This article divides the woodblock print illustrations to illustrated editions of The Romance of The Western Chamber published in the Ming period into five categories and studies them in sequence: (1) illustrations to the entire text; (2) illustrations to acts in the play; (3) illustrations to poems, songs, and prose passages in the play; (4) “free-style” illustrations; (5) woodblock prints published independently, not as illustrations in a book. For each kind of illustration, examples from one or several editions of The Romance of the Western Chamber are chosen for more detailed study and examination.
It is discovered that, according to their functions and nature, the illustrations to this play can be further classified into “explanatory illustrations” and “appreciative illustrations.” Explanatory illustrations seek mainly to depict the story episodes or highlights in a clear, graceful or dramatic manner, so as to enhance the readers' interest, and to increase their understanding or appreciation of the play. “Appreciative illustrations” focus on the songs and relevant poems in the play. The selection of songs or poetic passages, and they way they are illustrated, reveals what the illustrators evaluated and appreciated, or even their personal opinions on the play. Subjects not related to the play, such as bird and flower paintings or landscape paintings, are sometimes included amongst the illustrations; as they tend further from the play's content and text, they also go beyond the function of pure illustration. At the end of this article, I suggest that the color woodblock print album engraved in 1640, in the collection of the Koln Museum, Germany, was published independently, not to illustrate any single edition of the play.
The Xixiangji woodblock print illustrations published in the Ming dynasty are unparalleled in its demonstrations of wide variety of styles, forms and expressive techniques. The later Ming editions also reflect more and more of the anti-Confucian sentiments, pessimistic thoughts, and passive attitudes of Buddhism and Taoism that prevailed at that period.