Romance of the Western Chamber

A scene from a multi-colored woodblock printing album depicting scenes from the play

Romance of the Western Chamber (traditional Chinese: 西廂記; simplified Chinese: 西厢记; pinyin: Xīxiāng Jì; Wade–Giles: Hsi-hsiang-chi), also translated as The Story of the Western Wing, The West Chamber, Romance of the Western Bower and similar titles, is one of the most famous Chinese dramatic works. It was written by the Yuan dynasty playwright Wang Shifu (王實甫), and set during the Tang dynasty. Known as "China's most popular love comedy,"[1] it is the story of a young couple consummating their love without parental approval, and has been seen both as a "lover's bible" and "potentially lethal," as readers were in danger of pining away under its influence.[2]

Contents of the PlayEdit

Scenes from The Story of the Western Win, painted by Chinese artist Qiu Ying仇英 (ca. 1494-1552), collected by Freer Gallery of Artand Arthur M. Sackler Gallerynow [

Play I, Burning Incense and Worshiping the Moon

Play II, Icy Strings Spell Out Grief

Play III,Feelings Transmitted by Lines of Poetry

Play IV, A Clandestine Meeting of Rain and Clouds

Play V, A Reunion Ordained by Heaven


An ivory fan depicting scenes from The Story of the Western Wing in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

The play has twenty-one acts in five parts. It tells the story of a secret love affair between Zhang Sheng, a young scholar, and Cui Yingying, the daughter of a chief minister of the Tang court. The two first meet in a Buddhist monastery. Yingying and her mother have stopped there to rest while escorting the coffin of Yingying's father to their native town. Zhang Sheng falls in love with her immediately, but is prevented from expressing his feelings while Yingying is under her mother's watchful eye. The most he can do is express his love in a poem read aloud behind the wall of the courtyard in which Yingying is lodging.[3]

However, word of Yingying's beauty soon reaches Sun the Flying Tiger, a local bandit. He dispatches ruffians to surround the monastery, in the hopes of taking her as his consort. Yingying's mother agrees that whoever drives the bandits away can have Yingying's hand in marriage, so Zhang Sheng contacts his childhood friend General Du, who is stationed not far away. The general subdues the bandits, and it seems that Zhang Sheng and Cui Yingying are set to be married. However, Yingying's mother begins to regret her rash promise to Zhang Sheng, and takes back her word, with the excuse that Yingying is already betrothed to the son of another high official of the court. The two young lovers are greatly disappointed, and begin to pine away with their unfulfilled love. Fortunately, Yingying's maid, Hongniang, takes pity on them, and ingeniously arranges to bring them together in a secret union. When Yingying's mother discovers what her daughter has done, she reluctantly consents to a formal marriage on one condition: Zhang must travel to the capital and pass the civil service examination. To the joy of the young lovers, Zhang Sheng proves to be a brilliant scholar, and is appointed to high office. The story thus ends on a happy note, as the two are finally married.[3]

Historical developmentEdit

Illustration by Chen Hongshou, woodblock print, from the 1639 edition published by Zhang Shenzhi[4]

The original story was first told in a literary Chinese short story written by Yuan Zhen during the Tang Dynasty. This version was called The Story of Yingying, or Yingying's Biography. This version differs from the later play in that Zhang Sheng ultimately breaks from Yingying, and does not ask for her hand in marriage. Despite the unhappy ending, the story was popular with later writers, and recitative works based on it began accumulating in the centuries that followed. Perhaps bowing to popular sentiment, the ending gradually changed to the happy one seen in the play. The first example of the modified version is an oral performance by Dong Liang of the Jin Dynasty. Wang Shifu's play was closely modeled on this performance.[5]


A scene from a multi-colored woodblock printing album depicting scenes from the play, Zhang Junrui’s nocturnal music-making

Due to scenes that unambiguously described Zhang Sheng and Cui Yingying fulfilling their love outside of the bond of marriage, moralists have traditionally considered The Story of the Western Wing to be an indecent, immoral, and licentious work. It was thus placed high on the list of forbidden books. Tang Laihe is reported to have said, "I heard that in the 1590s the performance of the Hsi-hsiang chi...was still forbidden among [good] families." Gui Guang (1613–1673) called the work "a book teaching debauchery." On the other hand, the famous critic Jin Shengtan considered it silly to declare a book containing sex to be immoral, since "If we consider [sex] more carefully, what day is without it? What place is without it? Can we say that because there is [sex] between Heaven and Earth, therefore Heaven and Earth should be abolished?".[6]

Since the appearance of this play in the thirteenth century, it has enjoyed unparalleled popularity.[who?] The play has given rise to innumerable sequels, parodies, and rewritings; it has influenced countless later plays, short stories, and novels and has played a crucial role in the development of drama criticism.

The theme of the drama is an attack on traditional mores, supporting the longing of young people in those days for freedom of marriage, although it follows the timeworn pattern of a gifted scholar and a beautiful lady falling in love at first sight. According to the orthodox viewpoint of Confucian society, love was not supposed to be a basis for marriage, as most marriages were arranged by the parents of the couples, but the happy ending of The Romance of the Western Chamber embodies the aspirations of people for more meaningful and happier lives.

Thus, the biggest difference between The Story of Yingying and The Story of the Western Wing lies in their endings—the former has a sad ending while the latter has a happy ending. What's more,The Romance of the Western Chamber carries a more profound meaning in its conclusion, and directly suggests the ideal that all lovers in the world be settled down in a family union, with a more sharp-cut theme of attacking traditional mores and the traditional marriage system.

Cultural InfluencesEdit

Since the first performance, "The Romance of the Western Chamber" has become the most popular love comedy in China. Nowadays, it still actively performs in the stage.In the original traditional forms of art performance, such as Kun Opera and Beijing Opera, and other new forms of performance like musicaland film. The resourceful maidservant Hongniangin the story is so prominent that evolves from a supporting role to an indispensable main character, becoming the synonym of marriage matchmaker in Chinese culture. In some local versions, the plays even is named by her name and the story itself is only slightly changed. The Romance of the Western Chamber also had profound influences on other literary works, such as "Dream of the Red Chamber", the first of China's Four Great Classical Novels, and the another famous play The Peony Pavilionin Ming Dynasty. Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu reading "Romance of the Western Chamber" together is a very famous episode in the "Dream of the Red Chamber". In chapter twenty-three, Lin Daiyu is surprised to find that Jia Baoyu is reading the play because in Qing Dynasty, this book was forbidden to read. At first, Baoyu tries to hide the book, but he could not hide it from her. Later, he expressed his love for Lin Daiyu through the famous sentences from the book.

Artistic achievementEdit

Cui Yingying (seated) and Hongniang, from a 2016 Yue opera performance in Tianchan Theatre, Shanghai, by Shanghai Theatre Academy students.

From the 13th century to the 21st century, many scenes from "The Romance of the western Chamber" decorated Chinese porcelain. Various previously not well-understood porcelain decorative themes was identifies and amplifies by it. It verifies some characteristics of porcelain decoration in different periods and considers the period of porcelain in the late Mingand early Qingdynasties. Through the investigation of some scenes from "The Romance of the Western Chamber", people can better understand the history of Chinese ceramic decoration and the overall characteristics of Chinese narrative art.For example, the image of Yingying burning incense in the garden has reached symbolic expression in Chinese art, which can help identify the ceramic decoration in Yuanand early Ming dynasties. As a reflection of people's interest in the Yuan dynasty, literary and dramatic scenes became popular as decorative patterns on so-called Zhizheng type porcelain, which is the highest quality blue and white porcelain produced during the Zhizheng period (1341-1367).

The performance of “The Romance of the Western Chamber" on porcelain cannot only be confined to the relation with Wang Shifu's drama in the 13th century, they are also related to the early poems, which were inspired by the stories of the Song dynasty, as well as the dramas and story-telling performances of songs in Jin dynasty. These early literary works apparently inspired painters and pottery decorators. The development of "The Romance of The Western Chamber" on porcelain is closely related to the evolution of images and styles in Chinese literature, opera, woodcut illustrations and paintings.


There have been numerous English translations:

The book was translated into Manchu as Möllendorff: Manju nikan Si siang ki.[8] Vincenz Hundhausen made a German translation of this story.[9]


It was a released as a silent film Romance of the Western Chamber in China in 1927, directed by Hou Yao. In 2005, the TVB series Lost in the Chamber of Love made a twist in the tale and had Hongniang, played by Myolie Wu, falling in love with Zhang Sheng, played by Ron Ng, while Cui Yingying, played by Michelle Ye, would marry Emperor Dezong of Tang, played by Kenneth Ma.

See alsoEdit


  • Wang, Shifu. “The Status of Wang Shifu’s Story of the Western Wing in Chinese Literature.” The Story of the Western Wing, by Stephen H. West and W. L. Idema, University of California Press, 1995, pp. 3–15.
  • Shifu Wang, Edited and Translated with an Introduction by Stephen H. West and Wilt L. Idema (1991). "The Story of the Western Wing". University of California Press.
  • WEN-CHIN, H. (2011). ILLUSTRATIONS OF "ROMANCE OF THE WESTERN CHAMBER" ON CHINESE PORCELAINS: Iconography, Style, and Development. Ars Orientalis,40, 39-107. Retrieved from


  1. ^ Shifu Wang, Edited and Translated with an Introduction by Stephen H. West and Wilt L. Idema (1991). "The Story of the Western Wing". University of California Press., p. 3.
  2. ^ Rolston, David L. (March 1996). "(Book Review) The Story of the Western Wing". The China Quarterly (145): 231–232. doi:10.1017/S0305741000044477. JSTOR 655679.
  3. ^ a b Wang, John Ching-yu (1972). Chin Sheng-T'an. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc. pp. 82–83.
  4. ^ Hung, Wu (1996). "The Painted Screen". Critical Inquiry. 23 (1): 50. doi:10.1086/448821. JSTOR 1344077.
  5. ^ Wang, John Ching-yu (1972). Chin Sheng-T'an. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc. pp. 83–84.
  6. ^ Wang, John Ching-yu (1972). Chin Sheng-T'an. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc. p. 84.
  7. ^ "The Story of the Western Wing." (Archive) University of California Press. Retrieved on December 8, 2013.
  8. ^ Crossley, Pamela Kyle; Rawski, Evelyn S. (Jun 1993). "A Profile of The Manchu Language in Ch'ing History". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. Harvard-Yenching Institute. 53 (1): 94. doi:10.2307/2719468. JSTOR 2719468.
  9. ^ Merker, p. 242.

Further readingEdit

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