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Chinese Language Center

Chinese Literature The Peony Pavilion:

A Chinese Love Story From Beyond the Grave

"The Pony Pavilion" 《牡丹亭》 is the premier example of the Southern-style opera that was popular in the 17th century. This form of opera would feature a large cast and many scenes playing over several days. This type of production is hardly ever staged anymore but it was actually presented in 1999 at New York's Lincoln Center as a 20-hour, four-day extravaganza. The basic template for most Chinese plays involves a handsome, bright scholar who falls in love with a beautiful maiden. Trouble usually comes in in the form of parental disapproval, thus creating the conflict between the young lovers' Confucian obedience to their parents and their own irrepressible love for each other. Peony Pavilion adheres to this pattern but throws in a very unusual twist. The young maiden in the story, Bridal Du, falls in love with a scholar whom she's only met once in a dream and dies longing for him. But this is just the beginning. The scholar, Liu Mengmei, happens to be a real person and through sheer accident ends up staying in her town. Eventually, Liu meets Bridal's ghost, disinters her body, and she comes back to live. Other complications then arise. The play also includes a good dose of humor.

The Lincoln Center presentation was preceded by an interesting spat between the American producers of the show and the Chinese government. After the Chinese government saw a few scenes during rehearsal, they impounded the costumes and sets and refused to let the actors travel to New York because they deemed the show to be "feudal, pornographic, and superstitious". The director of the show then recruited a new cast of Chinese actors and managed to put the show together in NY to great acclaim. Eventually, the Chinese staged their own production in China and Hong Kong to excellent reviews as well.

  Title Mini Review
The Peony Pavilion
Written by Tang Xianzu, 1550-1616
Translated by Cyril Birch
Indiana University Press, 2002
400 pages
Rating: ★★★★★

Translation of the actual play, which contains 55 scenes and 200 arias.

Library of Chinese Classics: Peony Pavilion (Chinese-English)
Written by Tang Xianzu, 1550-1616
Translated by Wang Rongpei
Foreign Language Press, 2000
2 volumes, 985 pages
Bilingual edition of Peony Pavilion for hardcore fans, libraries, and bilingual households.
The Peony Pavilion
Written by Xiaoping Yen
Foreign Language Press, 1999
252 pages
Rating: ★★★★

Modern English rewrite of the play in the form of a novel.  Recommended for those who don't like to read plays.

The Peony Pavilion/Lincoln Center
Directed by Chen Shizheng
Produced by the Lincoln Center Festival
Image Entertainment, 2001
120 minutes, DVD and VHS
For those of us who were not fortunate enough or had the endurance to sit through 20 hours of opera, this 2-hour video captures the highlights of the production, with narration by Robert Powell to fill in the gaps.
  The Peony Pavilion Opera Online
Rating: ★★★★★

Very nice site dedicated to the Lincoln Center production. It provides background about the Southern opera (Kunju) and a synopsis of each episode.

Tan Dun: Bitter Love
Composed by Tan Dun
Sony, 1999
Audio CD
Music composed by Tan Dun, who would later compose the musical score for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". Based on the story of the Peony Pavilion, the music is a fusion of Chinese and Western style music with even some Gregorian chants thrown in.