Story of Ying-ying, The

Story of Ying-ying, The
   by Yuan Zhen (Yüan Chen)
(ca. 804)
   The most popular and important work of prose fiction from medieval China’s TANG DYNASTY was written by the Confucian scholar, poet, and statesman YUAN ZHEN. Originally entitled Hui-chen chi (Meeting with an immortal)—the title of a lengthy poem embedded in the narrative—the story has become known as Yingying zhuan (Ying-ying Chuan; The Story of Ying-ying), after its female protagonist.
   The Story of Ying-ying belongs to a new narrative genre called chuanqi (ch’uan ch’i) (literally “transmissions of the marvelous”) introduced into Tang literature during the eighth century. Prior to this development, Chinese prose fiction had been largely undeveloped, existing mainly of short anecdotes and fables, or short supernatural tales often illustrating Buddhist or Taoist concepts. But with the development of chuanqi, writers became more serious about structure and literary style in fiction.
   This new genre seems to have built not on previous Chinese fiction but rather on historical narratives. The chuanqi tales are strongly influenced by earlier historical narrative. Typically the action of the story is presented as a specific event occurring at specific historical time and place. In The Story of Ying-ying, Yuan Zhen even inserts himself into the story as a minor character, increasing the impression of historical veracity. In addition these stories often contained what might be considered primary historical documents—letters from the characters, for example, or poems composed by them—that help create the impression that the narrative is the result of historical research. The genre grew rapidly, though traditionalists still considered it a vulgar form of entertainment rather than true literature. Still many scholars wrote and read such stories for their own enjoyment, and by the early ninth century, it had become a common practice for candidates for the civil service examinations to present their sponsors or examiners original chuanqi compositions prior to their exams, as an indication of their own literary aptitude. It has been conjectured that The Story of Ying-ying was such a composition, and that the young Yuan Zhen composed it prior to his examination in 806.
   In The Story of Ying-ying, a young scholar named Chang, on his way to the capital to take his civil service examination, stops for lodging at a monastery, where he meets the beautiful but enigmatic Ying-ying, a distant relative. They engage in an illicit affair. Once at the capital, Chang loses interest in Ying-ying and abandons her. She writes him a long letter, included in the narrative—a letter he shows to his friends, some of whom write poems about it—including a 60-line poem by Yuan Zhen himself.
   Most modern readers see Chang’s action as heartless and sympathize with Ying-ying, but Chang does present an argument that his breaking off the affair is a matter of duty to his family and to the Confucian ideal of public service. The narrator appears to agree with him. Ying-ying, on the other hand, seems capricious and manipulative, and, despite her protests of eternal love, marries someone else fairly quickly. For that matter Chang’s moral rectitude doesn’t stop him from trying to see Ying-ying when he passes through her town, an opportunity she refuses him. In the end neither character is especially sympathetic, and the story may be read as an ironic view of how human beings, perhaps insincerely, play roles expected of them (romantic heroine, dedicated public servant) in conventional situations. Some critics have conjectured that the tale is really a semiautobiographical expression of regret by Yuan Zhen himself over an early affair and his treatment of the lady involved, but such guesses must always remain in the realm of speculation.
   The Story of Ying-ying was tremendously popular in its own time and for generations after, and was retold in various forms in verse, prose, and drama. One of the best-known versions of the tale was a play called Xixiangji (Hsi-hsiang chi; The Romance of the Western Chamber) by the 13th-century dramatist Wang Shihfu. Despite his voluminous output of serious lyric poetry,Yuan Zhen remains famous for his achievement in what he would have probably considered an inferior genre, narrative fiction.
   ■ Hightower, James R., trans. “The Story of Ying-ying.” In Traditional Chinese Stories: Themes and Variations, edited by Joseph S. M. Lau and Y. M. Ma. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.
   ■ Palandri, Angela C. Y. Jung. Yüan Chen. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977.
   ■ Wang Shihfu. The Romance of the Western Chamber. Translated by S. I. Hsiung. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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