The Peony Pavilion

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on May 15, 2017.)

The "Peony Pavilion" at Daci'en Temple, Xi'an

Daci'en Temple in Xi'an has a lovely garden area which, in the right season, is filled with peonies. In the center of the area is a small pavilion. And although the sign reads "Peony Garden" in Chinese, the English translation says "Peony Pavilion."

Aficionados of Chinese literature will recognize this as the title of an opera by Tang Xianzu that is widely held to be the greatest of all Ming Dynasty plays.

Premiering in 1598, the play has 55 scenes; a single performance can last more than 22 hours. The main plot (there are many subplots) centers on the love affair between Du Liniang, the 26-year-old daughter of an important official, and Liu Mengmei, a young scholar.

While strolling in a garden, Du Liniang takes a rest and falls asleep. There she dreams of young Liu, whom she has never met. In her dream, Liu "makes his move," and the two enter into a romance more intense than that of Romeo and Juliet.

Unfortunately, a peony petal falls on her and wakes her from her dream. Her feelings, however, continue unabated. At last she dies of lovesickness.

However, the Judge of the Underworld determines that a marriage between the two was foreordained, and sends Du Liniang's spirit back to fulfill her destiny.

Liu Mengmei, meanwhile, has been dozing in the same garden, where he dreams of Du Liniang. At her urging, he has her exhumed, and Lo! her spirit rejoins her body!

Upon reporting her resurrection to Du's father, Liu is arrested as a liar and a grave robber. Fortunately, his exam results arrive, and he is pardoned by the emperor due to his high scores.

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