Plays on Salvation by Immortals

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As an important form of Zaju, a poetic drama of the Yuan dynasty, these plays highlighted stories of Daoist cultivation and salvation, which became the evidence of their links to Daoism.


Actually, their birth should be dated back to the Song dynasty when the Records of the Listeners ( 《夷堅志》Yijian Zhi ) by Hong Mai introduced information about and compliments on Zaju from the Three Doctrines. This is evidence that Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism had used Zaju to transmit their religious ideas before the founding of the Southern Song dynasty. The surviving titles of plays in the following Jin dynasty provide further evidence that Plays of Salvation by Immortals had come into being prior to the Yuan dynasty. According to the chapter Lists of Plays of the Records of Mr. Nancun's Farming Life ( 《南村輟耕錄院本名目》Nanchun Chuogenglu Yuanben Mingmu ), among numerous plays of the Jin dynasty, some were based on stories about immortals. Zhuang Zhou' s Dream ( 《莊周夢》Zhuangzhou Meng ), An Assembly at the Pond of Jade ( 《瑤池會》Yaochi Hui ) and The Peach Banquet ( 《蟠桃會》Pantao Hui ) were three of them. Stories of immortals were also seen on the list of 'plays from the south', among which was Lao Laizi's Colorful Dress. Unfortunately, in the case of both the plays from the Jin dynasty and the plays from the south, only some titles of plays about immortals have survived. There are no clues to details of these plays.


Although its birth could be dated to an earlier period, only in the Yuan dynasty did the genre of Plays on Salvation by Immortals see its prosperity. According to the Record of Ghosts ( 《錄鬼簿》Lugui Bu ), a book written by Zhong Sicheng, there were as many as 400 plays in the Yuan dynasty. Among them, about 40 were plays on immortals. Zhan Maoxun, a scholar in the Ming dynasty, wrote the Collection of Plays of the Yuan Dynasty ( 《元曲選》Yuanqu Xian ), a book comprising 94 plays from the Yuan dynasty and 6 plays from the beginning of the Ming dynasty. In the 1960s, on the basis of documents such as a handwritten manuscript of Plays of the Yuan and Ming dynasties ( 《元明雜劇》Yuanming Zaju ), also known as the Mowang Academy version, Sui Shusen compiled a Collection of Additional Plays from the Yuan Dynasty ( 《元曲選外編》Yuanquyuan Waibian ), which consisted of 62 plays. Among them were Chen Tuan's Resting in the Loftiness, Pavilion Yue Yang and Ren Fengzi . A few of the plays were written at the end of the Yuan dynasty or at the beginning of the Ming dynasty. But most of them were dated in the early phase of the Yuan dynasty.


The playwrights in the Yuan dynasty used to turn to legendary stories of Daoist immortals for narrative structures, which provided them with blueprints of a happy life in the immortals' world as well as a greater freedom to expose and criticize evils in an autocratic society. In Chen Tuan's Resting in Loftiness , for instance, a court robe dyed with blood stood for the risk and hypocrisy in one's political career. In contrast, the playwright gave all praises to the Daoist style of life, which was characterized by going away from power and fame. To some extent, the plays were a mirror of intellectuals' inner world in dynastic periods.