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The Trouble with Loyalty: Eunuchs, Prostitutes and Barbarians in The Rock with Shadows of Blood

Sun, June 26, 5:00 to 6:50pm, Shikokan (SK), Floor: 1F, 104


This paper explores the contending meanings of the Confucian value of loyalty in the popular literary texts written during the Ming-Qing transition in the Lower Yongtze River region. Specifically, the paper examines The Rock with Shadows of Blood (Xie Yingshi 血影石), a chuanqi play written in the seventeenth century by the Suzhou playwright Zhu Zuochao (ca.1621-?), whose works were widely performed in the public city space for audience of mixed social strata. This play, ostensibly featuring Huang Guan (1364-1402), a high official who committed suicide for the Jianwen Emperor (r.1398-1402) after the 1402 Usurpation, is often considered an inferior work among Zhu’s complete oeuvres, because it fails to sustain the pathos of the loyalist character to the end. However, by analyzing how the playwright shifts focus from the death of the loyalist to the rescue of the his son with the collaboration of eunuchs, prostitutes and barbarians, I argue that the “failure” is in fact an intricate design to counter the orthodox Confucian virtue of loyalty. In such a work tailored to the taste and need of the city public, the playwright exposes the constraints on the scholar-official class and re-channels his creative energy to fix the entanglements caused by the court officials’ loyalist commitments by enlisting help from socially and geographically marginal forces. This play is essentially about practical survival rather than sublime death. Through relocating the centre of the rescue enterprise, the loyalist moral paradigm is negotiated, re-interpreted and subtly transformed.