Lady Precious Stream (王宝钏)

Book Information1/1/0/UK/MU/1934/?  •  203x138x19  •  361 

When cataloguing my book collection, I came across this rather remarkable first edition - "Lady Precious Stream", Shih I Hsiung's translated rendition of a Chinese opera classic, published in July 1934 by Methuen & Co. Its adapted play was, apparently, very well received in the 1930s and ran for over 2 years at London's West End. This made Hsiung an instant literary celebrity but very little is known about his works until "The Happy Hsiungs: Performing China and the Struggle for Modernity" by Diana Yeh was published recently.

王宝钏, (the surname is Wang, and the name translates more closely to Precious Bangle, which doesn't go down well in Anglo aesthetics, and Hsiung, perhaps justified by poetic license, adopted Precious Stream as the translated name instead)  of which the book was based, is a well known Chinese opera. Wang, the third and youngest daughter of the premier in imperial Tang dynasty, resisted parental order to marry into a family of equally respectable status. Instead, she had fallen for Hsien Ping Kuei, a gardener or destitute scholar (depending on the versions), who impressed her with his righteousness and literary flair in a serendipitous encounter. Knowing that her father would never agree to their union, Wang suggested that a ceremony be held, during which she would toss an embroidery ball and marry the man who caught it. Wang's father agreed but ordered the servants to allow access to only princelings and men from esteemed families on the day of the ceremony. To circumvent her father's ploy, Wang had her personal maid brought Hsien in and tossed the ball to him.

Wang's father was enraged and did not approve of the marriage and, upon Wang's insistence, banished her from the family. Wang and Hsien settled in at a dilapidated cave dwelling. But it was tumultuous times, and Hsien soon signed up for the army to fight at the border. He proved to be a military talent and move up the ranks very quickly. In one version of the story, Hsien married a western princess and became ruler of the west territory. Regardless, it would be 18 years before Hsien returned to assume imperial appointment and Wang's unwavering devotion to Hsien finally paid off when they finally reunited again. With Hsien's new found success, Wang belonged to the top echelon of social status and was vindicated. But the happiness did not last, and Wang died just 18 days after the reunion.

Hsiung, in working on this translation, was probably more concerned with pecuniary than literary considerations. Consequently, the work, in deviating from the original elegiac romance in favour of comedy,  appeared somewhat frivolous with its all too frequent slapsticks and wisecracks. It is no wonder that TS Eliot declined to write a preface for Hsiung's subsequent work despite repeated requests. Hsiung seemed to be a rather accomplished networker, and would rope in Xu Beihong, an accomplished Chinese painter, to produce 3 colour plates for the book. He was also connected to George Bernard Shaw. I thought the most insightful part of the work was its introduction, where Hsiung lamented the pervasive western misconceptions of Chinese language and literary aesthetics in the 1930s. I bought this book mainly for its numerous beautiful illustrations. 

This is the true first edition published by Methuen & Co of London in 1934. The dust jacket is unclipped, reflecting the price of "8/6 net". The book is bound in black clothed board with gilt lettering, including the chinese characters of the title on front board and the author's name at spine, and has gilt top edge. The copyright page should state "First published in 1934" with no mention of additional printing.

It appears that this book is now quite rare, and all the copies on eBay and Abebooks are either 2nd printing or first American edition published by Livermore in 1935. This is a VG+ copy with a VG+ dust jacket that suffers from sunning at spine, general scuffing, and tape reinforcements at edges, and a VG+ book whose board is slightly discolored and whose ffep has minor pencil writings from ex book sellers but is otherwise tight with top edge gilt bright and colour plates sharp. Based on the prices and conditions of the later printings, I estimate this book to be around $300.


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