The love story of Cui Yingying and Zhang Junrui is very popular in China. The plot of this play comes from the novel The Story of Yingying, written by Yuan Zhen, a famous poet of the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907). The story was based on his own experiences, and was originally a tragedy which ends in the lovers' separation. During the Jurchen Jin Dynasty (A.D. 1115-1234), Dong Xieyuan wrote a version known as the Western Chamber Lyrics, which changes the ending to include a lovers' reunion. During the Yuan Dynasty (A.D. 1279-1368), well-known playwright Wang Shipu reorganized the story and developed it into five relatively independent opera serials. He burned out and died suddenly while writing the fifth serial. Guan Hanqing, another playwright with many important works, continued Wang Shipu's story and completed the play.
The writers sympathize with the young lovers, who dare to challenge the ethics and traditions of feudal China. The play is a story of love at first sight, a broken promise, a struggle to overcome family opposition, and the fearless pursuit of love and freedom. The story can be found in many forms of art in China, and is performed by many regional opera troupes.
During the early years of the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907), there was a famous Puguo temple in the Hezhong area, built by the late Prime Minister Cui. Not long after the temple is built, Prime Minister Cui passes away. According to tradition, Mrs. Cui and her daughter Yingying, accompanied by their maid Hongniang, live for a time in the western chamber of the temple to mourn the death of Cui. Zhang Junrui, a young scholar who is on his way to the capital for the imperial civil service examinations, stops at the temple and runs into Yingying, who is burning incense in the garden in her father's memory. The two fall in love at first sight. The bandit chief Sun Feihu surrounds the temple with his men after he learns that Yingying — the beautiful daughter of a great family — is in the temple, and demands that Yingying be handed over to him. Mrs. Cui panics, offering her daughter to anyone who can save them from this situation. Zhang immediately writes a letter to his friend, General Du.
With the help of a monk, the letter gets through and the general arrives with his troops. After the bandits are gone, instead of declaring them husband and wife, Mrs. Cui suggests that Zhang and Yingying consider themselves brother and sister instead. She says that she has reconsidered her rash promise, and is not going to give her daughter to a person without any social or financial status. Zhang is heartsick and tries to visit Mrs. Cui and Yingying, but is prevented. Yingying's maid Hongniang becomes a go-between for the pair, carrying love letters back and forth for them. With her help, Zhang and Yingying are able to meet one night, and take an oath to love each other forever. To prove his love, Zhang leaves Yingying behind temporarily for the capital, where he hopes to distinguish himself in the civil service examinations in order to impress Yingying's mother and relatives.
This episode, featuring a farewell on a gloomy day, uses the poetic device of a sorrowful parting. Much classical poetry is used in this episode, as well as colloquial and literary language. Yingying stops at a roadside shelter to see her lover off. It is a typical late autumn afternoon, with fallen leaves tracing circles in the cold wind. Lazy clouds are floating in the dim sky thousands of miles away, and the wild chrysanthemums are still in full bloom, spread across the fields. The westerly winds are blowing, and the wild geese can be seen flying south. Yingying laments, 'Have you seen the drunken-red colour of the leaves in the early morning frost — could they be the colour of my lover's blood and tears?'