The History of the West Wing
Written by: Sun Jiayu; Illustrated by Guo Guo
Age Rating: Teen
Lavishly illustrated in full color and based on the classic Chinese play Xixiang Ji by Wang Shifu, The History of the West Wings tells of the illicit romance between the daughter of a Chinese Government Official and the roaming scholar who seeks to win her hand. But before he can turn his attentions to his ladylove, the young man must win the heart of her mother! When it seems even heroic deeds in the face of murderous bandits will not please the strict matriarch, the young man goes off to become a civil servant. Will he return in time to marry his true love?
With a description like that, you’d expect a story filled with drama and romance. Too bad this book provides doesn’t live up to it. It opens with an introduction that explains the history of XiXiang Ji and its significance to Chinese culture and literature. It is a play written in the 1200’s and is based on an earlier fable that tells of the romantic setbacks of a girl that gives herself to a roaming student. A character in the story, the girl’s servant, Hong Nianging, worked so hard to get the two together, that her name came to mean “matchmaker” in Chinese culture. Reading the story after this buildup is a real let down.
The premise of the story is classic. A man falls in love with a girl and must work to prove he is worthy of her to her family. This book gives us that premise, but nothing more. It reads like an outline of the play with a few scenes described. There isn’t a lot of drama portrayed. The most dramatic moments are Pianpian worrying about getting her handkerchief back, and Chen Yuqing riding off to find help when they temple they are stay at is besieged. The rest of the story reads like a someone giving a synopsis. Hong Nianging is supposed to be some big matchmaker to Pianpian and Chen, but all she does in this story is drop and then retrieve a handkerchief, and give small words of support to Pianpian while Chen is gone. That didn’t look like any hard work, and certainly isn’t worthy of becoming the meaning of “matchmaker”. It just feels like so much was glossed over. The whole story ends in a couple of pages, including Chen riding off to take the Imperial Exam, and the confrontation with Du Heng’s sister that annuls Pianpian’s arranged marriage to Du Heng one month later. It was just too rushed and way too short. I was really expecting a lot more.
That said, the story is still worth reading, but you really want to get this book for the art. Guo Guo’s illustrations are gorgeous! The art is very light and crisp, and the costumes are breath taking. The characters are varied and easily distinguishable from each other. The color is done in a soft, watercolor style, which accentuates Guo Guo’s art every more. It was this beautiful art that drew me in more than the actual story. And because this book is so short, 112 pages total, the last quarter of the book is filled with illustrations of scenes from the story, and are just as beautiful. It seems a little over priced for it’s size, but the art more than makes up for it.
History of the West Wing is an interesting taste of classic Chinese literature, but unfortunately, it’s just that; a taste. More drama and matchmaking would have made this a great romance. As it is now, it’s just good.