Kong Shangren (Kung Shang-jen) (Writer)

(1648-1718) scholar, playwright, poet

Kong Shangren was one of the major playwrights of the K’ang-hsi era. A descendant of Confucius, Kong Shangren spent the early years of his life in the traditional studies of the literati. As a scholar, he was an exponent of Kaozhengxue (Kao-cheng hsueh; “Empirical studies”).

In 1684 he served as a lecturer to the Kangxi (K’ang-hsi) emperor, who visited the writer’s native province of Chufu. As a result of this meeting, Kong Shangren was appointed to a position in the Directorate of Education. From 1685 to 1689, he served on an irrigation project in Yangchow. In this capacity, he traveled to various historical landmarks and became acquainted with the remnants of the Ming dynasty. His poems and prose, reflective of this time, are collected in a volume called Hu hai ji (Hu-hai chi; Poems from the Lakes and Seas).

In 1694 Kong Shangren began composing dramas. His first, Xiao hu lei (Hsiao-hu lei; The Little Thunderclap), was based on a Tang dynasty instrument in his collection. Kong Shangren researched its historical origins and created a story of a love affair between a poet and a palace concubine. The play’s exhaustive factual information was far in advance of other attempts at historical drama.

Taohuashan (T’ao-hua shan; Peach Blossom Fan) was Kong Shangren’s next theatrical effort and shows even more exhaustive research, including bibliographical notes and a chronology of events of the reign of Chong-Zhen (Ch’ung-chen) in the southern Ming dynasty. In addition, the characters are all based on real people. The play was written to demonstrate Kong Shangren’s idea that social obligations are more important than individual rights. The play includes the story of a group of honest intellectuals who wish to save their country from invasion and anarchy. They are opposed by a group of power-hungry politicians.

Soon after the play’s premiere, Kong Shangren retired from his official position, but he continued writing, producing two more collections of poems before his death.

Peach Blossom Fan has become one of China’s most famous historical dramas, for which critics have praised Kong Shangren for his skillful handling of a complex plot, innovative theatrical form, and tragic vision.

An English Version of a Work by Kong Shangren

Peach Blossom Fan. Translated by Chen Shih-Hsiang, Cyril Birch, and Harold Action. Boston: Cheng and Tsui, 2000.

A Work about Kong Shangren

Lu, Tina. Persons, Roles and Minds: Identity in Peony Pavilion and Peach Blossom Fan. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2001.

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