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Social Order in Chinese and European Literature

While most people today look at literature as something intended merely to entertain the masses in their leisure hours, those who study the subject understand that there is much more involved than a simple story. For centuries, authors have used the medium of the story to convey greater truths to their audiences. One form of greater truth involves the standards of behavior expected in a given society. These can include indications of social class within the characters themselves or values of the community such as the need to honor the dead or the need to see that justice wins out in the end. By looking at the literature written in the past, readers today can gain a sense of these values as they were held by different people at different times. One might expect, for example, to discover different value placements within the texts of Shakespeare’s plays written in England in the mid-16th century as compared to the texts of other authors such as Guan Hanqing who wrote in China in what we consider to be the 1200s.

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While this may be largely the case when comparing other works, a comparison of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet and Hanqing’s play The Injustice Done to Dou E reveals that these two cultures, although vastly separated by time and geography, nevertheless share many of the same ideas regarding what is recognized as the nobility of spirit, the importance of family honor and the requirement to re-establish justice when wrongs have been committed.

Within both the Hanqing and Shakespeare plays, the main character demonstrates the nobility of spirit considered essential to all classical tragedies. Dou E has the nobility of spirit as shown in her response to her mother-in-law’s announcement that they will be married to the bandits that saved her on the road. When Mother Ts’ai returns home with the announcement that both women are to marry the scoundrels who both saved and threatened her on the road, Dou E demonstrates that she has a strong sense of what is expected of a woman of her station. As she rails against her mother-in-law’s decision, she reveals that her expected role is to preserve and honor the memory of her dead husband and father-in-law, one of whom has provided the two women with all they will need to survive into old age and the other who has not yet been dead long enough for her to remove her widow’s dress. Instead of meekly following her mother-in-law’s instruction, Don E holds to a higher code of law when she says, “when I think of all that my father-in-law acquired, I can’t bear to think it should all be Donkey Chang’s to enjoy … This is not what becomes of a woman when her husband is dead” (Act 1, 128). This nobility of spirit that enables Dou E to both honor her mother-in-law by performing as expected within the household while holding to a higher code in refusing to accept an unseemly forced marriage is seen also in the character of Hamlet as he struggles to determine which is the truth, that his father was murdered by his uncle or that the devil has sent a demon in the guise of his father to tempt Hamlet into committing a great wrong. He is noble first because he is true of noble blood being the only son of the reigning king and queen and second because he is dedicated to doing the right thing. It is in confronting his mother about the complicity of his father’s death that he perhaps shows his greatest nobility of spirit as he expresses his extreme disappointment with her low behavior. “He places an inordinate importance on doing and knowing perfectly; throughout most of his experience, he also places the responsibility for that knowledge and that doing solely on himself” (Hassel, 1994: 610). This sense of his own importance in upholding the honor of the entire household, by holding others to account for their deeds reveals Hamlet’s pride in his possession of a more enlightened belief system. He feels he is the only one who recognizes what the truth is and the only one left to carry forward the appropriate reaction to that truth.

In both stories, then, there is also strong importance given to the need of upholding family honor regardless of personal cost. It can be seen that both characters struggle with this as they are faced with the practical situations of everyday life. Dou E is required, by custom and tradition, to honor and obey her mother-in-law in all things, but she is also commanded to honor her dead husband by never marrying again and her dead father-in-law by never giving what he has worked so hard for to another. This forces her into a difficult position in which she must constantly argue against her mother-in-law’s decision while still serving the men who would be their husbands. She remains dedicated to the truth throughout her story, though, and stands firm against Donkey Chang until the court threatens to beat the older woman. As her ghost tells her father, “When the magistrate saw that I would not weaken he threatened to beat my mother-in-law. My mother-in-law is old and could not stand up to a beating, so I was forced into making a confession” (Act 4, 150). Rather than allow her ancestors to suffer disgrace or her living older relative to suffer undeserved punishment, Dou E accepts death with a hope for future justice. Hamlet must make a similar choice of either damning his own soul by committing murder in the name of honor and revenge as his dead father has requested or allowing his family honor to slip away into the mists of the past.

For this reason, he strives through most of the play to ensure that he is acting on the truth. “The spirit that I have seen maybe a devil, and the devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps, out of my weakness and my melancholy, as he is very potent with such spirits, Abuses me to damn me.

I’ll have grounds More relative than this” (II, 584-589). To get the proof he needs, he stages a play before the king that re-enacts his father’s murder. The king’s reaction gives Hamlet the proof he needs but informs Claudius of Hamlet’s intentions.

Finally, both plays emphasize the importance of re-establishing justice even if the individual characters can no longer benefit. In both plays, it is the presence of a ghost that exposes the injustice committed. Dou E appears before her father when he comes to read cases in her province and makes her presence known. She first manages to pull a few tricks to make her presence known, such as dimming the candle and rearranging the papers on his desk. Once she is called out, however, she is able to confront her father and tell him about the injustice committed against her. Her spirit is able to manifest itself to more than just the startled father, though, as he is also able to call her forth within the courtroom for questioning in the case. Even after justice has been given to her as the true facts of the case are made public, Dou E tells her father that she cannot rest until she knows that her old mother-in-law is provided for. She asks her father, “will you take her into your household and for my sake treat her as is her due? Then I shall be able to close my eyes at last beneath the Nine Streams” (Act 4, 157). This same sense of re-establishing justice and order can be found in Hamlet’s story as both the king and queen are killed by their own poison, thus ending the dishonor of the family. Hamlet is also killed by this poison but his honor is upheld as those who knew him best pronounce his end. Hamlet is eulogized by Horatio, “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” (V, II), and Fortinbras orders Hamlet be given a soldier’s burial as he “proved most royal; and for his passage / The soldier’s music and the rites of war / Speak loudly for him” (V, II).

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It can thus be said that the primary values of traditional society, whether in the 16th century in Europe or the 13th century in China, held to vaguely the same ideals. The concepts of individual dedication to family, honor, and truth regardless of personal cost are both demonstrated through these noble figures who represent the best characters of their society.

However, even they are seen to be slaves to the dictates of truth and honor as they must sacrifice their own lives and souls in order to do what is right for their families.


Hanqing, Guan. The Injustice Done to Dou E.

Hassel, R. Chris Jr. “Hamlet’s ‘Too, Too Solid Flesh.’” Sixteenth Century Journal. Vol. 25, N. 3, (1994), pp. 609-622.

Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. New York: Penguin Books, 1969, pp. 930-76.

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1. StudyCorgi. "Social Order in Chinese and European Literature." October 29, 2021.


StudyCorgi. "Social Order in Chinese and European Literature." October 29, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Social Order in Chinese and European Literature." October 29, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Social Order in Chinese and European Literature'. 29 October.

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