The Courtesan's Jewel Box

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The Courtesan's Jewel Box

Thesis Statement

The Courtesan's Jewel Box is one of the most unforgettable women character Chinese literature.


The Courtesan's Jewel Box is one of the most memorable women characters in traditional Chinese literature, indeed perhaps the most notable tragic heroine in Chinese fiction until the appearance of Lin Daiyu in Honglou meng. Her story is best known as a colloquial narrative, "Du Shiniang Sinks the Jewel Box in Anger", included in Feng Menglong's second Sanyan collection of 1624. A play based on the story was written not long afterwards, and the tale enjoyed widespread currency in the Qing dynasty through its inclusion in the popular anthology Jingu qiguan , and through diverse stage adaptations and oral renditions (Xianyi, pp: 111).

The story was to have an impact on Pu Songling's work in the late seventeenth century, and one may even detect its influence in Cao Xueqin's portrayal of Lin Daiyu, whose burning of her prized handkerchiefs on the eve of her death recalls the drama and poignancy of Du Shiniang's sinking of her jewels. It has been known for some time that the Du Shiniang story was first published in 1612 as a Classical Chinese narrative in a literary collection by Song Maocheng X sm, but although this version of the story deserving "The Faithless Lover" is now widely identified as an outstanding example of the late-Ming Classical tale, little has been done to explore the social and literary milieu from which it emerged. How did the pleased and defiant figure of Du Shiniang come to be conceived? What were the elements in the society of the time that led to the creation of such a character? So far, no detailed answers have been offered. This essay will attempt to load up this gap in our understanding of the cultural backdrop to the story (Xianyi, pp: 117).

Discussion and Analysis

Familiar though the story is, a brief synopsis may be helpful at the outset. During the Wanli period (1573-1620), we are notified, a young man from eastern Zhejiang, with the last name Li , son of a high official, enrolls in the National University in Peking. During his stay in the capital he falls in love with Du Shiniang, a beautiful and gifted singing girl, described by her peers as "the most bright number of her time". Du vows to devote her life to him, and Du Shiniang's foster mother agrees to the match on condition that she is compensated to the tune of three century taels, completely believing that this figure is well beyond Li's means. But he manages to borrow a hundred taels from friends, and Du Shiniang comes up with the remaining two hundred, therefore securing her release. They set off together for a new life in the south and safely reach the river dock of Guazhou, on the north edge of the Yangtze opposite Zhenjiang. On the eve of their crossing, Du Shiniang's singing is overheard by a Huizhou merchant on an adjacent boat. The next day the merchant persuades ...
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