Wildean Echoes in the Plays of Ding Xilin

By Ruth Herd and Zhang Jian

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 22, no. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 162-196

Ding Xilin, whose major works were written between 1923 and 1940, is the only Chinese playwright of the modern period to have concentrated solely on the writing of comedy. Although as early as the 1920s Chinese critics had already noticed parallels between the works of Ding Xilin and Oscar Wilde, their assessment of both artists was superficial and frequently dismissive. Critical analysis has tended to confine itself to the way in which both playwrights are masters of wit and wordplay–this characteristic is so obvious that it has tended to obscure the full range of characteristics that the playwrights hold in common, one of which being the multi-layered nature of their works. Indeed, both playwrights are demonstrably complex artists, but this complexity has, particularly in the case of Ding Xilin, frequently been overlooked. This can be attributed in part to Ding’s choice of genre; one can detect a lack of recognition among many of his critics that comedy is a distinct genre demanding treatment on its own terms.

Since the 1990s, a more thoroughgoing analysis of Ding’s plays has begun to emerge, but there has hitherto been no detailed exploration of the exact nature of the correspondences that exist between Ding and Wilde. This essay goes some way toward a fuller analysis and highlights the value of testing Ding’s plays against the Wildean aesthetic. Furthermore, it argues that Ding’s oeuvre must be viewed as a consistent reflection of his commitment to comedy and asserts that the division of his work into two distinct periods, each characterized by differing thematic concerns, is artificial and counter-productive.