The Peony Pavilion

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For the 2001 film, see Peony Pavilion (film).
A scene from The Peony Pavilion
The Peony Pavilion
Chinese 牡丹亭

The Peony Pavilion (Chinese: 牡丹亭; pinyin: Mǔdān tíng; Wade–Giles: Mu-tan t'ing) is a play written by Tang Xianzu in the Ming Dynasty and first performed in 1598 at the Pavilion of Prince Teng.[1] One of Tang's "Four Dreams", it has traditionally been performed as a Kunqu opera, but Chuan (川) and Gan (贛/赣) opera versions also exist. It is the most popular play of the Ming dynasty, and is the primary showcase of the guimendan (閨門旦/闺门旦) role type.[citation needed] All Kun theatre troupes include it in their repertoire. Recent adaptations have sought to inject new life into one of China's best-loved[citation needed] classical operas, though such efforts have met with opposition from the Kun opera traditionalists.


The performance tradition has focused on the love story between Du Liniang and Liu Mengmei, but its original text also contains subplots pertaining to the falling Song Dynasty's defense against the aggression of the Jin Dynasty.

It is the last days of the Southern Song Dynasty. On a fine Spring day, a maid persuades Du Liniang, the sixteen-year-old daughter of an important official, Du Bao, to take a walk in the garden, where she falls asleep. In Du Liniang's dream she encounters a young scholar, identified later in the play as Liu Mengmei, whom in real life she has never met. Liu's bold advances starts off a flaming romance between the two and it flourishes rapidly. Du Liniang's dream is interrupted by a flower petal falling on her, according to her soliloquy recounting the incident in a later act: (Reflection on the lost dream). Du Liniang, however, becomes preoccupied with her dream affair and her lovesickness quickly consumes her. Unable to recover from her fixation, Du Liniang wastes away and dies.

The president of the underworld adjudicates that a marriage between Du Liniang and Liu Mengmei is predestined and Du Liniang ought to return to the earthly world. Du Liniang appears to Liu Mengmei in his dreams. He now inhabits the same garden where Du Liniang had her fatal dream. Once recognising that Du Bao's deceased daughter is the lady who appears in his dreams, Liu agrees to exhume her upon her request and Du Liniang is brought back to life. Liu visits Du Bao and informs him of his daughter's resurrection. However, Liu is imprisoned for being a grave robber and an impostor. The ending of the play follows the formula of many Chinese comedies. Liu Mengmei narrowly escapes death by torture thanks to the arrival of the results of the imperial examination in which Liu has topped the list. The emperor pardons all.

This is only a broad outline of the plot of an opera which can run for more than 22 hours.[2] The play has a total of 55 scenes.[3]


Albeit conventional in its narrative structure, notably for its deus ex machina ending, The Peony Pavilion features highly refined and subtle lyrics and is hailed[by whom?] as a high point in Chinese literature. Aided by the then newly developed Kun music, the lyrical proses of the Peony Pavilion weave a fabric of nuances and metaphors that elegantly transgresses the divide between the beauty of nature and man's inner cosmos of emotions and desires. Through the lights and shadows of its lyrical fabric transpire a ravishing sensitivity and intoxicating effeteness and, almost antithetically, a persistent tone of youthful optimism. The magic of the play's language quickly carries the audience to a unique experience of literary and musical pleasure. The Peony Pavilion offers a banquet of metaphors, a dance of the imagination and most of all, a celebration of sensitivity. For this reason it sets the measure for all later Kun operas.

These features are particularly prominent in three of the earliest acts, "A walk in the Garden" (遊園/游园), "The Interruption of a Dream" (驚夢/惊梦)(these two acts were grouped as a single act in the original text) and "Reflection On the Lost Dream" (尋夢/寻梦), which are generally considered[by whom?] the apogee of Chinese kunqu for their literary achievements as well as for their musicality, choreography and the integration of all these components. For these reasons the play's lyrics pose a daunting challenge to attempts at their translation.

Shortly after their completion, the original scores of the opera by Tang Xianzu - considered awkward and difficult for performers - underwent a thorough revision in the hands of Shen Jing (沈璟), a major figure in the formation of Chinese kunqu - not without many disputes and resistance from Tang Xianzu himself.

Famous performances[edit]

Mei Lanfang (sometimes paired with Yu Zhenfei (俞振飛/俞振飞) as Liu Mengmei) was famous for his sensitive portrayal of Du Liniang.

The most famous actress of recent years is likely Zhang Jiqing's (張繼靑/张继青) traditional approach out of Nanjing's Jiangsu Province Kun Opera.

In Shanghai, Jennifer Hua Wenyi (華文漪/华文漪) was very popular in the role, and has played the role abroad several times.

For a particularly pleasant and graceful interpretation, one may refer to Zhang Zhihong (張志紅)'s performances in the 1990s.

In 1999, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts produced a 20-hour version of The Peony Pavilion directed by Chen Shizheng and starring Qian Yi as Du Liniang and Wen Yu Hang. This 20-hour version was perhaps the first full-length staging in 300 years and spurred a renewed interest in the full opera beyond performing a few celebrated episodes. Lincoln Center's version toured extensively, playing in New York, Paris, Milan, Singapore, Caen, Charleston, Aarhus, Berlin, Perth and Vienna. DVD highlights have been released in the United States and Taiwan.

In 2007, the director Lin Zhaohua and the Kunqu Opera master Wang Shiyu revived the work and sought to challenge previous modern versions. They abandoned the staged style in use since the Qing Dynasty and returned to a “Family Team” performance mode of the Imperial Granary.

The China Arts & Entertainment Group, a creative enterprise under the administration of the Ministry of Culture for the People's Republic of China, announced the United States premiere of a new dance drama production of The Peony Pavilion by the China Jinling Dance Company of Nanjing to be performed at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center for four performances in early January 2012.


Four English translations are available:

Vincenz Hundhausen created a German translation of The Peony Pavilion, published in 1937.[4]


Recent adaptations of The Peony Pavilion and allusions in popular music have revived interest in Kunqu, an art form that had been in danger of disappearing into obscurity. In 2001, UNESCO proclaimed Kunqu as a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity," yet the secrets of that heritage were kept by only a few aging masters in even fewer schools and institutions. Bai Xianyong's adaptation of The Peony Pavilion that premiered in 2004 helped rejuvenate the tradition. Bai, a Chinese scholar at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his colleagues - scholars and performers, some brought back from retirement - spent five months editing Tang's script. Working out of the Jiangsu Suzhou Kunqu Theater, the group condensed and adapted the original fifty-five scenes to twenty-seven scenes, and twenty hours of performance time to nine. Bai, who had chosen The Peony Pavilion because of its universal message of love, hoped that his rendition would attract youth to Kunqu. In fact, in its tour of China's top universities, the show was marketed as the Youth Edition of Peony Pavilion.[5] (The production also toured in Taipei, Hong Kong, Macau, seven cities in mainland China, and the Zellerbach Theater in Berkeley, California.) According to Bai, the goal of this youth-oriented production was to "give new life to the art form, cultivate a new generation of Kunqu aficionados, and offer respect to playwright Tang and all the master artists that came before."[6] His production of The Peony Pavilion was his way of doing so. Bai Xianyong / Hsien-yung Pai has also used The Peony Pavilion as inspiration for a short story and a television script.

In 1998, The Peony Pavilion inspired a contemporary opera composed by Tan Dun and directed by Peter Sellars. A CD recording of this opera was released entitled "Bitter Love". Contemporary and experimental versions such as this one and Lincoln Center's 1999 production have primarily played abroad, often winning critical success but sometimes offending Chinese traditionalists.

In 2001, a Hong Kong movie known as Yóuyuán Jīngmèng (遊園驚夢), starring Rie Miyazawa (宮澤理惠/宮泽理惠) and Joey Wong (王祖賢/王祖贤), was called Peony Pavilion in English. Though only indirectly related to the original work in terms of plot, it used the music extensively.

A Taiwanese movie Wǒ de měilì yǔ āichōu 我的美麗與哀愁 directed by Chen Guofu, with cinematography by Christopher Doyle and starring Luo Ruoying shared the same English title.

In 2007, Lisa See's novel Peony in Love was published by Random House. The story's protagonist, Peony, falls in love with a young stranger, and her life loosely parallels that of Liniang's.

In May 2008, the National Ballet of China premièred a two-scene ballet adaptation of The Peony Pavilion in Beijing. For this adaptation, the play was rewritten by the opera's director Li Liuyi; the ballet was choreographed by Fei Bo; and the music was composed by Guo Wenjing. The adaptation had its European premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival in August 2011.[7][8]

In June 2008, the Suzhou Kunqu Opera company performed The Peony Pavilion at Sadler's Wells, London, the UK premiere. It was presented in 3 parts on consecutive evenings, each lasting 3 hours, though still much shorter than the original 20 hours.

References in popular music[edit]

Leehom Wang, the popular Taiwanese-American music artist, referenced The Peony Pavilion in his song "Beside the Plum Blossoms" (在梅邊) on his album Heroes of Earth, which drew heavily from Beijing Opera and Kunqu inspiration.[9] Lee-Hom sang and rapped over traditional Kunqu melodies blended with hip-hop beats. The music video features the artist, in modern clothes, superimposed on animated scenes. The animation depicts thematic and stylistic elements of The Peony Pavilion as well as hip-hop imagery: a break dancer does tricks atop a pavilion and pink peonies turn into speakers. A performer dressed in Kunqu costume plays the role of Liu in the music video, often singing with the Kunqu technique next to Lee-Hom. The artist quotes lines from The Peony Pavilion and entreats his lover, "Let me love you…in the classical style."[10] The lyrics reveal a longing to return to the way love was portrayed in the drama. In this way, Lee-Hom draws visual and thematic inspiration from The Peony Pavilion in his song, signaling its relevance in contemporary popular culture.

The Chinese indie band Carrchy use The Peony Pavilion as inspiration for their lyrics. The two young members of Carrchy, lyricist Keli and producer Fly, share an affinity for ancient Chinese opera and drama, an interest that appears prominently in their work. Borrowing some of the original text, Carrchy alludes to The Peony Pavilion in their song "Romantic Dream in the Garden" (遊園驚夢).[11] The band uses Tang's lyrics and story to create the dual sensations of a lush and sensual spring and sorrow upon awakening from the dream. These Ming Dynasty era-inspired lyrics play over thoroughly modern music.

In the Jiangsu Pavilion at the Shanghai 2010 World Expo, a 13-minute short section from The Peony Pavilion produced by the Kunqu Opera Department of the Jiangsu Performing Art Group Co., Ltd. filmed in high definition was presented for the audience. Luo Chenxue and Zhang Zhengyao, young outstanding Kunqu Opera performers from Jiangsu province, play the leading roles in this film. By combining the traditional Kunqu performing art and modern video art techniques, a stage of poetic and simplified scenes is presented.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wang, 17, 240.
  2. ^ Lunden, Jeff, "The Peony Pavilion, a Vivid Dream in a Garden." NPR Music, November 30, 2012.
  3. ^ Birch, p. xiv.
  4. ^ Bieg, p. 69.
  5. ^ "Youth Edition of Peony Pavilion." 11 Feb. 2009. Ministry of Culture. 11 Feb. 2009
  6. ^ "Background to Peony Pavilion." Peony Pavilion- Young Lovers Edition. University of California Los Angeles. 11 Feb. 2009
  7. ^ The Peony Pavilion at the Edinburgh International Festival 2011
  8. ^ Chen Jie "The Stage is Set" 19 April 2011
  9. ^ "AsiaFinest Alexander Lee-Hom Wang." 11 Feb. 2009
  10. ^ Wang Leehom. "Beside the Plum Tree." By Leehom Wang. MP3. 2005.
  11. ^ "Band Carrchy." 29 Dec. 2007. 11 Feb. 2009
  12. ^ China's version of 'Romeo and Juliet' refreshed,


Further reading[edit]

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