Truth, Inspiration, Hope.

Guan Hanqing–The Greatest Chinese Playwright

Published: August 4, 2022
Guan Hanqing (Image: Ilnar Karim/Vision Times)

The remarkable Guan Hanqing* lived at a time when the Mongols had invaded China to include it in the vast Eurasian territories that comprised the Mongol Empire. The Yuan Dynasty, established by the conquerors, saw little use for the traditional civil service exams or learned bureaucrats. Instead, they introduced a system of social castes that placed Chinese scholars at nearly the lowest level — just above beggars. 

This was a blow to the Chinese academic tradition, which had always prized education. However, it would also force the country’s scholars to adapt and innovate. 

Educated in the Confucianism of the defeated Chinese empire, Guan was one of those scholars determined to make the best of being relegated to the lower orders of society. His humor and wit became a symbol of resistance and defiance to the social and political system of the time. 

A versatile and self-confident artist

The playwright, who often described himself as a copper ball that “could never be boiled, steamed, crushed, or fried,” did not enjoy much fame or wealth during his lifetime. Making his modest character evident, he enjoyed spending time with ordinary people to understand and learn in detail about their ways of life. Rumor has it that Guan occasionally worked with acting societies and personally participated in performances. 

Guan Hanqing wrote over 60 plays, and although only 14 of them have survived, many have been regarded by posterity as masterpieces. Aiming to reflect a wide range of social conditions, his plots often focused on human suffering due to injustice, as well as the wisdom and talents of ordinary people.

Carefully crafted stories

Depicted with unusual elegance, Hanqing’s plays were notable for their expressive and realistic portrayal of his characters. Making use of colloquial speech, each character brought color to the scene through pompous, sometimes cheerful, sometimes arrogant and sometimes good-natured attitudes.

Although his plots described people of all social classes through contradictions, climaxes and narrations; women of lower social class frequently made their appearance, shining for their sincerity, kindness, rationality and witty character in their daily struggles. His plays, which have been performed throughout history to the present day, have been translated into English, French, German and Japanese.

”Snow in June” is a phrase borrowed from Guan Hanqing’s play The Injustice to Dou E to allude to a miscarriage of justice. (Image: Famartin via Wikimedia Common CC BY-SA 3.0)

A famous tale of divine justice

One of Hanqing’s most memorable plays, which continues to be popular among Chinese today, is The Injustice to Dou E (竇娥冤). The exquisite tale tells the story of Dou E, a widowed child bride who was condemned for crimes committed by a rejected suitor. 

Choosing to accept the blame to prevent her elderly stepmother from being tortured, Dou E was executed, but not before prophesizing three phenomena that would prove her innocence: blood would rain from the sky, snow would fall in the high of summer and a severe draught would hit the town for three years. And after the pious woman was beheaded on a midsummer day, a heavy snow began to fall as a sign from Heaven for the injustice that had been committed.

Since Guan Hanqing’s time, the story of Dou E has been repeated and alluded to as a tale of caution for those who would imagine they hold absolute power over others. The phrase “snowing in June” is widely used as a metaphor for a miscarriage of justice. 

Today, some Chinese have continued to see real-life examples of what might be understood as heavenly warnings in an age when the totalitarian communist regime runs China with an iron fist. 

In March 2006, the city of Zhuozhou, Hebei Province saw its skies turn yellow and gray when two female Falun Dafa practitioners, who had been subjected to rape in police custody, were arrested in Fengtai District. The arrest, which took place 10 days before Chun-fen — the middle of Spring season — was followed by a dense snowstorm unlike any seen all year.

Observers of the perplexing scene took it as a sign of grievance from the heavens for the persecution of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice centered on the moral principles of truthfulness, compassion and forbearance. 

* The years of his life are not exactly known – he was born around 1229-1241 and died between 1297-1307.