The Swallow’s Message, Huaiyuantang Edition with Commentaries and Punctuations


Ruan Dacheng (circa 1587–1646) was a well-known late-Ming poet and dramatist from an influential family in Huaining, Anhui Province, and also a corrupt politician of unsavory reputation. He received his jin shi degree in 1616. While in office, he allied with Wei Zhongxian (1568–1627), a powerful eunuch, and was dismissed after the eunuch’s downfall. He retired to his native town, and later to Nanjing, and began writing poetry and drama. In 1644 he joined the court of the Ming loyalist Southern Ming (1644–62) regime, and rose to the rank of president of the Board of War and grand guardian of the heir apparent, whereupon he used his power to revenge himself against his enemies. After he surrendered to the Manchus, he was killed en route to Fujian with the Qing army. His best known play is Yan zi jian (The swallow’s message). In 42 scenes, the play is skillfully constructed and full of beautiful songs and artful plots. It tells the story of Huo Duliang, a Tang-dynasty scholar who, together with another scholar named Xianyu Ji, travels to the capital Chang’an for the civil examinations. Huo paints a portrait of himself together with the famous courtesan Hua Xingyun and takes it to be mounted by a man called Miu. Meanwhile, the heroine, Li Feiyun, daughter of the minister of the Bureau of Rites, takes her self-portrait to Miu to be mounted. Miu in his drunkenness mixes up the two paintings and returns them to the wrong owners. Surprised, Li Feiyun sees the resemblance of Hua Xingyun, the courtesan, to herself. She writes an inscription on the painting. Suddenly a swallow flies in and holds the painting in its beak and carries it to the hero. Thus begins the longing of the hero and the heroine for each other. Meanwhile, Huo’s friend Xianyu Ji bribes the examiners, acquires the hero’s examination papers, and becomes the top candidate. These events occur at the time of the rebellion of An Lushan, a Chinese general who proclaims himself emperor against the Tang. The hero accompanies his leader Jia Nanzhong on a campaign against the rebels. Jia Nanzhong adopts the heroine Li Feiyun after she is separated from her family in the war. To reward the hero’s distinguished service, Jia promises his adopted daughter to him. The other heroine, courtesan Hua Xingyun, meets Li Feiyun’s mother, who adopts her because of her likeness to her own lost daughter. At last order is restored, Xianyu Ji’s wrongdoing is exposed, and he flees. The top-candidate title is restored to the hero, who is rewarded with the courtesan as his wife as well. The key elements in this complicated storyline are the flying swallow and the mistake committed by the drunkard Miu. The song verses are expressive and easy to recite, which are features representative of the author’s style. Preceding the text are two vivid illustrations of the two heroines Li Feiyun and Hua Xingyun, portrayed in full dress, with brush and scroll in their hands, in graceful poses. The preface was written by Tang Xianzu (1550–1616). The illustrations are by Lu Wuqing (1573–1644), a Hangzhou painter, and the famous engraver Xiang Nanzhou (1615–1670), who also worked together on illustrations for other novels and dramas.

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Physical Description

2 juan, 4 volumes : illustrations ;  20.2 x 11.9 centimeters


  • Only preface and juan 1 are included in the WDL presentation.

Last updated: January 3, 2018