The Circle of Chalk

by Li Xingfu

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First produced: Thirteenth or fourteenth century

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Romantic comedy

Time of work: Before the thirteenth century

Locale: Nanking and Peking

Principal Characters:

Chang-hi-tang, a concubine

Chang-ling, her brother

Mr. Ma, a rich mandarin and tax collector

Mrs. Ma, his wife

Chow, an official of justice

Chu-Chu, a corrupt judge

Prince Po, in love with Chang-hi-tang


A typical Chinese classical play in four acts (with a prologue) of the Yuan dynasty (1259-1368), The Circle of Chalk is remarkable for the beauty of its lyrical verse. The plot of the original play is concerned with a case of murder and a disputed son solved by a Solomon-like judge. The love affair between the prince and the commoner was introduced by the German adapter, who also widened the application of the symbolic circle of chalk.

The Story:

Chang-hi-tang, a beautiful girl of sixteen, was sold to a teahouse in Nanking by her mother. Her father, a market gardener and grower of silkworms, had been unable to pay his taxes, and in consequence he and his wife and children were driven from their home. Later, the father had hanged himself. Hi-tang's brother, Chang-ling, was opposed to her sale into the house of ill fame but, being a poor scholar, he could do nothing to help his family. He took a part of the money paid for his sister and left Nanking to seek his own fortune.

On her first night in the teahouse, Hi-tang met Prince Po, one of the emperor's many sons, and the young man was struck with her beauty and many accomplishments. The girl drew a circle of chalk to symbolize her fate. But before their love could be fulfilled, another man visited the teahouse. Mr. Ma, the mandarin and tax collector, outbid the prince and bought Hi-tang as his concubine.

One year later, Hi-tang had given birth to a boy. Mr. Ma, though a man given to sensual pleasure and money-seeking, felt real love for the concubine. Naturally, his childless lawful wife was jealous.

One day Chang-ling, in beggar's rags, appeared at the door of Mr. Ma's house. Hi-tang did not at first recognize him. Then he told her that he had joined a secret society, the Brotherhood of the White Lotus, whose purpose was to take revenge on the oppressors of the poor. Mr. Ma's name was marked in the blacklist, and the gangsters intended to murder him and plunder and burn his house. Hi-tang tried to dissuade her brother by consulting the oracle. She drew a circle and threw a knife. Instead of striking inside the circle, the knife cut the chalk-line; it seemed the gods did not approve of the crime. Chang-ling then agreed to reconsider the case. Hi-tang gave him her fur jacket to protect him from cold.

Mrs. Ma, who had seen the stranger, reported to Mr. Ma that Hi-tang had been talking to a man, obviously a lover, and had given away her fur jacket. Mr. Ma was satisfied when Hi-tang said that the man was only her brother.

On the same day Chow, an official of justice in the local courts, was invited to Mr. Ma's house to discuss a legal point. Mr. Ma was thinking of getting a divorce and raising Hi-tang to the rank of wife. Divorce to Mrs. Ma would mean the loss not only of her position but also of the inheritance of Mr. Ma's property. Even if she remained the head wife, as Chow explained to her, the concubine and her boy would be...

(This entire section contains 1766 words.)

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the heirs to the property and she could expect to receive only a certain amount of allowance, as she was childless. She was desperate. But Chow was actually her paramour, so she could depend on his help.

Her solution came when Mr. Ma wanted a drink: she put in the tea the poison brought by Chow. It was Hi-tang who served the tea, so she became the suspect when Mr. Ma dropped dead after taking the drink. She was put under arrest and sent to the prison.

Chu-chu, the local judge, accepted a bribe from Mrs. Ma. Her position was further strengthened by the testimony of a midwife who declared that it was really Mrs. Ma who had given birth to the child and that of two coolies who remembered how they were entertained at a feast in celebration of the birth of Mrs. Ma's child. Mrs. Ma swore that Hi-tang had murdered her master in order to obtain the child and the inheritance. Chow suggested the motive of revenge since Mr. Ma had caused the death of her father. Hi-tang, who had been kneeling inside a circle of chalk, was therefore convicted and sentenced to death.

At that moment a courier arrived from Peking with the news that the old emperor had died. The new emperor had ordered that all death sentences be suspended and that the judges and judged alike be summoned to Peking for imperial investigation. So Hi-tang's life was saved for the time being. Chang-ling, who had been in the crowd of people watching the trial, was angry at the kind of justice his sister received; he expressed his indignant doubt that the new emperor would be any more just than the old. His blasphemy was overheard and he, too, was put in the block.

Hi-tang suffered greatly on the way to Peking under the escort of two soldiers. In a big snowstorm she saw her brother, also guarded by two soldiers, struggling onward. When he collapsed, she took off her mantle to buy a glass of wine to revive him. The soldiers had their drinks, too, but did not pay, much to the chagrin of the innkeeper. Chu-chu, Chow, Mrs. Ma, and the child were traveling in sedan chairs.

In the Imperial Palace the young emperor, who was Prince Po, kept thinking of the teahouse girl whom he had been unable to marry in Nanking a year before. When the prisoners from Nanking were brought before him, he and Hi-tang immediately recognized each other, but their recognition was not noticed by anyone else. He questioned her about her life in the teahouse and suggested that surely she remembered the young prince she had met on the night she entered the place. But it was his official duty to reestablish justice in China before he could declare his love again. He ordered a circle of chalk to be drawn on the floor wherein the child was placed. The two women were to pull the boy out of the circle, one grasping each arm. She who succeeded in pulling him out would prove herself his mother. Mrs. Ma won with one pull, since Hi-tang pulled only gently, not making the least effort. The emperor asked her why she did not pull with enough strength to win. Hi-tang answered that a child's arms were tender and that to pull him hard would hurt him. Since a mother would never harm her own child, it was decided that Hi-tang was the child's real mother. Also, Mrs. Ma having sworn on oath that the false mother was also the murderess, the murder case was easily solved.

The emperor left his rod of justice in Hi-tang's hand and let her pass sentence on the criminals. She pronounced the judgment that Chow and Chu-chu be deprived of their offices and Mrs. Ma should make herself a cup of tea; the kind of tea she should make was left to her conscience to decide. The emperor approved this judgment and appointed as Chu-chu's successor Hi-tang's brother Chang-ling, whose crime had been pardoned when his criticism of the corruption in government found a sympathetic listener in the emperor, who shared the young scholar's zeal for reform.

After the court had been dismissed, the emperor held Hi-tang for a private talk. She told him that she had had a dream on the first night she was brought to Mr. Ma's house. She was alone, dozing, and she dreamed that a young lord climbed to her bed and loved her as a husband would his wife. The young man was Prince Po. And it was not a dream, for the prince had not given up his desire even after he was outbid, but had followed her to Mr. Ma's house and ravished her while she was still a virgin. Thus, the prince had begotten the child. Hi-tang was made empress.

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:

In spite of its highly stylized classical structure and its basis in Confucian ethics, The Circle of Chalk is a play that speaks directly to the modern Western reader. The progressively dangerous plight of the heroine, Hi-tang, coupled with her courage and sincerity; the adroit, devious, ruthless machinations of the villains, Mrs. Ma and her lover Chow; the satirical insights into society; the comedic dialogue; and the many passages of lyrical beauty all combine to provide a most impressive and universal dramatic experience.

Whether or not the changes and expansions added to the play in 1924 by its adapter, the German poet and sinologist Alfred Henschke Klabund, improved or debased the play is problematical. The love affair between Hi-tang and Prince Po adds an additional interest and poignancy to the work, and the complex subplot involving her brother Chang-ling and the White Lotus Society introduces extra intrigue and suspense. On the other hand, Klabund's emendations obscure much of the simplicity of the original, and the final revelation concerning the paternity of Hi-tang's son is a "Western style" twist that perhaps sentimentalizes the first version. The Hi-tang of the earlier version needs no extra characterizing devices to command an identification and sympathy. The final resolution of the revised play, with its happy ending and its mitigated justice shifts the focus from an emphasis on Confucian justice to that of theatrical mercy. In the original, Mrs. Ma and Chow are "cut into twenty-five pieces" and all those whom they bribed in the course of their plotting are severely beaten and exiled.

Klabund undoubtedly believed that by softening the ending and uniting the lovers he was making the play more palatable to the taste of Western viewers and, in the short run, he was probably right. But the didactic center and moral tone of the play is lost; the fascinating tension between the formal structure and the intense emotions, and between primitive seriousness and biting comedic satire are largely blunted. And these are the qualities of the play that stimulated the great German playwright Bertolt Brecht in 1945 to write his own masterful adaptation—The Caucasian Chalk Circle.