The Four Cries of the Gibbon


This drama is by Xu Wei (1521–93), a literary writer, painter-calligrapher, and playwright. A native of Shanyin, Zhejiang, Xu Wei used various pseudonyms, among them Qingteng Jushi (Resident of the Green Vine House). Despite his talents and early achievements in painting, poetry, and essay writing, he failed in eight attempts to pass the civil examinations and never achieved a jin shi degree. He served under General Hu Zongxian, the supreme commander of the Jiangsu–Zhejiang–Fujian coastal defense against the Japanese pirates, but lost his post after the general was arrested and removed from his position. Xu became mentally distraught and attempted to commit suicide many times. He went insane, killed his wife, and was imprisoned. After his release, he remained impoverished and depressed until his death. His painting, revolutionary for its time with an expressive style and unrestrained broad brushstrokes, influenced countless painters of later generations. He also left behind a number of excellent dramas. This work is a composite poetic drama formed from his four plays: Kuang gu shi Yuyang san long (The history of the mad drummer of Yuyang), Yu chan shi Cuixiang yi meng (A zen master’s dream of the land of green jade), Ci Mulan ti fu cong jun (The heroine Mulan goes to war in her father’s place), and Nü zhuang yuan ci huang de feng (The female top graduate gives up a phoenix-hen and obtains a phoenix-rooster). Si sheng yuan (The four cries of the gibbon), probably was derived from a folk ballad in Badong Sanxia (The Three Gorges in Badong), which describes the three cries of the monkey that reduced people to tears. The story, taken from chapter 23 of San guo yan yi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms), tells of Mi Heng (173–98), a talented scholar, who has served his term in the nether world after his death and is about to ascend to the heavens to assume a new position. Before he does so, he is asked by a judge to reenact his encounter with Cao Cao (155–220), chancellor of the Eastern Han dynasty and later head of the state of Wei, who is also in the nether world. Mi Heng then tells how he was unwilling to serve Cao and behaved disrespectfully toward him, so that Cao made him a drum master at the imperial court in an attempt to humiliate him. Dressed in shabby clothes, Mi stripped naked, and played the tune of a poignant song on the drum, bringing tears to the guests’ eyes. Mi reenacts this scene and reviles Cao, listing all Cao’s treacheries. Preceding each scene of the play is a woodblock illustration with an inscription. Mi Heng is depicted naked while beating the drum. Cao Cao is shown in the upper portion of the picture, observing from his high position, with a ghostly guard on each side. The characters are delicately depicted in the illustrations.

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4 juan, 2 volumes : illustrations ;  20.6 x 14.5 centimeters


  • Only 4 illustrations are included in the WDL presentation.

Last updated: December 24, 2013