One Ancient Chinese Literature

By:Chen Nan Date:2018-03-07

Discuss a novel/play/short story in order to show how the narrative is related to Chinese history?

Novels, plays, and stories are often written as a perspective or critique of the society and its workings from the eyes of the author and through numerous points of views through the lenses of different characters portrayed in it. Glimpses of history are embedded in these writings, allowing us to understand, explore and discuss the themes relevant in that certain slice of history, how it was influenced by ages before, and how it shaped ages after. In this essay, I will use the short story “Revenge of Dou E (Dou E Yuan 竇娥冤) to set out as an example on how this narration is related to that period of Chinese history and the tropes pertinent in the story, focusing primarily on Chinese history of marriage, filial piety, chastity, and law and justice in ancient China.

On the theme of marriage in Chinese history, we can start off with analyzing the main protagonist of this short story - Dou E, a young girl living in the Yuan dynasty (1271 - 1368) married into a family as their child bride, and the events after the death of her husband that eventually led to her death. In this short story, we see that child marriage is a prominent culture practiced often in ancient China. Families sell off their daughters to richer families in order to repay debts; these daughters are often treated as maidservants for years before the actual marriage. This poses a question of human rights on freedom to marry independently on basis of love instead of profit, or girls being seen as a commodity to be sold. This is still prevalent in Chinese society even till today as child marriages are still relatively widespread in China, with early marriage taking up to 18% in 1987[1]. Aside from the issue of child marriage, we could also see how power dynamics can force the weaker party into marriage as seen in actions of Zhang Lü Er and his father in forcing Dou E and her mother-in-law (Madam Cai) to marry them to repay for their act of saving Dou’s mother-in-law. Through these, we see the inefficiencies in Chinese law, as can do little to stop these issues.

Moving on to the theme of filial piety, loyalty and chastity, all of which are embodied by Dou E faithfully at all times. Dou was loyal and filial to Madam Cai although her husband died; she did not choose to remarry due to increasing societal constraints. Widow remarriage was gaining discouragement during the Yuan dynasty where the story is set in, unlike previously in the twelfth century whereby widow remarriage was much more seen than subsequent centuries[2]. Being of exceeding loyalty, chaste and moral, Dou went to the extent of confessing for a murder she did not commit in order to save Madam Cai from any more pain than what was already caused. In death, her spirits can beg for her father to see Madam Cai as one family. Filial piety a Confucian philosophy denoting a virtue of respect for parents and family, several books such as the Classics of Filial Piety (Xiao Jing 孝經), the Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars (Er Shi Si Xiao 二十四孝) was written for this subject matter, and it was heavily embedded in Buddhism, all these showing the emphasize and importance of this virtue in Chinese society throughout its existence since 400BCE till today whereby it is said that “filial piety in China came to be seen as having absolute value and that the worship of one’s parents  (that is, one’s creators) can be compared to the worship of God in the West”[3]

Fantastical writing technique in portraying the concept of karma is evident in this play as well through the portrayal of the death of Zhang Lü Er’s father when in fact the dead should be Madam Cai, whom Zhang Lü Er wanted to get rid of in order to have Dou E to himself. As often said, what goes around comes around, Zhang had to bear the repercussion of attempted murder of Madam Cai when he accidentally poisoned his own father in mistake, being immersed in hatred and guilt towards his father, he accused Dou to be the murderer out of fear and to feel justified in his own misery. Another portrayal of fantasy writing would be snow falling in June, to accentuate the injustice Dou suffered.

The most pertinent theme in the entire play is fairness and justice in the ancient Chinese legal system. Fairness and incorruptibility of judges are often questioned. In Dou’s famous speech: “I cry out to Heaven and Earth to this injustice!” (天地也!), three simple Chinese words connoting an entire wealth of meaning. We feel Dou’s agony, her frustration, her protest and her helplessness in her injustice of her death sentence by execution. Whereby destiny is in the hands of heaven and earth, heaven and earth being the highest judging panel would allow for such injustice whereby the good are poor dying before their time, while the wicked are rich living to a great old age (為善的受貧窮更命短,作惡的享富貴又壽延). Hinting at the fact that there will always be injustice on earth and heaven could do nothing about it, just as there will always be evil doings in society while the Son of Heaven (天子) – the Emperor will never know. It is a time in history whereby the earth could not distinguish good from bad, and heaven would let its people suffer in this injustice, this is the cry of the people in that era of history, their cri de c?ur for justice to bestow upon them, a direct protest against their society operating in feudalism.

To conclude, this short story intricately depicted many prominent and realistic themes of Chinese history during that era. From virtues of the people such as keeping chaste, discouraging widow remarriage, filial piety, accepting unjust laws as a citizen of society, to how the entire justice system is flawed, other themes such as concept of karma, power dynamics, social security of women being powerless in society without patriarchal support either from father, husband, or son of which both Dou and Madam Cai had none when their misfortune began. This is a play against feudalism, against injustice, against the oppressed role of women in ancient Chinese society. Although written in the Yuan dynasty, all these are issues pertinent to every era of Chinese history, and these are the virtues embodied by people in every era of Chinese history.


1. United Nations Children’s Fund Innocenti Research Centre ‘Early Marriage Child Spouses’ accessed on 2nd June 2014.

2. Hansen, V. The Open Empire A History of China to 1600, W.W. Norton & Company, Page 278.

3. Holzman, D. The Place of Filial Piety in Ancient China, American Oriental Society, Page 185.

1117 words (excluding bibliography)

[1] United Nations Children’s Fund Innocenti Research Centre ‘Early Marriage Child Spouses’ accessed on 2nd June 2014.

[2] Valarie Hansen, The Open Empire A History of China to 1600, W.W. Norton & Company, Page 278.

[3] Donald Holzman, The Place of Filial Piety in Ancient China, American Oriental Society, Page 185.

Ganus’Value:I would look for the legal basis for your point of view, even if I disagree with it.
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