Chinese and Western Drama: Tragi-Comedy and Tragedy

Zheng Ying, Zhejiang University

The structural difference between traditional Chinese and western drama has long been studied by generations of comparative literary scholars. However, with the universal structure of human narratives — tragi-comedy, as promoted by Patrick Colm Hogan in The Mind and Its Stories–the issue of similarities and dissimilarities could find some answers. Professor Hogan defines “tragi-comedy” as a structure with a sorrow-eliciting middle part and a happiness-eliciting ending simultaneously, and hence the traditional genre of tragedy is merely a variation of it, a shortened form in which the plot comes to end in the middle part (see Hogan, The Mind and Its Stories), the model of which can be outlined by the following graph.


Structure of Tragedy and Tragi-Comedy (Hogan)

A: Beginning                           B: Sorrowful Middle                           C: Happy Ending






In this paper, with comparison under the model of “tragi-comedy” and tragedy respectively, and with evidence drawn from Chinese and western literary theories and classical works, I would try to argue that both Chinese and western drama have “tragi-comedy” and the shortened tragedy as one of their important narrative universals, but only that Chinese and western tragedy are shortened differently. For the convenience of narration, I would use “A-B-C” structure to refer to “tragi-comedy” and a shortened “A-B” structure to refer to tragedy.

Tragi-Comedy in Chinese and Western Drama

After examination, it can be found that both Chinese and western drama have the structure of “tragi-comedy” as one of their narrative prototypes, which is not only suggested in their literary theories but also manifested in many of their representative classical works.

Comparison from Literary Theories

Though it is widely believed by western literary theorists that tragedy and comedy are two distinguished dramatic genres, the genre of “tragicomedy” has been separated from genres of tragedy and comedy since very early times, and become one of the independent literary genres. Though traditional critics such as Hegel did not give high reputation to this mixed literary genre, many modern critics advocate tragicomedy to be a quite important genre since the mix of tragedy and comedy is exactly “the basic pattern of human life”, informing “human being’s perception of their environment and their most central religious beliefs” (Foster 9).

In Chinese dramatic theory, however, though there is no similar independent concept as “tragi-comedy,” this A-B-C structure was indeed widely approved and considered legal and valuable. In On Lyrics(曲品), Lu Tiancheng of the Ming Dynasty, spoke highly of the plays which mixed the tragic emotions and happy ones, and remarked on The Story of Lute(琵琶记, a tragi-comedy, as the best example of “work of great excellence”, for it “alternates so properly, setting sadness and pleasure in turn”[1] (Lu 224). In Principles of Lyrics (曲律), Wang Jide compared the plot of a drama to “a snake in the mountain, whose head is in good link with its tail”[2] (Wang132). The description, “whose head is in good link with its tail,” is in fact another way of saying that the seed of happiness-pursuing sown at the beginning of a play must have its harvest in its denouement, though the middle could be somewhat different.

Comparison from Literary Works

Along the history of western drama, a lot of great examples of tragi-comedy, or “tragicomedy” as it is traditionally defined, could be found. In works of ancient Greek, Euripides’ Alcestis is a good example. The goal there is somewhat the romantic reunion of lovers from the heroine’s position. In the “middle” part, the goal is tragically unobtained, for even though the heroine Alcestis has prepared to donate her own life to save her husband’s and only asks her husband never to marry again in return, her husband eats his words soon after her death. But in the end, her life is saved by her husband’s friend, who sends her to her husband’s hand and unites her with him again. In the Renaissance period, many Shakespearean plays fit this model in the same way. His famous work, The Winter’s Tale, even encompasses two stories of romantic tragi-comedies. One is around the royal family: In the middle, queen Hermione’s faintness (which is due to her husband king Leontes’ accusation) becomes the rumor of death and is believed by the king deeply. Hermione comes back to life from the unconsciousness statue and gets united with her family in the final part. The other is around the heirs of the two countries: Their engagement is strongly rejected by the prince’s parent Polixenes. They must escape to Sicilia, and their marriage gets his approval only later in the play. Besides, as Hogan has put forward, some classical series of tragedies such as Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Sophocles’ Oedipus plays, or the two parts of Faust of modern works, can also be integrated into tragic-comedy of a larger cycle.

In traditional Chinese drama, we find Zheng Guangzu’s The Soul of Qiannu Leaves Her Body(倩女离魂)as mentioned by Hogan. In Act II of this play, Qiannu’s soul departs from her body and joins her fiancé who is forced to spend three years away from hometown. This is the sorrowful middle, as Qiannu’s body seems destined to die at home. In Act IV, however, she gets married with her fiancé after her soul joins into her body again. This is the happiness-eliciting ending. Many other classical plays are of the same general type–The Story of Lute(琵琶记),The Tale of Rabbit (白兔记), The Romance of the West Chamber(西厢记), Night Rain in the Xiaoxiang Court (潇湘夜雨), The Peony Pavilion(牡丹亭)etc.

Tragedy in Chinese and Western Drama

In both western and Chinese drama, we can, similarly, find the shortened version of “tragi-comedy”—tragedy. However, we would also find that they are shortened to a different extent and in slightly different ways, the relation of which may be seen more clearly in the graph below. As it is shown, suppose Point C in tragi-comedy includes several happiness-eliciting elements. Though both Chinese and western tragedy give Point C as a cut off, Chinese tragedy tends to cut off only part of C, while western tragedy cuts off C more thoroughly. In other words, more elements of Point C get preserved in a Chinese tragedy, very often in a partial “joyous reunion” following the sorrowful middle part). (The term “joyous reunion” is conventially used in Chinese dramatic studies to refer to the phenomenon that Chinese dramas often end with some kind of pleasure: those who begin with sadness end with happiness, those who begin with separation end with reunion, and those with poverty and with richness, and so forth [see Wang Guowei, A History of The Dramas of the Song and Yuan Dynasties (宋元戏曲史]). It is modified as “partial” here because, compared with the “joyous reunion” in other dramas, in tragedy, it is neither a complete restoration of the statement appearing in Point A nor a goal finally realized, but a partial restitution of the original order, a half-achieved statement of the goal, or a satisfying compensation to the sorrowful middle when the goal is impossible to gain as expected. In contrast, the story will cease strictly in Point B in a western tragedy.


Structure of Tragedy (Revised)

A: Beginning                           B: Sorrowful Middle                           C: Happy Ending


Western Tragedy


Chinese Tragedy                                                   Partial Joyous Reunion


Comparison from Literary Theories

For Chinese tragedy, we can not only understand this “joyous reunion” from the ancient literary theories mentioned above, but also from several modern scholar’s observations. The goal in the beginning must have some echo in the end, and if it is not obtained, it must have some compensation. For instance, Qian Zhongshu has once asserted that in Chinese drama, “the curtain does not fall on the main tragic event, but on the aftermath of that event. The tragic moment with passion at its highest and pain at its deepest seems to ebb out in a long falling close” (Qian 53-65), in which the involvement of both Point B and C is highlighted. Wang Guowei (Wang 12) and Cai Yuanpei (Cai 66-67) have maintained that for Chinese drama, “those who begin with separation end with reunion.” Wang Jisi’s research, in which western drama is described as “happiness—sorrow—deeper sorrow”, and Chinese drama as “happiness—sorrow—happiness—deeper sorrow—lighter happiness” (Wang 75-79) also outlines this relation.

Similarly, we can find the requirement for the precise A-B structure of western tragedy from western dramatic theories, from ancient Aristotle’s to the previous dramatic critics. Aristotle described the magnitude of tragedy (30-31, 36-37), writing that

as great as a magnitude as it takes for a change to happen into good from bad fortune, or from good to bad fortune, when it comes about by a likely or necessary sequence, there is a sufficient limit of magnitude…it is therefore necessary for the story that is in beautiful shape to be single–not double as some people claim–changing not into good fortune from bad but the opposite way, from good fortune to bad.

This is to say that, as long as there is a complete change “from good to bad fortune”, the change from Point A to Point B, the “sufficient limit of magnitude” is so well finished that no more excessive joyous sequence, thus Point C, is needed. In Hegel’s opinion, in tragedy, each of the two parties of the conflict stands for their own reason. Now that either of them could defeat the other and get the final success, the ruin of both is the necessary ending of the whole play. In “The Psychology of Tragic Pleasure”, Roy Morrell pointed out that tragedy should firmly exclude Point C, which is the period of “the gratification of a wish” in his word, “In short, tragic pleasure does not arise through the gratification of a wish, but in a wish’s frustration…Tragedy does not ‘please’ in this sense; it does not please our palate, nor awaken pleasurable anticipation. On the contrary, we resist Tragedy, and try to avert it” (22-37). And in V.G. Belinsky’s idea, the hero “could not be ‘hero’ without this sacrifice or death” (Belinsky, 370).

Comparison from Literary Works

Many canonical works from each tradition provide evidence for this distinction as well. Tragic plays since the Yuan Dynasty, such as The Gross Injustice to Maid Dou(窦娥冤)by Guan Hanqing and The Orphan of Zhao (赵氏孤儿)by Ji Junxiang, have been recognized as models of Chinese tragedy, and they are composed in this structure. In The Gross Injustice to Maid Dou, for example, a young woman named Dou Duan-yun is going after the goal of social justice, for she is unjustly charged with murder by villain Zhang Lu’er who poisons his own father but accuses her of the murder. In Act III, when Dou Duan-yun is sentenced to death by the governor and appeals to heaven to have pity, the sorrow-eliciting Point B comes to its climax for the justice she pursues has not yet been obtained before her death. But in the end Dou Duan-yun’s spirit asks her father, a government official, to retry the case and he manages to give the criminals the punishments they deserve. Thus a compensation of justice qualifies Dou’s tragedy.

As comparison, in Shakespeare’s King Lear, Lear’s distribution of the land can be viewed as Point A in which his goal is to give his daughters their deserved share of his land. But after his distribution plan proves to be totally wrong, the disastrous failure becomes inescapable even though he has once regretted and tried to rectify it. In the end of the play, he and his three daughters all die, and this is exactly the sorrow-eliciting Point B. In another play of Shakespeare, Othello, the story ends with Point B likewise. The goal herein is the loving union of Othello and Desdemona, but this happiness goal is not finally achieved. Though he has managed to marry her, he smothers her to death under the deceit of Iago, and commits suicide after the truth is revealed.

It is true that in some western dramas, when the goal could not be attained, the decent man and the evil one will meet their doom at the same time. To some extent, the death of the evil group is another way of the triumph of the good, and hence analogous to the “joyous reunion.” Nonetheless, it is far less “happy” than the latter, since a usual Chinese literary practice would not only give the sinner his deserved punishment but also give the hero or his group some restitution after their sorrowful experience. So, if the most ideal form of happy ending in tragi-comedy is to give a happy life to the good and bitter penalization for the evil, the ending in Chinese tragedy preserves more of it.

Let us take Hogan’s heroic tragi-comedy as example, and divide the full version of it into three stages, (A) the possession of power, (B) the lost of power during which the hero makes great effort to regain that power, and (C) the ultimate regaining of the power. In relation to this, we may consider two tragedies of this same theme, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Ji Junxiang’s The Great Revenge of the Orphan of Zhao (赵氏孤儿大报仇). They are extraordinarily alike in the first two stages, but differ in the ending stage.

1) Similar Beginning, the Order Destroyed

In the beginning of The Orphan of Zhao, in the name of the king, Tu’an Gu slaughters over three hundred people who constitute the family of his political rival, Zhao. When Zhao’s wife, the princess, Lady Zhuang is briefly spared, and prisoned in their house, she gives birth to her son. That heir, the orphan of Zhao, is not only threatened to death, but also deprived of his aristocratic life and political power.

The order is similarly seriously destroyed in Hamlet. The old king is murdered by his own brother, the usurper Claudius, and Hamlet’s mother is married by the latter. As Hamlet has said that he “hath killed my king and whored my mother” and “Thrown out his angle for my proper life” (V.ii.65, 67). Hamlet himself is at the risk of being deprived of his proper position, and the royal family is destroyed.

2) Similar Middle Part, the Order Lost in Pursuit

In The Orphan of Zhao, the newborn orphan is entrusted to the doctor Cheng Ying and carried out of his home in the medicine chest, after which he is endowed with the great task of revenge. As Cheng Ying explains in Act II, “all of the Zhao family rest their hope on this little boy, wishing him to take revenge.”[3] In Hamlet, after Prince Hamlet gets to know the truth of his father’s death from his father’s ghost. Thus he too is endowed with the task of revenge, as his father has asked him “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder”(I,v.25) and he himself announces that “The time is out of joint:O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right !”(I,v.189-190) .

And in both plays, situations in this part are sorrowful as many people lose their lives. In the former, they are the kind general Han Jue, Cheng Ying’s own son, minister Gongsun, and so on; in the latter, they are Hamlet’s fiancée Ophelia and her brother, as well as his own mother.

3) Varied endings

According to Hogan, the final stage of tragi-comedy will very often include at least two elements , one is the punishment of the destroyer of the order, that “He/she then battles the usurper” in Hogan’s words, and the other is the order’s going back to normal, the hero “is restored to his/her proper place as leader of his/her society” (110). While both plays have the first element, the second element is completely cut off in Hamlet but embodied in a compensatory form in the Ji’s play.

As for the first element, both plays have it. In The Orphan of Zhao, it is manifested as the grown-up orphan arrests the killer Tu’an, who has been his adoptive father for twenty years, and gives him a torturous death, to “stick him to the wooden donkey (a instruments of torture), cut off the flesh from his bones, and when all of his flesh is taken off, chop off his head and give him disembowelment, in case he dies too quickly.”[4] In Hamlet, it is embodied as Hamlet kills the usurper Claudius by the poisoned foil.

As for the second element, it gets half-embodied in The Orphan of Zhao, and in a form of compensation. While the orphan wins his deserved position back and his major saver, Cheng Ying gets a considerable reward, many other decent people who have passed away during the previous stage, such as Han Jue and Gongsun, who have no chance to come back to life, but only get some compensation from the emperor’s citation which declares, “To let Han Jue’s descendant be the general still, and to give Cheng Ying farms ten hectares. To build memorial for old Gongsun, to give all decent people praise”[5](VI). In contrast, not only does Hamlet die soon after the death of Claudius due to his wound (a standard way in which a heroic tragi-comedy is shortened into a tragedy), his rightful dominion is seized by the outside invader, prince Fortinbras of Norway.

With the examination of Chinese drama and its western counterpart under the framework of Hogan’s universal narrative structure of tragi-comedy, it might be concluded that (1) both of the two literary conventions have the prototype of “tragi-comedy” similarly; (2) though both of them have the shortened form of “tragi-comedy,” tragedy as well, they have it shortened differently, with an additional “joyous reunion” in the typical Chinese dramatic ending.

Furthermore, with this finding, a possible cognitive answer might be suggested to the classical question “whether China has tragedy” in comparative literary study of 20th century. If we define the “tragedy” here as “tragedy of the western version”: the answer may be “no”, for a Chinese tragic play may differ from a western tragedy in how it gets the ending of tragi-comedy cut off; but if we define the “tragedy” as a shortened form of tragi-comedy, the answer could be “yes,” for Chinese tragic play resembles its western counterpart in its “tragi-comedy minus” shape.

[See also Patrick Colm Hogan, “Comments on Zheng“]


Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Newburyport: Focus Publishing/R. Pullins Company, 2006.

Foster, Verna A. The Name and Nature of Tragicomedy. Ashgate Publishing, 2004.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Morrell, Roy. “The Psychology of Tragic Pleasure.” Essays in Criticism VI (1956).

Qian Zhongshu. “Tragedy in Old Chinese Drama”. A Collection of Qian Zhonshu’s English Essays. Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Researching Press, 2005.


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[1] “串插甚合局段,苦乐相错。”

[2] “务如常山之蛇,首尾相应。”

[3] “赵氏一家全靠着这小舍人,要他报仇哩。”

[4] “与我将这贼钉上木驴,细细的剐上三千刀,皮肉都尽,方才断首开膛,休着他死的早了。”

[5] “韩厥后仍为上将,给程婴十顷田庄。老公孙立碑造墓,弥明辈概与扬。”