwrights, lyricists, actors, and courtesans all occupied the bottom rung of the social ladder, and Guan would have been familiar with the kind of women who had to sell their smiles and voices to the rich to survive. While he sympathized with their exploitation, he also appreciated the insight they displayed, and they became a staple of his comedies. “Rescuing a Courtesan,” for example, tells how Zhao Pan’er saves fellow courtesan, Song Yinzhang, from a wealthy but abusive client through a mixture of cunning and charm.
It’s a quintessential demimonde tale, but it’s apparently not good enough for contemporary viewers. In “A Dream of Splendor”, Zhao is not just a sharp courtesan; she learns account management from her madam and ends up getting rid of her “untouchable” status to take over a tea house. Song, on the other hand, sells art, not flesh. Both are portrayed as fiercely protective of their chastity and repeatedly stress that nothing can be more vile than sex. The message is clear: to be worth saving, girls must first save themselves by remaining chaste and pure, even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Based on this standard, Guan’s characters are degenerate, despicable women unworthy of being saved. For one thing, in the play, Song favors the rich, hates the poor, and harbors wildly unrealistic dreams of marrying out of prostitution. Although Zhao is more lucid, his fiery nature earns him a reputation for indecent speech and behavior.
A series of stamps produced in honor of Guan Hanqing and his work in 1958. From 518yp.com
For Guan, none of this was a problem. He felt no need to center his stories on holy and chaste women. Instead, he enjoyed writing about flawed heroines with intense emotions and complex personalities. Zhao despises men and ridicules them as her conquests, but she also struggles with her reputation and yearns to dress like a virtuous woman, instead of the heavy makeup and world-weary face of a courtesan.
Nor did Guan’s work avoid the harsh realities and contradictions of being a woman trapped by unjust financial and power structures. In Guan’s “Gold Thread Pond,” the heroine Du Ruiniang denounces the sex trade as an evil business reserved for the hypocrites and the ruthless; she also confesses to taking the family fortune of countless men. In “A Deceitful Hussy Toys with Romance”, the protagonist Yanyan is seduced and abandoned by a wealthy young man. She chooses to bear the humiliation stoically, until the man laughs her to her face and she explodes in a fit of suppressed rage.
After Yanyan brings the young man’s life and arranged marriage to the brink of ruin, the man’s mother orders him to appease Yanyan by taking her as his concubine. Yanyan rejects the offer out of hand. “I never wanted to be a concubine,” she replies. “What do I care about his wealth? I really loved him very much and was ready to be with him at that time.
Compare these depictions to that of Zhao Pan’er in “A Dream of Splendor”. Not content with distorting the meaning of Guan’s text, the showrunners cast Zhao as a fallen noble – secretly the equal of her romantic partner. It’s an increasingly common trope in contemporary dramas, where it seems the only “correct” matches are those in which the hero and heroine are not only well-matched in love, but also in social status.
Guan would have disdained such tricks. Although he sometimes wrote about noblewomen, he saw no intrinsic distinction between them and courtesans. One has been trapped in a golden birdcage, the other in a dancing school, but both are treated as objects to be bought and sold by the people around them.
An image from the web series “A dream of splendor”. By @电视剧梦华录 on Weibo
The issues with “A Dream of Splendor” go beyond genre and reflect a broader passivity in the face of an unfair world. Zhao and Song both recognize that the values of their time are wrong, but rather than push back or stick together, their only strategy is to wait for a “good emperor”, a prince in shining armor who will right the wrongs that were made to them.
In the meantime, the series allows Zhao to exist outside of the harsh realities of his time. She can never be impure, never be immodest, never fall in love with the wrong person or be too low-born to marry the right one. It’s a depiction of gender, class, and power far more mundane than anything found in Guan Hanqing’s 700-year-old work — a secretly misogynistic story of submissive, high-class women waiting for fate saves them, packaged as female empowerment.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: photo taken from the web series “A Dream of Splendor”. By @电视剧梦华录 on Weibo)