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.