Like Not Like: Writing Portraits in The Peony Pavilion

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


In this essay, the author examines the portraits that are featured in Tang Xianzu's The Peony Pavilion. The textual portraits are mixed in nature. They contain semiotic elements that can be readily described in language and understood through iconographical interpretation. But other elements in the textual portrait cannot be fully captured by words. The latter apparently fascinated Tang Xianzu, for he explained the source of inspired writing by comparing a writer to a painter. In The Peony Pavilion, the ambiguous and unfinished pictorial marks in Du Liniang's self-portrait—its “antisemiotic elements,” a phrase borrowed from James Elkins—are prominent. This picture thus conveniently partakes in the play's comedy of errors, for at times it cannot be fully or even partially recognized. Without discounting the representational potential of pictures and other ritual objects, such as imperial portraits, Tang probes in The Peony Pavilion the mimetic and the nonrepresentational elements of writing and picture making.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)134-172
JournalJournal of Chinese Literature and Culture
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2015



  • The Peony Pavilion
  • Tang Xianzu
  • Portraiture
  • visuality

Cite this