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The Deaths and Lives of The Peony Pavilion

January 22, 2010
by Andrew Lam
Image source: Photograph by Hsu Pei-Hung

The 16th-century Romeo and Juliet of China is revived, with a passion.

What you should know first and foremost about The Peony Pavilion, a 16th-century Chinese musical drama about love, death, and resurrection, and arguably the most famous of all kunqu operas, is that its poetry can kill. It has killed before. Passion is its currency, and when expressed through kun—a sophisticated art form that fuses poetry, dance, and refined woodwind ensemble, not to mention fabulous costumes and makeup—and with a story line rivaling Romeo and Juliet—its performances literally stopped a few attendants’ hearts in the audience during the late Ming Dynasty.

“Yes, it was said some women fainted after seeing it, and one actress actually expired on stage after finishing the dying aria [about love pains],” confirms anthropologist Lindy Li Mark. Mark translated Xianzu’s poetry into English to be read as subtitles when the opera comes to Zellerbach Hall theater at Berkeley this September. “Here comes a play that portrays women’s feelings—especially sexual feelings—so sympathetically that it became an instant hit.”

Why that is so is not difficult to understand. The Peony Pavilion was written in an era when China was going through a rigid, repressive style of Neo-Confucianism known as Daoxue. It emphasized proper outward displays of behavior and rituals. Living by the book became the ruling orthodoxy. This dismayed Xianzu, a retired court official. Fascinated with the regenerative power of authentic, true emotions, the concept known in Chinese as qing—translated variously as love, desire, and/or passion—he wrote The Peony Pavilion as a direct challenge and criticism to Daoxue.

“Peony Pavilion is so much more than a love story,” notes Xianzu professor Andrea Goldman, who earned her doctorate at Berkeley and now teaches Chinese history at the University of Maryland. “It’s also a scathing indictment of the limitations of the super-rationalist, but rather clueless, world of Neo-Confucian politics. In launching his critique of society, Xianzu, like many of his contemporaries, also borrowed freely from Buddhist and Daoist philosophical concepts. After all, Li-niang’s love is so strong that it has the power to last three lifetimes—and karmic rebirth was a notion drawn from the Buddhist tradition.”

The play, originally composed with 55 scenes that included more than 400 arias of poetry, and with spoken dialogue, was produced in its entirety only a few times in the years right after it was written. Performing the unabridged version could take as long as a week, challenging audiences and the performers. The current Kenneth Pai production, touring the U.S. in the fall, has been shortened to 27 scenes running for three evenings, three hours each night.

Even the shortened version was an enormous undertaking, Pai says. Pai handpicked the young lead actors, and each underwent a year of rehearsing, despite having previously studied kunqu for the required four years. It’s a refined art, one in which singing is supported by the transverse bamboo flute, in unison. Additional plucked, bowed, and various percussion instruments make up the ensemble. Highly ornamented melodies require fine breath control and careful phrasing, Pai explains. In addition, singers must simultaneously execute exact and graceful choreographed dance movements, amplified by flowing silk sleeves that extend two or more feet beyond the hands.

In the drama, Tu Li-niang, the young daughter of a high official, meets a young scholar named Liu Meng-mei in a dream. In a scene that many scholars regard as the most erotic in all of Chinese poetry, the two have a tryst in a garden of peonies. Li-niang awakens and pines for her phantasmal lover, then dies, leaving behind a self-portrait. He discovers her painting, and falls in love with her. Then the Underworld judge, moved by her beauty and her undying love, returns her to the mortal world. She appears to Meng-mei as a ghost, and they again consummate their love. Meng-mei digs her up, whereby her soul rejoins her body. They elope, and, after a number of trials—the bulk of which involves trying to convince her father, who embodies Daoxue rigidity, that she is not a demon, and that her lover is not a grave robber—the emperor pardons all.

The abridged version preserves the love story, with all its supernatural peculiarities, such as the dream lovers coupling in the peony pavilion while being shielded by flower fairies. The narrative bears remarkable similarities to the imagination of Shakespeare, who died the same year as Xianzu. Both authors relied on supernatural forces to further their plots. The Flower Goddess, for instance, who brought the dream lovers together in Peony, is almost interchangeable with Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Tempest’s Ariel.

Further comparisons between Xianzu and Shakespeare are inevitable. Both became influential in their venerable years. Peony was as well known in China, and for that matter, East Asia, as Romeo and Juliet was in the West. But unlike Shakespeare, who wrote and produced plays for a living, Xianzu, according to Goldman, “had passed the highest level of the imperial examinations. He served as an official for many years, and turned to playwriting full time after retiring from public office. Playwriting was his avocation, not his career.” Though quite famous at the end, Shakespeare was not considered wealthy by London standards, whereas Xianzu had the wealth, status, and leisure to devote his time to dramatic creation. “His retirement from public life was surely also a form of protest against the corruption and dangers of officialdom in the late Ming,” says Goldman.

What both ultimately shared was their deep understanding of how passion plays out among mortals, especially the young, and how it can trump social mores and defy rigid tradition, even if it leads to, as in the case of Romeo and Juliet, tragedy. And in both cases, the artists’ passions have been rendered into masterpieces that outlasted social repression and survived the test of time. It was a young heart that was stricken by Peony when 10-year-old Pai Hsien-yung, now Kenneth Pai, executive producer of the current production, first encountered it in Shanghai in 1946. China’s most famous actor, Mei Lan-fang, a female impersonator, played the role of Tu Li-niang, returning to the stage for the first time after a long absence, and only after Japanese occupation of China ended that same year. “I was so moved,” Pai says from his home in Santa Barbara. “I didn’t really understand it, but I was so fascinated by the costumes and the music. I was transformed.” A retired professor from UC Santa Barbara, a writer himself, and renowned among Chinese readers, he became obsessed with kun opera. One of his most famous short stories collected in his book Taipei People, in fact, is called “Wandering from a Garden, Waking from a Dream”, a story about a beauty celebrated for her kun arias, with overt references to The Peony Pavilion.

Professor Pai had participated in two previous abridged Peony productions, in 1983 and 1992 in Taipei. But the current production, which premiered in Taipei in April 2004, sold out weeks in advance. At the Shanghai International Arts Festival five months later, the first performance of The Peony Pavilion played to another sold-out crowd. The troupe also performed at many major universities in China, entertaining people who’d never seen kun opera before.

But how do the young of modern China, inundated with MTVs, iPods, the Internet, and cell phones, react to Peony? “Very well,” says Pai, laughing. “Somehow it awakens their sense of cultural past. I think the love story is timeless.” Or perhaps they identify with a story of a repressed young woman who defied tradition and rigidity in following her heart and, in the end, prevailed.

As his troupe prepares for its American tour, Pai feels confident that Westerners will react the same way as the Chinese audience did. “We had Westerners watching the performance in China and they told us that they were deeply moved. The music, costumes, dance, and story line have universal appeal.” Mindful of contemporary audiences, Pai broke with traditional kunqu opera, which tends to feature older, seasoned performers in lead roles, and insisted on young and beautiful singers to reflect the star-crossed young lovers.

Still, attention has been paid to traditional details. More than 200 handmade and embroidered costumes will be displayed. The artist Hsi Sung, a friend of Pai, was commissioned to paint Tu Li-niang’s self-portrait. Pai spent about half a year condensing the script, working with a team that included Hua Wei, who wrote a doctoral dissertation on Tang Xianzu while at Berkeley.

Beyond its theatrical triumph is the endearing story of an enduring Peony, which survived several periods of suppression, the latest being the Cultural Revolution, when it was banned. “Many kun singers were sent to rural areas,” says Pai, his voice trembling into the phone. “They worked in hard labor, but when no one was around, they sang out their lines so they wouldn’t forget. After ten years, those who survived reunited and brought the play back to life. Oh, it’s a very moving story in itself.”

From the July August 2006 Indo Chic issue of California.

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