Has the world ever seen a woman’s love to rival that of Du Liniang? Dreaming of a lover she fell sick; once sick she became ever worse; and finally, after painting her own portrait as a legacy to the world, she died. Dead for three years, still she was able to live again when in the dark underworld her quest for the object of her dream was fulfilled. To be as Du Liniang is truly to have known love.
—Tang Xianzu, Preface to The Peony Pavilion
In world drama there is no more extensive or beautiful exploration of love than Tang Xianzu’s Mudan ting (The Peony Pavilion). In 55 scenes and a performance time of more than 18 hours, The Peony Pavilion merits the designation of epic. Its central character, the young woman Du Liniang, embarks on a journey of discovery to reach her heart’s desire, facing down life-and-death obstacles in this world and the next. Along the way an entire culture’s values and traditions are displayed. In a Western context The Peony Pavilion combines elements of Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Moreover, it is arguably the first great epic with a complex, believable woman protagonist. Despite its vast scope, The Peony Pavilion is anchored by a remarkable psychological depth and earthy realism. In turns lyrical, philosophical, satirical, fantastical, and bawdy, interweaving sentiment and humor, The Peony Pavilion provides one of the great entry points for an understanding of Chinese culture and Chinese classical dramatic traditions.
As in the West, the origins of Chinese drama are rooted in religious ritual. Records of performances combining dance, music, and mime date back to around 1500 b.c. During the Han dynasty (208 b.c.–a.d. 221) popular entertainments including acrobatic displays, conjuring, juggling, music, dance, and mime were performed at fairs and markets around the country, as well as at court. During the Tang dynasty (618–906), the emperor Xuanzong created a school, the Pear Garden, to train singers, dancers, and other court performers. Actors today trace their technical descent from this school. In the Song dynasty (960–1279) a narrative tradition flourished, and a great variety of Chinese tales were narrated by professional storytellers at teahouses and dramatized for puppet and shadow-play theaters. A fully developed drama form combining verse, dance, and pantomime began to emerge during this period, producing the oldest extant Chinese drama, Zhang Xie’s The Doctor of Letters, in which its story is told through dialogue and song. Talented performers were recruited for elaborate court entertainments; others banded together into troupes playing in teahouses and improvised theaters. In cities playhouses were located in special areas called “tile districts” and consisted of fenced enclosures with a roofed platform, open on three sides and, like Elizabethan theaters, with a standing area at ground level surrounded by raised stands and balconies.
The classical Chinese theater took shape, ironically, with the Mongols’ conquest of China in the 13th century. During the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), under Mongol control, Chinese intellectuals were excluded from holding government positions. Many, therefore, turned their attention to practicing and perfecting native Chinese arts, including drama. An explosion of dramatic works of increased literary accomplishment resulted. Drawing their stories from history, legend, novels, epics, and contemporary events, Yuan dramatists produced a wide array of dramatic works that evolved into two distinct styles. The dramatic form popularized in northern China consisted of four acts with 10 to 20 songs, or arias, performed by the protagonist. The best known “northern” style plays are Guan Hanqin’s The Injustice Done to Tou Ngo, about a widow wrongfully accused of murder by a rejected suitor, and Wang Shifu’s Romance of the Western Chamber, concerning the trials and tribulations of two lovers. In the 14th century a “southern” style of drama began to emerge in the area around Hangzhou. In contrast to the northern dramas a southern play could have 50 or more acts with multiple subplots, all happily resolved by the final scene. All the characters, not just the protagonist, could sing, and there are solos, duets, and choruses. The result is both an increase in breadth, as plays expanded to consider more varied characters and situations, and in lyrical depth, as the role of verse and singing increased.
The greatest of the dramatists in the southern style during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) was Tang Xianzu. Born in 1550, Tang came from a distinguished gentry family of scholars in Linchuan, Jiangxi Province. Early on he displayed considerable intellectual and artistic talents. An accomplished student and a poet, Tang succeeded in the provincial examinations at the age of 21, and by the age of 33 had passed the Advanced Scholar examination, qualifying for the highest-level appointments in the imperial bureaucracy. While serving as an official in Nanjing Tang complained to the emperor that the grand secretary was preventing the counsel of honest advisers from being heard, and his criticism was taken as a royal insult. Tang was demoted to service as a jail warden in a remote part of Guangdong. Subsequently, he never reached a higher rank than a district magistrate, and in 1598, at the age of 48, Tang retired from government service to his family home to devote himself to writing. He produced four major dramatic legends, or dream plays, that are collectively known as The Four Dreams of Linchuan. The Peony Pavilion, the second of these and his masterpiece, is based on a Song dynasty short story about a young woman who dreams of a lover, pines for him, and dies but is permitted to return from the underworld. Tang elaborated his source material into his longest and most profound meditation on the nature of love and life. Tang’s plays were intended for private performance before a select audience, usually in a home, performed by a well-to-do family’s private troupe of actors or servants without stage scenery. The Peony Pavilion was first performed over several days in Tang’s home, under his direction. Copies of Tang’s play subsequently circulated to great acclaim. After Tang’s death, in 1616, adaptations in the opera style known as kunqu (for its place of origin in the town of Kunshan, near modern Suzhou) were created, and The Peony Pavilion entered the Kun opera repertoire as one of its preeminent works. As Beijing opera supplanted Kun in the 19th century The Peony Pavilion ceased to be regularly performed in its entirety, and the play became more of an antiquarian literary work. However, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of its first performance, in 1999, three new productions of The Peony Pavilion were mounted: an innovative abridged version by American director Peter Sellars; Chen Shizheng’s 18-hour version, and a rival “authorized” production in Beijing as part of the festivities marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Of these Chen’s adaptation, performed by actors and musicians of the Shanghai Kunju Company, created an international incident when Chinese authorities declared that the production contained “feudalistic, superstitious, and pornographic” elements and stopped the production from leaving the country for a scheduled run at New York City’s Lincoln Center. The controversy, these productions, and a recent full translation of the play for the first time in English by Cyril Birch have stimulated increased awareness of The Peony Pavilion and its recognition as one of the masterworks of world drama.
The Peony Pavilion opens with introductions of Du Bao, prefect of Nan’an; Madam Du; their daughter, Du Liniang; and the young, struggling student Liu Mengmei. Concerned that the cloistered Liniang should be educated sufficiently to attract a learned husband, Du Bao engages Tutor Chen, whose pompous pedantry contrasts with the earthy sassiness of Liniang’s maid Spring Fragrance. Taking refuge from her studies in the garden on a beautiful spring day, Liniang, enchanted by the place, falls asleep and dreams of a young student carrying a willow branch in his hand beside the peony pavilion. Asked his intentions, the student replies that he desires to
Open the fastening of your neck
Loose the girdle at your waist
Screening your eyes with your sleeve,
White teeth clenched on the fabric as if against pain,
Bear with me patiently a while
Then drift into gentle slumber.
Blushing at first and resisting, Liniang yields to him before waking to find that he has departed. Pining for her dream lover, Liniang’s health fails. Recognizing that her decline will be fatal, she paints her portrait, writes a poem, and asks Spring Fragrance to conceal them in the garden as a memorial to her love. Liniang dies and is also buried in the garden. The pathos of a young girl dying from love is balanced by Tang’s believable characterization in which Liniang is presented as forthright and perceptive rather than as a delicate and wilting flower of girlhood. She is also surrounded by convincingly human portraits of her well-intentioned, practical parents. Sentiment alternates with comedy in the earthy realism of Spring Fragrance, Tutor Chen, and the marvelously oversized and earthbound sorceress Sister Stone, who tries in vain to cure Liniang.
Three years pass as Prefect Du Bao is charged with protecting the district from rampaging bandits, Madame Du Bao contends with her grief, and Liu Mengmei readies himself for the examinations that will determine his future. In the underworld Liniang is brought before the Judge of the Infernal Court to investigate the nature of her death and to determine her punishment or reward. “When in the world did anyone die of a dream?” the incredulous Judge asks when he learns of the cause of Liniang’s death. The Flower Spirit from the garden corroborates Liniang’s story, and the Judge consults the Register of Heartbreaks that records that Liniang was intended to wed Mengmei, “Prize Candidate in the next examinations.” The Judge, equally impressed by the sentiment of Liniang’s story and her family connections, releases her from the “City of the Wrongfully Dead” back to life to search for Mengmei.
Among the living Mengmei finds his way to the garden where he recovers Liniang’s portrait and poem, falling deeply in love: “Ah, my young lady, image without form, your gaze destroys me!” Falling asleep, Mengmei dreams of Liniang and is united with her spirit in the emotional core of the play as they express and celebrate their love for each other. Liniang’s spirit, however, sets Mengmei a decisive test: He must exhume Liniang’s remains for her to be resurrected. Having discovered that his beloved is a ghost, he must now overcome his revulsion at what the grave might reveal. This highly charged and macabre situation is tonally undercut by employing the comic figure Scabby Turtle to assist in the disinterment. He first appears singing:
Balls big as gourds, like warts on a hog:
Dig the soil and it comes apart:
Live bride not good enough, he’s after a ghost:
Caught robbing graves, get buried alive:
Opening her coffin, Mengmei revives Liniang. Having overcome the challenges of the dream world and the underworld, the final test for the lovers comes from the formidable paterfamilias, Prefect Du Bao. Before taking on that fi nal obstacle the couple departs for Mengmei to take his examination. After he passes he goes to visit Liniang’s father, who has been contending with the siege of Huaian. Although bearing Liniang’s portrait Mengmei is accused by Du Bao of being merely a grave robber and has him jailed. Even when his daughter arrives the ever practical Du Bao refuses to believe Liniang has come back to life. Finally it is by the emperor’s decree that the lovers are allowed to marry in the play’s final celebratory scene at court. “Henceforth,” Mengmei asserts, “together we shall trace our peony-pavilion dream.” To which Lingiang responds triumphantly,
My bridegroom, sun-warmed “southern branch”
Wheron I, northern bloom, may rest—
Did ever ghost in all the world
Know such a love as mine?
The play concludes with a rousing affirmation on behalf of love’s power to overcome the greatest obstacles. To make his case Tang Xianzu shows himself to be a master of expressing the emotions of love, the nature of lovers, and the real and imagined world that they, and all, inhabit.
Source: Daniel S. Burt The Drama 100 A Ranking of the Greatest Plays of All Time