Though its name evokes images of the White House — and maybe even the unctuous Josiah Bartlett — The History of the West Wing is, in fact, an adaptation of a twelfth-century play by the Moliere of China, Wang Shifu.
The story follows Chen Yuqing, a handsome young man who wanders aimlessly from town to town. While staying at a monastery, he hears rumors of a beautiful young girl living in the building’s west wing. Yuqing steals into the temple garden to catch a glimpse of her and is immediately smitten, sending Pianpian an impassioned letter asking her to meet him. The two begin a brief but clandestine courtship, then petition Pianpian’s mother for permission to marry — a request that Madame Ye initially refuses, as Pianpian has been promised to the scion of a prominent family. When bandits kidnap Pianpian, however, Madame Ye appeals to the townsfolk for Pianpian’s safe return, offering her daughter’s hand in marriage as a reward. Yuqing succeeds, only to have Madame Ye qualify her assent by making an additional demand of him: he must earn the highest score on the imperial civil service exam. (For a little historical context, Madame Ye’s demand is a bit like an overzealous parent making a score of 1600 on the SATs a pre-requisite for taking her daughter to the prom.)
So far, so good: all the right ingredients are here for a ripe, juicy tale of star-crossed lovers, from a disapproving parent to roving thieves. Yet The History of the West Wing is curiously flat, lacking any sense of narrative urgency. In his review, critic Andrew Wheeler noted that “it has the air of a story that’s been told and re-told so many times that the intended audience just needs to be given the highlights.” I’m inclined to agree with him. (You can read a full synopsis of Wang Shifu’s play here to find out what’s been trimmed. The original consists of twenty-one acts, so it’s a safe bet that a lot of material was jettisoned in the transition from play to comic.) Though the first half of the story unfolds in a slow, deliberate manner, introducing us to the characters and showing us their courtship, the second half reads like a memo summarizing what happened between their first declaration of love and their wedding, omitting the emotions — jealousy, fear, sadness, loneliness, uncertainty — that might afford us insight into Yuqing and Pianpian’s characters. Instead, Yuqing’s trials are handled in a perfunctory manner, with each resolved in four or five pages; even the introduction of a romantic rival fails to add much dramatic tension, as her duplicity is revealed too quickly and baldly to ever cast the story’s happy outcome in doubt.
If the plot is hastily executed, the artwork is not. Guo Guo, a fashion designer by training, swathes her characters in intricate costumes that have a soft, sensual drape, lines that are echoed in their elaborate, graceful hairstyles. Her command of color is exceptional; each page is bathed in a soft, golden light reminiscent of a Chinese scroll painting, while fabrics and furnishings are rendered in a richly muted palette of golds, reds, and blues. In many of her larger, more intricate panels, Guo Guo uses Photoshop to achieve camera-like effects, softly blurring a background or foreground detail to give the image field greater depth and bring the characters’ beautiful, expressive faces into sharper relief.
Yen Press has done a fine job of adapting The History of the West Wing for American audiences. The translation is clear and idiomatic, though it occasionally has the faux-archaic ring of a wuxia film, as characters strenuously avoid contractions in all but the most casual conversations. Yen has also done an excellent job of packaging the book, providing a brief but helpful introduction to the material as well as an exquisite, twenty-two page gallery of pin-up art and a beautiful cover that’s indicative of what’s inside the book: sumptuous artwork that transports the reader back in time more successfully than the story itself. My suggestion: buy West Wing for the art, and don’t pay too much attention to the dialogue.