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The tomb of Tang Xianzu was discovered in the city of Fuzhou. (CFP) Insert: Tang Xianzu (1550-1616), Ming poet and dramatist, author of Peony Pavilion.

A Dramatic Ending: Tomb of the Tang Xianzu, ‘Shakespeare of the Orient’, Has Finally Been Found


Tang Xianzu was a notable playwright in China during the Ming Dynasty. Sometimes called the “Shakespeare of the East,” he is best known for four plays, often called the “Four Dreams” and “ The Peony Pavilion”, a dramatic romance which is still performed around the world. His final resting place has finally been identified amongst a cluster of tombs in Jiangxi Province and researchers are excited to study some of the final words he left behind.

Xinhua reports that Tang’s tomb is one of 42 tombs discovered in Fuzhou. Researchers say that his third wife, Fu, was buried alongside the playwright, while his second wife, Zhao, was buried in an adjacent tomb.

19th century writings asserted the playwright was buried in Fuzhou, but the location of the exact gravesite has been a mystery. Until recently, Tang’s fans had to go to an empty tomb in the city’s People’s Park to commemorate his legacy.

It has been said that the tomb is in bad shape. Yet the discovery is considered a lucky find because South China Morning Post reports much of the family graveyard was apparently destroyed during the social upheavals of the Cultural Revolution.

The tombs.

The tombs. (Xinhua)

Archaeologists also found six epitaphs, including some written by Tang himself. One of the inscriptions that has been attributed to Tang is written to honor his grandmother. The epitaphs will be released to the public for research in the upcoming months so scholars can learn more about literature, art, and calligraphy during Tang's time.

Mao Peiqi, vice chairman of the Chinese Society on Ming Dynasty History explained the significance of the tomb’s discovery to People’s Daily Online:

"This discovery is significant, because it tells us more about Tang's life, his family tree and relationships with other family members. Besides, by learning about the status and lives of Tang's family, we can learn about education, culture and agriculture in the Ming Dynasty as well as the development of society.”

Tang was born in 1550 and died in 1616 - the same year as the famous bard William Shakespeare. Though they never met or likely knew of each other and had different cultural backgrounds, it has been suggested that there were some similarities between the two men. Exhibitions have been created to compare the men and their plays, mixtures of Tang's and Shakespeare’s works have been performed by Chinese opera companies, and the government of Fuzhou even donated statues of Tang and Shakespeare standing shoulder to shoulder to Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare's hometown.

Tang Xianzu (1550-1616), Ming poet and dramatist

Tang Xianzu (1550-1616), Ming poet and dramatist. (Public Domain)

The Conversation wrote an article on Tang in 2016 which described his “Four Dream” plays. It said they:

“are constructed around a dream narrative, a device through which Tang unlocks the emotional dimension of human desires and ambitions, and explores human nature beyond the social and political constraints of the feudal system of the time. It is a similar dream motif that we find in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

A page from a printed copy of Record of Southern Bough (also known as A Dream Under the Southern Bough).

A page from a printed copy of Record of Southern Bough (also known as A Dream Under the Southern Bough). (Public Domain)

As for Tang’s masterpiece, “ The Peony Pavilion”, The Conversation writes that:

“Over 55 scenes it explores the passions of young Du Liniang, daughter of Du Bao, the governor of Nan'an. After dreaming of a young scholar she meets in a peony pavilion, Du Liniang suddenly falls ill. Before dying, she leaves a self-portrait of herself and a poem with her maid, with orders to hide these under a stone by the plum tree at Taihu Lake.
Three years later, a scholar named Liu Mengmei dreams of Du Liniang. In his dream, he and Du Liniang fall madly in love. It is the strength of this love that helps Liu Mengmei to revive Du Liniang from the grave. After confronting Du Liniang’s father, the couple marry and live a long and happy life.”

This play ends with a message of hope and “celebrates true love over death and the constraints imposed by society.” [Via The Conversation]

A scene from ‘The Peony Pavilion’. (CC BY SA 4.0)

Finally, it should be mentioned that there are plans to build a monument or tourist area at the grave site so Tang’s fans and scholars will be able to learn more about the famed playwright and honor his memory.

Top Image: The tomb of Tang Xianzu was discovered in the city of Fuzhou. (CFP) Insert: Tang Xianzu (1550-1616), Ming poet and dramatist, author of Peony Pavilion. (Public Domain)

By Alicia McDermott

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Alicia McDermott holds degrees in Anthropology, Psychology, and International Development Studies and has worked in various fields such as education, anthropology, and tourism. Traveling throughout Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador, Alicia has focused much of her research on Andean cultures... Read More

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