The Grave of “China’s Shakespeare” Has Been Found

One of 42 Ming-era graves unearthed in Fuzhou is believed to belong to Tang Xianzu, who penned ‘The Peony Pavilion’

A scene from The Peony Pavilion Wikimedia Commons

Archaeologists in China’s Jiangxi Province have announced that they’ve discovered the tomb of Tang Xianzu, the nation's most famous playwright often described as “China’s Shakespeare,” reports Xinhua news agency.

The tomb is one of 42 Ming-era graves dating between 1368 A.D. to 1644 A.D. discovered in Fuzhou, in the eastern region of Jiangxi, in late 2016. Six epitaphs thought to be written by Tang found in the burial plot have led archaeologists to believe the writer, who died in 1616, and his third wife Fu are buried in a tomb designated "M4" while his second wife, Zhao is in tomb "M3."

“This discovery is significant, because it tells us more about Tang's life, his family tree and relationships with other family members,” Mao Peiqi, vice chairman of the Chinese Society on Ming Dynasty History, tells Xingha. “Besides, by learning about the status and lives of Tang's family, we can learn about education, culture and agriculture in the Ming Dynasty as well as the development of society.”

According to Wendy Wu at The South China Morning Post, in 1966, at the start of China’s Cultural Revolution in which historic artifacts and relics were destroyed, a detachment of the Red Guard smashed the tombs in the graveyard. The gravesite was only rediscovered after a 1950s-era factory nearby was demolished last year and archaeologists determined from surviving epitaphs that Tang was located in the cemetery.

Kirsten Fawcett at Mental Floss reports that Tang is penned four major dramas, collectively called "The Four Dreams of Linchuan." The cycle includes "The Peony Pavilion," a drama and romance that remains one of his best-known works today.

While Tang has always been an important playwright, as China has emerged on the world stage in recent years it has gone to lengths to raise the profile of the writer. Fawcett reports that Fuzhou recently donated a statue of Tang and his contemporary, Shakespeare, standing shoulder-to-shoulder to Stratford-upon-Avon, and that Chinese opera companies have made mash-ups of the two writers works. Exhibitions in China also draw parallels between the two Bards, who both died in 1616. The Economist reports that Chinese President Xi Jinping called Tang the “Shakespeare of the East” during a state visit to the United Kingdom in 2015, part of an effort to boost Chinese pride in its own literary heritage and to spread international awareness of their cultural achievements; a musical depicting Tang’s life opened late last year.

Fawcett reports that Fungzhou built an empty tomb for Tang in the 1980s in the city’s People’s Park to honor the writer. Now that they have the real thing, they plan to turn the cemetery into a tourist attraction and center of study.