The Depraved Duke and the Virtuous Minister – Zhao the Orphan, Part 1

This time in the Literati Corner, I will be doing a short series on the well-known classical Chinese tragedy by Ji Junxiang, Zhao the Orphan (纪君祥(元)的中国古代悲劇故事-赵氐孤儿). I will be looking at this bilingual Chinese-English adaptation by Jianping Wang and Yutang Ren (王建平,任玉堂), which is available here at China Sprout among other places:

Zhao the Orphan Cover

Zhao the Orphan Cover

This volume uses the translation of Paul White and is edited by Minjie Zhang. This edition draws from multiple versions of the story, which I believe was originally a drama. It is common for plays in the region to be retold in prose like this, and for most classical Chinese literature and retellings, they are often presented in bilingual editions. They often vary in quality, but this one I have to say is electrifying and traumatic reading. The translation is vivid, and the adaptation is so riveting I can hardly stop reading. Not all of them are quite this good.

Zhao the Orphan is a tragedy-drama that has many versions going back 2,000 years. It was translated into European languages in the 18th century. The story is set in the State of Jin during the Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC). Here is the basic profile of that very famous age:

This time, I will cover the first four chapters out of eight. Let me warn now that the adaptation does have gruesome murders and suicides and has some sexual situations, though all of these are described quickly. They are just very vivid in their brief descriptions, and there is quite a lot of carnage. However, all of this is balanced by the story’s strong Confucian themes of loyalty to benefactors and righteous living.

The story begins with Duke Ling taking the throne of Jin as a child. Unstable, tyrannical and bloodthirsty, he torments the people, robbing them to pay for palaces and leisure, executing anyone who irritates him. He has two loyal ministers, Zhao Dun and Han Jue. The duke especially hates and fears Zhao Dun for his upright character. When Duke Ling reaches manhood and becomes inseparable from his corrupt courtier Tu’an Gu, he spends his time partying in the Peach Garden, indulging in drinking, women and entertainment. Tu’an Gu considers the duke to be easy to manipulate, and he encourages him in his vices to the neglect of the kingdom.

One of the first terrifying examples of sniveling, lascivious Duke Ling’s evil character is a shooting game suggested to him by Tu’an Gu where they randomly shoot arrows into the crowd of his subjects gathering outside of his pavilion where performances are being staged. They play the game with a point system based on where they hit and how their targets are injured. Duke Ling is jubilant at the murder of the peasants. But this is not the worst of Duke Ling’s excesses.

As the most loyal ministers of the court see what is happening and either slip away quietly in despair or remain silent as they see the most worthless, unscrupulous men gather around Tu’an Gu, minister Zhao Dun becomes Duke Ling’s chief adversary, one of the few willing to speak out openly against the injustices and corruption he sees creeping into the court. He is the one picking up the slack and taking on Duke Ling’s formal duties while Duke Ling parties, even following the example of the best leaders of China by going out to encourage the farmers to work hard in the fields for the good of the country. I could pick out so many sparkling quotes from the English translation to show this contrast, but I think a few select passages of one of the later murders and confrontations will make this opposition between the men clearer. It’s not the flashiest passage, but it shows the men in the clearest light in the shortest space:

…Just at that moment the duke and his retinue happened to arrive at a rockery beside a pond. The craggy stones were set off by fantastic plants and trailing creepers, some dangling from the top, and others wrapped around the foot of the ornamental stones, in a wispy fragrant green veil. The delicate artistry of the rockery did not please the duke’s jaundiced eye, however. “What idiot put that pile together?” he bawled…”Bring that damned gardener here to me at once!”

With glee, Tu’an Gu perceived that his carefully timed words had had their desired effect. He lost no time sending soldiers to fetch the gardener, who was given a sound beating with clubs on the spot and thrown into the bushes, no one caring whether he was dead or alive. (pp 52-54)

This scene continues with Duke Ling seeing mandarin ducks in a pond in the garden, and he decides he wants to play a new game based on this. He summons his favorite courtesan and has her strip down and get in the freezing pond to cavort with one of his naked male servants. He keeps them in the cold water so long they start to object, and the courtesan comes out of the pond without permission. He chops her hands off for her disobedience, leaves the man in the water to freeze to death, and chops the legs off of another courtesan who tries to run from the scene. All three die while the duke goes on his merry way, looking for something else to amuse himself.

Meanwhile, Tu’an Gu conspires with the duke to have Zhao Dun assassinated, but the assassin kills himself instead when he sees how dignified Zhao Dun appears. The next day at the daily audience with the duke, Zhao Dun appears unharmed and confronts him about his misdeeds:

The fact that Zhao Dun was unharmed, coupled with Tu’an Gu’s absence, sent palpitations of fear through Duke Ling. He became tongue-tied and agitated. The fact was that someone had reported to Zhao Dun what the duke had done the previous day in the Peach Garden. With his face set as hard as granite, he heard the duke stammer that he should present remonstrance, and then he said in a voice filled with wrath, “I have heard that Your Majesty cruelly punished a blameless park keeper yesterday in the Peach Garden. You then watched a disgusting display of ‘mandarin ducks sporting in the water.’ After that, you cut off the hands and legs of two palace ladies, finally causing the deaths of three people. Is all this true?”

Zhao Dun was seething with anger, and his strident voice caused Duke Ling’s heart and liver to dissolve with fright. To make things worse, Tu’an Gu was not present, and the other officials just stood there in grim silence. Not a single one stepped forward to defend their sovereign. The duke was at his wits’ end. Finally, he jabbered, “I, er, I was just shooting at some birds, when I accidentally hit the park keeper by mistake….”

At this point, his voice faltered, and he made as if to scuttle off to his palace quarters. But Zhao Dun was too quick for him, striding forward and seizing the duke by the collar….

Duke Ling struggled, but could not free himself from Zhao Dun’s iron grip. Panic seized him and he broke out in torrents of sweat. A nervous murmuring arose from the assembled officials, aghast at the sight of Zhao Dun remonstrating with the duke at the risk of his life.” (pp. 72-74)

Zhao Dun’s admonition of the duke that he should change his ways according to Confucian principles of leadership falls on deaf ears however, and his antics with Tu’an Gu reach even more debauched levels until they really cause a bloodbath in their desperation to get rid of Zhao Dun. Finally, Tu’an Gu has had enough, runs Zhao Dun out of town and plots to massacre the entire illustrious Zhao clan of three hundred people. The bloody massacre occurs without a hitch. The main stumbling block to completing Tu’an Gu’s plan to wipe them out so there are no survivors to avenge the massacre is the fact that one of Zhao Dun’s young relatives is the brother-in-law of Duke Ling, and Duke Ling’s sister is pregnant. Her husband is tricked into committing suicide while Tu’an Gu takes the pregnant princess into custody under close guard so he can kill the child as soon as it is born.

Chapter Frontspiece

Chapter Frontspiece

When an old physician of Zhao Dun’s hears of what happened, Cheng Ying goes in the hopes he can rescue the child. It turns out he manages to get into her pavilion the day after she secretly gave birth, and they hatch a plot to have him sneak the child out past a guard he once considered an ally, Han Jue. The princess commits suicide so Tu’an Gu can’t torture her and force her to tell him the name of whoever took away her child. But Cheng Ying’s success is short-lived when his father-in-law sees the notice Tu’an Gu puts out in a rage stating that unless the kidnapper comes forward with the princess’ baby, now known as Zhao the Orphan, all of the children in Jin under the age of six months will be slaughtered.

Cheng Ying is sick at heart, and the plan that forms in his mind is one he can barely stnad to consider. He and his long-barren wife have finally just had a son, born within days of Zhao the Orphan. Cheng Ying thinks the only way to stop Tu’an Gu and save Zhao the Orphan and the other children of Jin is to give up his own newborn son to die in his place. His wife is absolutely livid at the idea, but there seems to be no alternative.

This is where the story ends by chapter 4. We’ll pick up with the second half of the story next time in this column after the next regularly scheduled book. My only question given the range of other literature we’re reading this year is why Duke Ling wasn’t considered possessed by a fox like the infamous concubine Daji who was vicious in the murders she provoked but is surpassed by Duke Ling. Even in the annals of evil leaders in China, this guy is one of the worst I’ve ever read about.

I miscounted, and I have one more section of the Literati Corner series to complete for the year. It will be six parts, not five. I’m also a little behind schedule for my posts this year and will try to catch up this month and next to stay on target.

Part four of a six part series.


About Lady Xiansa

Lady Xiansa is a writer, linguist, artist, and dancer. She has been a core volunteer for the Silk Screen Asian Arts Organization since 2007 and has provided content for Pitt JCS anime events since 2011. She has taught both ESL and Beginning Korean. Her novel, The Haunting at Ice Pine Peak, won the Bronze Award for Young Adult Fiction E-book in the 2016 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards.
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2 Responses to The Depraved Duke and the Virtuous Minister – Zhao the Orphan, Part 1

  1. Manny says:

    I just encountered your blog — wow! You seem to know a lot about Asian literature! I look forward to read through it to learn from it. I would appreciate it if you would create a sort of beginner’s guide to the literature you present in your blog. If you were to introduce someone who knows absolutely nothing about this type of literature, where would you begin? I really want to learn more from you and this blog! Thanks.

    • Lady Xiansa says:

      I’m glad you are enjoying the discussion in my humble palace. I think a readers’ guide is a good idea. Thanks for suggesting it. Give me a little time to think about it, and hopefully I can post some PDF guides for you guys to download on where to start with both the traditional literature and language self-study around the new year.

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