Guan Hanqing, also known as Yizhaisou (Old Man Studying the Past), was honored as the best among the four well-known writers of Yuan Opera, and the greatest playwright of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). He was born in Dadu (today's Beijing), capital of the Yuan Dynasty, around 1220 and died in 1300. During that period, Mongolia was in the process of destroying the Jin (1115-1234) and Southem Song (1127-1279) dynasties, with many social upheavals taking place. Born to a doctor's family, Guan Hanqing read widely and learned to write poetry and music from the time he was a child. He was very fond of zaju, a poetic form of drama set to music, and with his good friend Yang Xianzhi, founded a zaju composing society.
Guan Hanqing wrote over 60 zaju plays throughout his life, almost twice as many as Shakespeare's plays. Among Guan Hanqing's works, 13 plays, including Injustice to Dou E (or Snow in Midsummer), Rescued by a Coquette, and The Pavilion of Moon Worship, 14 sets of sanqu (opera with tonal patterns modeled on tunes drawn from folk music) and 52 short lyrics have survived to this day. Most of those works exposed and condemned the cruelty of local tyrants and corrupt officials, and exalted the unyielding spirit of resistance of the oppressed classes. A self-portrait, "An Uncrushable Copper Pea," in one of his sets of sanqu, faithfully mirrors Guan Hanqing's assertive character.
Guan Hanqing's love stories are represented by Rescued by a Coquette, Riverside Pavilion, The Pavilion of Moon Worship, and An Astute Girl Scorns a Love Affair. These plays combined love stories with real life and social contradictions, rather than just setting love stories in an isolated environment, as well as devoting much space to direct and detailed depictions of enduring affection and the tortuous path of love. They embraced a broad range of social phenomena and exposed various social problems. Guan Hanqing's dramas on love and marriage all centered on the female protagonists and paid tribute to their spirit of pursuing happiness and resisting evil. For instance, Riverside Pavilion tells a story about a resourceful, bold female protagonist named Tan Ji'er who calmly fooled an imperial bodyguard surnamed Yang, who attempted to kill her husband and force her to be his concubine, and how she finally had him thrown into prison.
In his late years, some treacherous courtiers usurped power and committed all sorts of wickedness. Against this background Guan Hanqing created the earthshaking play injustice to Dou E. This zaju drama presents a story about Dou E, who was sold as a child by her parents into her future husband's family, and was later wrongly sentenced to death due to a conspiracy hatched by the scoundrels Zhang Lu'er and his father with corrupt local officials. Prior to her execution, Dou E pronounced three vows. The first was of blood all spraying onto a long white silk streamer without a single drop staining the ground. The second was for a heavy snow m midsummer to cover her dead body, and the third for a severe drought lasting three years in the local district. Each of her vows came to be realized. Dou E had exclaimed, "While the Yamen has always appeared to be impartial, yet injustice is done in every case," expressing her sharp protest against feudal rule.
Guan Hanqing's zaju dramas demonstrate a perfect combination of ideas and art and have enjoyed popularity among readers at home and abroad. Injustice to Dou E has been published in many languages. In 1958 activities commemorating the 700th anniversary of the publication of Guan Hanqing's works were held worldwide.