The History of The Orphan of Zhao

By Shannon Stockwell

Orphan of Zhao Set Model
Set Design by Daniel Ostling
James Fenton said of the process of adapting The Orphan of Zhao, “There seems to be nosingle text that presents the whole story from start to finish. It is a livingpiece of drama—continuously evolving and mutating.” Indeed, the tale has gone through many permutations, passed from country to country, translated from Chinese to French to English and back to Chinese again, leaving us with as many interpretations as there are adaptations. The origins of the tale reach back impossibly far, all the way back to the seventh century BCE.

The Orphan of Zhao is based on actual events that occurred during the Spring and Autumn era (722–481 BCE), which is a subdivision of the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BCE). The Spring and Autumn era is named after Chunqiu, or Spring and Autumn Annals, which record the history of the small state of Lu during the years 722 BCE to 481 BCE. The earliest known roots of the Orphan of Zhao story are found in the Zuo Zhuan, or Zuo’s Commentary, which was written by an unknown author during the Warring States period (475–221 BCE). This detailed expansion of the Chunqiu includes accounts of a great minster named Zhao Dun who tried to reason with the corrupt Duke Ling, who was needlessly cruel to his subjects, even killing them for sport.

There is no mention of an orphan in the Zuo Zhuan; that part of the story first appeared in the Shiji, or Records of the Grand Historian, written by second-century BCE historian Sima Qian. The chapter titled “Noble Family of Zhao” tells of the rescue of the Orphan of Zhao, who is, in this account, Zhao Dun’s grandson. This story also introduces Tu’an Gu, the duke’s power-hungry minister, and Cheng Ying, a friend of the Zhao family who rescues the orphan from his awful fate.

Orphan of Zhao Set Model
Set Design by Daniel Ostling
The Shiji’s tale of good versus evil, honor, loyalty, and revenge caught the attention of many Chinese authors over time, so the story was already well-known among the Chinese public by the time an otherwise unremarkable Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) playwright, Ji Junxiang, wrote a stage adaptation. His play was catalogued in the library of a Ming dynasty emperor in the early fifteenth century. In 1735, a French translation was published by a Jesuit priest who had traveled to China as a missionary. This translation, though somewhat unfaithful to the Chinese original in terms of style, inspired many more adaptations in several European languages.

While the “vogue” of Chinese culture fell out of favor with the European public near the end of the eighteenth century, the story of The Orphan of Zhao has captured the attentions of audiences throughout time. The twentieth century saw several new adaptations and translations, not only in China but across the world. The dramatic story of revenge, sacrifice, and loyalty has endured for almost 3,000 years, and to James Fenton, it is no mystery why: “The story has resonances throughout the world: I have often thought of Cambodia; others might think of Uganda, or Rwanda. There is, of course, the recent history of China itself. One doesn’t need to insert these echoes. They resonate on their own behalf.”

Read more about A.C.T.'s production of The Orphan of Zhao in Words on Plays! Click here to purchase a copy.

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