The Story of the Embroidered Coat, with Commentary by Chen Meigong


Xiu ru ji (Story of the embroidered coat) by Ming dynasty author Xue Jingun is considered the most complete version of the tale of the lovers Li Yaxian and Zheng Yuanhe. The tale originated in folk legends, which Tang author Bai Xingjian (776–826)  used as the basis of his short story Li Wa zhuan (Life of Li Wa). Bai Xingjian’s work served as a model for writers of later generations who retold the same tale. Xue Jingun’s version has 41 scenes and begins with Zheng Yuanhe on his way to the capital to take the imperial civil examination. He meets the famed courtesan Li Yaxian and they fall in love. After he exhausts all his money, he is thrown out of the brothel by the madam. Destitute and in the streets, he makes a living by singing funeral songs. His father goes to the capital, finds and confronts him, and beats him. Zheng finds his way to the front of Li Yaxian’s house, where Li wraps him with an embroidered coat and pricks her eyes with needles, by this action admonishing him to take up his studies again. Zheng does so, eventually takes the civil examination, and succeeds in becoming the highest-ranking candidate. Moved by Li’s purity, Zheng’s father finally permits them to marry. Li Yaxian becomes a lady of high rank. The inscription at the beginning of this work tells the reader that it was reviewed by Chen Jiru (style name Meigong, 1558–1639), painter, calligrapher, and writer; edited by Xiao Mingsheng (1575–1644), owner of a famous bookshop in Jianyang, Fujian Province, during the late Ming; read by Yu Wenxi; and printed by Xiao Tenghong, Xiao Mingsheng’s uncle. Yu Wenxi also wrote the preface. At the end of each scene is a commentary and at the end of each juan is a critical overview by Chen Meigong. The illustrations cover both pages. They were engraved by Liu Suming and painted by Cai Ruzuo, both skilled and well-known painters and engravers who often cooperated in illustrating dramas. Some of the most dramatic scenes in the story, such as that of Li Yaxian protecting her lover from the cold with an embroidered coat and that of her pricking her eyes to admonish him, are depicted to underline Li Yaxian’s determination and feelings.

Last updated: January 3, 2018