ublius Terentius Afer, the eminent Roman writer of the Comedies and himself a freed slave from Africa, composed six plays adapting original Greek works by the Athenian dramatist Menander. Terence's actors were dressed in Greek style and their names remained Greek, yet they delighted Roman audiences with their humor, while tactfully delineating the unfairness of Roman society. Likewise, in the Far East, at the time of the thirteenth century, Wang Shih-Fu, a prominent dramatist, won his reputation through an analogous approach.

Wang's most famous drama, The Romance of the West Chamber, which is one of his three extant works, is derived from the Hui Chen Chi, a story by Yuan Chen, 779-831 A.D. As had Terence, Wang placed his characters in a remote setting in order to avoid confronting the newly established political power of the Yuan Empire. Superficially, The Romance of the West Chamber is an extremely beautiful love story. But a sensitive audience also notices the play's observations concerning social unfairness. Thus, we can conclude that no matter whether in the East or the West, writers are concerned with the observation of humanity, in particular, writing with revealing sensitivity concerning those who serve in human communities, rather than those who rule. In this case, neither has influenced the other; yet both express the essence of drama as founded on the basis of humanity.


Slavery is one of the most important topics in Terence's plays. In Roman society, slavery was a legal policy. Society was clearly divided into two groups, masters and slaves. Slave auctions were public and popular. Slaves were captives from battle, stolen children, exposed children found by slave dealers, or children sold by their parents. Likewise, children born to free fathers and slave mothers, were doomed to be slaves. Slaves could not share in the benefits of social laws; rather, they were property. In Terence's Self Tormentor, Antiphila had been exposed by her mother, who had been commanded by her father to kill the child if it were a girl. In the Eunuch, Chremes' sister had been stolen as a child and sold to Thais' mother. When Thais' mother died, the girl was sold by Thais' uncle.

Masters provided slaves food and shelter and slaves reciprocated with their labor. Obedience by slaves to their masters was required. In the Lady of Andros, Davus shivers at the penalty he would suffer for the unexpected disaster he has set in motion: "I shall have a whole skin for ever, I know that, if I get out of this without a whipping." He is threatened also with work in the mill. Crucifixion was the supreme penalty. It was also possible for Roman slaves to be freed. We hear Simo saying to Sosia: "You were my slave and I made you my freedman because you served me with a free man's spirit. I gave you the highest recompense in my power." Syrus, the slave in the Brothers, asked for his freedom even though his master Micio was a most democratic and generous gentleman.

The role of women in Greek and Roman society could be viewed as another form of human enslavement. Women were excluded from power. Moreover, they were categorized into two types: virtuous women; prostitutes. Virtuous women remained indoors and if they spoke did so with submissiveness; consequently in Terence's plays they are spoken but rarely seen. Prostitutes could be presented on the stage and could there speak and behave much more freely. Thais, the prostitute in the Eunuch, expressed her outrage to the young rapist with strong and just words. The mother and the raped daughter in the Mother- in-Law could not do so.

Similarly, children were their father's property and obedience was required of them. In Terence's society marriage was planned and negotiated between parents, not young people. A slave girl would never be allowed to marry a master's son; but a noble girl with a large dowry would be very desirable. The girl from Andros was first refused because of her seeming humble background; but was later welcomed for her suitable status and profitable dowry.

In Terence's plays the language of the slaves is always colorful, containing words of boldness, cunning and fear. A young master's speech is full of hopefulness, blame and distress. An old master and father speaks with command, condemnation and complaint. "I" is used by the masters, and "you" is spoken by the slaves. This use of "you" by the slaves partly implies their social status and partly their unselfishness; this use of "I" by the masters shows their central concern is always about themselves.

Terence's slaves have rounded characters; they are human beings as we know ourselves also to be. Look at Davus, the slave in The Lady from Andros, whose real personality is revealed through his direct and obliquely-made speeches. There is a very lively dialogue between him and his master Simo:

Simo: There wasn't to have been a wedding.
Davus: What? no wedding?
Simo: No, I pretended there was to test the pair of you.
Davus: Impossible.
Simo: But a fact.
Davus: There now, I never could have discovered that. Bless me, what a clever plan.
Simo: Listen now. After I sent you indoors, luckily I met my friend here.
Davus (aside): The devil! We can't be done for?
Simo: I told him what you told me just now.
Davus (aside): O Lord! Simo: I asked him for his daughter's hand and with some difficulty got his consent.
Davus (aside): Blighted!
Simo: What's that?
Davus: Delighted, I say I'm delighted with the arrangement.
The reality of being a slave forces Davus to speak what he has to say but the playwright's ruse enables him to speak out what he wants to say and what he truly feels. Terence's characters show us the truth of the two dimensions at the same time: the truth of the situation and the truth of human nature.

By means of playing with social structure and also by means of resolved double plots, Terence created a comic drama that was to influence other dramatists through time, such as Shakespeare, with the bold Paulina in Winter's Tale, and Moliere, with the impudent Dorine in Tartuffe. In these texts those who are subordinate, slaves, servants, women, act with righteousness and courage, speaking the truth and acting with integrity, presenting a drama of humanity.


I shall now compare Wang Shih-Fu and his most famous work, The Romance of the West Chamber, with Terence. Like Terence, Wang composed this play from other authors' works. In fact, the plots of Chinese dramas are mostly derived from well-known stories written in the Tang or Sung dynasties. In this case, the original story is the Hui Chen Chi, a story written by Yuan Chen in the Tang Dynasty. Later, Tung Chieh-Yuan, a dramatist of the Chin Dynasty, adapted the story and put it on stage with music. At that time, singing and dancing were separated; singers sang out the plot while actors imitated the action of the story. It was not until the Yuan Dynasty (1281-1368) that singing and acting were performed by the same person.

Yuan's original version is a tragedy. A young scholar, Ch'ang, is on his way to the capital for the civil service examination which is held only once a year. He visits the Temple P'u Ch'iu on the way. There he meets Ying-Ying, the beautiful daughter of Prime Minister Tsui, and falls in love. He asks the abbot if he can reside there. His room is next to the heroine's in the west chamber of the temple. A robber band's leader comes to the temple and intends to marry Ying-Ying by force. Madame Ch'eng proposes that whoever can prevent this action can marry her daughter. Ch'ang writes to his friend, General Tu, and has Ying-Ying rescued. But Ying-Ying, who now loves Ch'ang, is instead married to another. Tung's musical version changes the tragedy to comedy, with the two young people running away together. Wang's drama reconciles these, having the hero and heroine win the forgiveness of the heroine's mother. In Wang's drama, also, the servant, Huan Lang, has an important part. Her mediation is the reason for the success of the love story. She is not present in Yuan's and Tung's versions.

The beginning of Chinese drama was similar to that in the Western world, originating from ceremonies worshiping the gods. But it degenerated into a satirical mimicking of politicians and was therefore contemptible to scholars, who concentrated instead on classical poetry and history. Likewise the low position of actors, who lived as parasites within the palace, contributed to its contempt. It was only in the Yuan Dynasty that drama won respect. This was for four reasons. Barbarian Mongolians of low culture could frequent the theatre but not read classical poetry. The civil service examinations were suspended for seventy-eight years, depriving many Chinese scholars of the traditional privilege of holding public office. In the Yuan Dynasty, scholars were classified at the ninth level (prostitutes being at the eighth level and beggars, the tenth). Cities in this period, like Peking, flourished and their theatres became a popular resort for businessmen, prostitutes and the Mongolian government. The Han or southern Chinese were now treated as inferiors. They therefore switched their interests from the civil service to the theatre. Consequently many turned to writing drama. The Yuan Dynasty therefore became the great age of Chinese theatre and in this period Wang Shih-Fu, the talented scholar, wrote his great works.

In The Romance of the West Chamber the old, traditional society and the new one are portrayed. Let us discuss those traditions. Like Terence's society, Wang's was a masculine one with women subordinate to men. It was a social rule that a woman had to obey three persons in her life, her father, her husband, her son. Madame Ch'eng's daughter, Ying-Ying, could not inherit the family name and her mother therefore had to adopt a son, Huan Lang, to be the heir. A girl in a rich family was a nuisance, requiring a dowry to be marriageable. If a girl was born in a poor family, she could be killed, exposed or sold. In The Romance of the West Chamber Hung Niang is a slave- servant. There were other restrictions placed upon women. For example, it was said that a virtuous woman had to be illiterate. But she was expected to be skilled in embroidery and housework. Women, from the Sung Dynasty on, were required to bind their feet. In this drama, Ch'ang is attracted to the heroine for her tiny golden lotus feet. (This abnormal and selfish demand by men was a cruel tradition in China; some women even had their feet squeezed to three inches in size.) Another virtue in women was to be shy whenever they saw a man. Ying-Ying says: "If I saw a man unknown to me I immediately grew angry and ashamed. Even when I saw a male relative I was horribly embarrassed and terribly upset." Women were trained to feel ashamed of themselves and to hide away all the time, these traditions making women tame and powerless in China.

Wang also criticized Chinese marriage. Love was not a factor in arranging a marriage. Marriages were decided upon as the union of two families, not two persons, its goal being propagation and the prolongation of the name of the family. It was improper for a rich person to marry a poor one. In The Romance of the West Chamber, Madame Ch'eng proposed her daughter in marriage to anyone who could find a way to expel the robbers, saying in desperation, "Even though his rank not be equal to ours, it would not be like ruining your life by giving you up to the bandit chief." But for the disastrous threat of Sun Fei-Hu, Madame Ch'eng would certainly never have married her daughter to anyone of lower social status.

The future of one's daughter's spouse was of great concern as well. Scholars traditionally were the most respected persons in society. If a scholar passed the civil service examination, the remainder of his life would be stable and prosperous since, in China, scholars and politicians were the same persons. Parents therefore encouraged their children to study. In the drama the compromise between Ch'ang and Madame Ch'eng is that the young scholar must leave for Peking the next morning for the examination. She says: "When you have won an official position, return to see me. If you fail, never let me set eyes on you again." If Ch'ang passes the examination he will attain power and authority and thus be compatible to Ying-Ying's aristocratic social status. On the part of the woman, the dowry and her virginity were of paramount importance.

In The Romance of the West Chamber, Wang subversively yet tactfully criticized the ideals of the traditional culture. He did so through his characters Ying-Ying, Huan Niang, Ch'ang and the monk Hui Ming. Ying-Ying was first presented as the model young maiden. She obeyed every command her mother gave. In the beginning, Wang presents her as perfect and like a cold statue moulded by tradition with no stain upon it. But after her encounter with Ch'ang the mute goddess opens her mouth and becomes mortal. She is seized by a bold passion most improper in a shy, disciplined young lady.

"But when I saw you,
Ah, then I fell in love at once . . .
His countenance is handsome as a flower;
His body is noble . . .
In spite of myself I cannot control my lips,
And his image is printed vividly in my heart
That I may study its every feature at my ease."
Her utterance is genuine. But, according to the tradition's customs, it is unruly and brazen. Later, she exchanges letters through her slave-servant, Huan Niang, with Ch'ang, secretly, and she even gives to him her virginity. Wang here defies the traditional world. He has Ying-Ying tear away the sacred garment placed upon her by her society. He has her express her own self truly before the audience. She learns to be decisive and positive. Unlike the dependent ideal woman of Chinese society or those in Terence's plays, she goes to Ch'ang's door and asks for the fulfilment of their love.

The scholar Ch'ang also defies social conventions. He is passionate and an admirer of nature and beauty. He falls in love with Ying-Ying and forgets about study and ambition. He lets emotion and affection be his teacher. Huan Niang says that "the Classics and the Histories no longer have appeal" for this young man who is in love. Such a statement for China's traditional society would be shocking.

Huang Niang's intrepid personality has her speak the truth and act fairly to others. Like the slave Geta in Phormio she is the most important character in the affair. Being a slave, she is not bound so rigidly by social custom as Ying-Ying, the noblewoman. Without her - and she prides herself on her illiteracy - the love letters written between her mistress and Ch'ang could never have been exchanged. Without her the two lovers could not possess the courage to meet each other. In Act Fourteen, when she is punished, she does not betray her mistress under Madame Ch'eng's whip in order to protect herself but proclaims that it is Madame Ch'eng's fault for not fulfilling the promise she had made.

Their two hearts beat as one.
And their souls are firmly united.
Act wisely in this thing, my noble lady,
That all may come to its proper end.
Why discuss it further?
It would cause useless bitterness,
And deep and vain regrets.
Madame: Vile creature, you, you are the cause of this.
Hung Niang: Not Ch'ang, not my little mistress, and not I, Hung Niang, is to blame for this. You have brought it on yourself, Madame.
Hung Niang is not afraid of unjust accusations by persons in authority but perceives the truth and is brave enough to utter it. In China, she is therefore admired and respected for her bravery, intelligence and integrity.

Hui Ming, though he only appears in one act, is one of the strongest characters in this play. He is bold and truthful towards authority. A Buddhist was required to be merciful, obedient, poor and vegetarian. But Hui Ming drinks wine and loves to fight. He does not study Buddhist books, nor does he follow any rule in the temple. He even disobeys his abbot and tells Ch'ang to his face that the Classics are dead and a waste of words. Yet his courage and his rudeness are more worthy than the ceremoniousness and humility of the other monks, who fled when Sun Fei-Hu attacked the temple. It is Hui Ming who remains and who then delivers the letter from Ch'ang to his comrade, General Tu. Neither flowery words nor social rules suffice at the moment when lives are threatened. The coarse hero whom Wang Shih-Fu created mocks China's noble and educated society.

Chinese drama was popularized amongst the people. Its audiences were familiar with the characters and the plots beforehand. The stage was very simple, giving the members of the audience more space in their imagination to picture the scenes. This made it easer for the audience to participate in the acting of the drama and the sentiment aroused by it. As in Terence's plays, where women existed powerfully like ghosts because they were concealed behind curtains from the stage, so do we find in Act Three of The Romance of the West Chamber, when Ch'ang hides behind an imaginary tree to appreciate the beauty of Ying-Ying. Ch'ang's motives and behavior are therefore made known to the audience yet concealed from Ying-Ying.

Thus we see that in The Romance of the West Chamber, Wang not only portrayed traditional society but also interjected conflicts and contradictions to it. His characters inspect and interrogate the false truths the traditional society upholds. We could say that the slaves in Terence's plays are helpless and that the slave-servant in Wang's play is pitiable. But in these two societies who was in the better position? The masters were taught to be social machines; their cruelty, their authority, their stubbornness were inherited from their parents. Their sons, their wives and their slaves were trained under the same system. None of them is truly free. Yet the intellect of the dramatists provided a solution: moderation. Extremist behavior creates gods and beasts, but not humanity. The Romance of the West Chamber's demonstrations of free love and its criticism of feudalism, like Terence's similar presentations, much influenced later works, including The Dream of the Red Chamber, written by Tsao Hsueh-Ching in the Ching Dynasty. In it the hero is reading romances, including The Romance of the West Chamber, which the heroine requests. She, prompted by the tale, falls in love. He, rebelling against being the only heir of the powerful Jia family, becomes a monk. Even when China's Classics were swept away in Revolutions, The Romance of the West Chamber was treasured and preserved.


In Terence's Comedies and in Wang's Romance of the West Chamber, those in power and those who lacked it - in play - were - and are - reconciled in the comic endings, learning to be more humane and more human.


Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination. Austin, 1981.
Cheng-To, Cheng. The Investigation of Chinese Literature. Hong Kong, 1972.
Chung-Wen, Shih. Golden Age of Chinese Drama: Yuan Tsa-Chu. Princeton, 1976.
Empson, William. Some Versions of Pastoral. New York, 1974.
Fields, Eugene D. The Technique of Exposition in Roman Comedy. Chicago, 1980.
Hallett, Judith P. Fathers and Daughters in Roman Society. Princeton, 1984.
Hsueh-Ching, Tsao. The Red Chamber Dream. Ed. Hu Shih. Shanghai, 1927.
Patterson, David. Literature and Spirit. University Press of Kentucky, 1988.
Ta-Jyei, Liu. The Development of Chinese Literature. Hong Kong, 1975.
Terence. Comedies. Trans. John Sargeaunt. Cambridge, Mass., 1986. 2 vols.
Wiedemann, Thomas. Greek and Roman Slavery. Baltimore, 1981.
Yi-Bi, Chou. The History of Chinese Drama. Taiwan: Taipei, 1988.


This is a Chapter from the E-Book: Latin with Laughter: Terence through Time


Terence through Time Website, 2002/2010