The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭), also named The Return of Soul at the Peony Pavilion, is a romantic tragicomedy play written by dramatist Tang Xianzu in 1598, and the plot was drawn from the short story Du Liniang Revives For Love. It depictes a love story between Du Liniang (杜丽娘) and Liu Mengmei, overcomes all difficulties, transcending time and space, life and death, and finally get together.
The performance onstage traditionally focuses on the love scene 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 Miss 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 Miss Du’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 ignite a passionate romance between the two and it flourishes rapidly. But her dream is suddenly interrupted by a flower petal falling on her, according to her soliloquy in a later act, “Retracting the Dream”. The dream affair continues to haunt Miss Du, and her lovesickness soon 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. Upon 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.
In the first scene, there is a four-sentence introductory speech succinctly summarizing the main storyline:
“Du Liniang draws a portrait true to life;
Chen Zuiliang brings about the peace once more;
Liu Mengmei meets his resurrected wife;
Du Bao gives tortures to his son-in-law.”
From 1598 until 1616, the year Tang passed away, the Peony Pavilion was always performed with whole scenes onstage. But later, more and more adaptions focusing on several scenes were adopted onstage rather than with a complete one, since it would cost large number of expend/ energy and time to run the whole play. “A walk in the Garden” (遊園/游园) and “The Interruption of a Dream(驚夢/惊梦)”, which this two acts actually originate from one scene “A Surprising Dream” in the original text, and “Reflection On the Lost Dream” (尋夢/寻梦), are generally considered as the apogee of Chinese Kunqu in term of their literary achievements as well as for their musicality, choreography and the integration of all components. Due to the unique of its lyrics, rhythm, ancient style prose written, the translation became a daunting challenge for literature scholars and theatre practitioners.
The play was widely acclaimed by the public and critics when it was first presented onstage, and it is also regarded as the Chinese version of “Romeo and Juliet”. Through narrating a tortuous love story, Tang portrays an image of a young couple with a strong desire for democratic thoughts and individual emancipation, which evoked most audience empathy, especially women audiences, and regarded Du Liniang as their idol for free love.
Tang Xianzu was one of the greatest dramatists and writers in Ming Dynasty, and The Peony Pavilion can be regarded as his most successful masterpiece in his life.