Professor Wai-Yee Li introduces Guan Hanqing – one of China's most-revered playwrights – and the classic play that inspired Snow in Midsummer.

Snow in Midsummer is based on a 13th-century play, The Injustice Done to Dou E (also called The Injustice to Dou E That Moved Heaven and Earth) by Guan Hanqing (c.1224-1330). The play is a fine example of Yuan drama, the first great flowering of drama in the Chinese tradition. The Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) was founded by the Mongols (including Kublai Khan and his grandfather Genghis) who replaced Jurchen rule in northern China in 1234, conquered the Song dynasty in Southern China in 1276, and ruled until 1368.


Guan Hanqing’s play follows the story of Dou Duanyun, daughter to an impoverished scholar who sells her as a child bride to Woman Cai. Cai renames her Dou E. Married at 17 to Cai’s son, who dies shortly after, she remains a dutiful daughter-in-law, even as Cai falls into the clutches of the duplicitous Old Zhang and his son Zhang Lu. A botched plot by Zhang Lu to murder Cai and marry Dou E ends with the accidental murder of Old Zhang instead. Zhang Lu accuses Dou E of the crime, and she confesses under torture in order to spare her mother-in-law from being implicated. Dou E is sentenced to decapitation.

The title of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s reworking, Snow in Midsummer, reflects the classical drama’s central scene. As Dou E faces death at the execution ground, she asks for a long strip of white silk to be hung at the flagpole. She vows that three signs will prove her innocence. The first: her blood will fly up and stain the white silk instead of falling to the ground. The second: snow will fall, despite it being midsummer, and cover her corpse. The third and final sign is that drought will plague the land for three years. All these predictions come to pass. Three years later, Dou E’s ghost appears to her father, who clears her name and punishes the guilty.

The prototype of Dou E’s story is a Han dynasty account (c.1st century BCE) about a young widow who is wrongfully accused of murdering her mother-in-law. Failing to convince the young woman to remarry and wishing to free her of the burden of caring for her, the mother-in-law hanged herself. The young widow is accused of murder and executed. The land then suffers a drought for three years, and rain comes only after the new governor exonerates her and propitiates her spirit with sacrifices.

A green paper Chinese dragon is held up by actors on stage
A paper dragon on stage during Snow in Midsummer.
Photo by Ikin Yum © RSC Browse and license our images


By turn lyrical and earthy (even vulgar), sentimental and ironic, Yuan drama was a vital part of the culture of performance and entertainment in the 13th and 14th centuries. These plays, called ‘zaju’ (literally, ‘mixed performance’ or ‘miscellaneous performance’) in Chinese, combine sung arias, declaimed verses, doggerels, dialogues, mime, jokes and acrobatic feats. The basic component of each act in ‘zaju’ is the song suite, in which one actor sings throughout. The lead singer is the emotional focus of the play; the arias plumb lyrical depths, explore conflicting thoughts and feelings, and allow narratives to unfold.

The adversary to the lead singer is the comic (‘jing’), a villainous character often given to farcical routines, meaning that evil is never momentous. The dialogues are secondary and probably improvised. According to extant sources, we know the names of about 200 playwrights and the titles of about 737 plays. The number that actually existed must have been larger; as late as the mid-16th century, the poet and playwright Li Kaixian (1502-1568) noted 1,750 zaju. We now have 207 extant Yuan plays, of which 45 exist as fragments. Many of these plays are preserved in later redactions and include changes by editors from the 15th to the early 17th century. We have only 30 zaju in original Yuan editions.

Why was drama and theatre so prolific during this period of history? Many argue that Han Chinese literati, denied the opportunity for advancement under the discriminatory Mongol rule, vented their frustration by turning to playwriting. Some members of the elite probably did feel deprived and humiliated under the Mongol system, but did this cause them to turn to drama as the means for self-realisation? The connection is possible but not provable. Perhaps much more immediate is the symbiosis between literate men writing plays and the flourishing urban culture in the 13th and 14th centuries.

A woman in blue overalls kneels slumped on a table. Around her neck is a sign with a red cross on it.
Katie Leung as Dou Yi.
Photo by Ikin Yum © RSC Browse and license our images


Guan Hanqing was firmly ensconced in this culture. He formed friendships with actors and other playwrights, and is said to have ‘applied powder and paint to his face’ and acted on stage. He is credited with no less than 68 plays, of which 18 have survived in whole, and three in fragments (although in some cases the attribution has been debated).

Guan was also the acknowledged master of songs. One particularly famous song has helped shaped his image as the ironic, playful and defiant habitué of theatres and ‘pleasure quarters’: ‘I am the resounding bronze bean that cannot be steamed to mush, boiled to pulp, hammered to submission, fried to explosion.’ He will stop going down the road of ‘mist and flowers’ (i.e. wanton pleasures) only if Yama, the king of hell, personally summons him and drags him down with the help of gods and demons.

Guan Hanqing is honoured, among other things, for championing the downtrodden. Tian Han’s (1898-1968) play, Guan Hanqing (1958), written under Communist rule, dramatises how Guan criticises social ills and expresses his rebellion by writing The Injustice Done to Dou E. However, it is doubtful that his play was driven by such an emphatic critique of flaws in the sociopolitical system: the focus is more on Dou E’s personal suffering. What is unmistakeable, though, is Dou E’s oppositional spirit – and such strength of character is evident in many of Guan’s heroines, be they proud courtesans, headstrong ingénues, savvy commoners, cunning maids, determined wives or selfless mothers. Instead of dwelling on Dou E’s victimhood, Guan Hanqing emphasises Dou E’s agency as she challenges her mother-in-law, denounces the villains, curses official corruption, and questions cosmic justice by calling on heaven and earth. Her forcefulness tests the limits of conventional morality, even as she exemplifies orthodox principles like filial piety.

Wai-Yee Li is Professor of Chinese Literature at Harvard University. In 2016, she won the Joseph Levenson Prize for her book, Women and National Trauma in Late Imperial Chinese Literature.

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