The Peony Pavilion


The play Mu dan ting huan hun ji  (The peony pavilion) is by Tang Xianzu (1550–1616), a native of Linchuan, Jiangsu Province. Tang achieved the degree of jin shi in 1583 and assumed several posts, but he was demoted as a consequence of a memorial he wrote. Later reinstated as district magistrate of Shuichang, Zhejiang Province, Tang retired from this position in 1598. As a dramatist, he enjoyed great popularity, but his unpublished manuscripts were supposedly burnt by his sons. Four of his plays with the theme of dreams are known collectively as “Four Dreams.” Among them is this work, for which he is best known. Tang completed this play, also called Huan hun ji (Return of the soul), in about 1588. At the time, it was widely said that everyone in the land could recite its words. The play is in 55 scenes, with an original plot and songs, which have been printed and reprinted many times. The author’s words did not always fit the music. Later writers tried to preserve the original wording while adding comments and notes to the play, which explains the different versions of the work that exist. The drama recounts the love story between Du Liniang and Liu Mengmei in the last days of the Southern Song Dynasty, in the 1270s. On a fine spring day, Du Liniang, the 16-year old daughter of high official Du Bao, takes a walk in the garden, where she falls asleep. In her dream she encounters the young scholar Liu Mengmei. A flourishing romance rapidly develops in her mind. Du Liniang becomes preoccupied with her dream affair and wastes away and dies of lovesickness. Three years later, Liu goes to the capital to take the imperial civil examination, passes Du’s grave and obtains her self-portrait. He then meets Du in a dream. At her request, Liu agrees to exhume her, she is brought back to life, and they get married. Du’s father does not believe what has happened, and Liu is imprisoned as a grave robber and impostor. The ending of the play follows the formula of many Chinese dramas. After Liu receives the results of the imperial examination in which he has topped the list, the father relents, and the emperor pardons all. Among the most enjoyable moments in the play are the “Walk in the garden” and the “Surprise dream” in scene ten. The play highlights the tension between Du Liniang’s nature and prevailing ethical codes, and her pursuit of, and loyalty to, love. This copy, in two juan, in four volumes, was printed in 1617 in a private workshop. One of the famed Anhui family of engravers, Huang Mingji, was specially invited to engrave the woodblock illustrations. He used fluent and flexible lines and incorporated the technique of dot painting of trees and landscapes. These rich illustrations give this edition an especially elegant and refined tone.

Last updated: January 3, 2018