The peony pavilion

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Indiana University Press, 1980 - Drama - 343 pages
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About the author (1980)

T'ang was born in Lin-ch'uan (Kiangsi Province) and passed the provincial examinations at the early age of 20, but, being an impetuous youth, he refused to curry favor with the powerful minister Chang Chu-cheng and therefore could not make further progress until Chang's death in 1852. The following year T'ang went to Peking, passed the metropolitan examination, and was appointed to an advisory post in the Bureau of Sacrifices in the secondary capital of Nanking. He remained there for some years, until his next impolitic move in 1591 when a comet appeared. The Chinese have traditionally believed that unusual astrological phenomena were signs of Heaven's displeasure, and naturally this sighting caused anxiety at court. T'ang promptly sent a memo to the throne in which he lamented the emperor's "twenty wasted years," and in less than a month, he found himself on his way to the southern limits of the empire, to a lowly post as county police officer. He was recalled in 1593 and made a magistrate of Sui-ch'ang (in the hills of Chekiang), which he found pleasant enough duty. However, his laissez-faire approach to government did not sit well with the inspectors sent periodically to assess his performance, and, feeling the pressure, he resigned in 1598. Returning to his home area, T'ang found a ramshackle old house and restored it, and then turned his energies to playwriting. Within just a few months, he had finished Peony Pavilion, and two other plays followed shortly after in 1600 and 1601. He was also active in the theater about 30 miles from Lin-ch'uan in I-huang. This theater was derived from the Hai-yen school of acting (from Chekiang), and, although by this time it had been somewhat eclipsed by the great popularity of the K'un-ch'u school of southern drama centered near Soochow, T'ang refused to adapt his popular Peony Pavilion to the Wu dialect so that the K'un-ch'u school could perform it. However, an adapted version was produced without his blessing and was quite a success. Essential to all three of T'ang's plays is a dream motif, for T'ang had a lifelong belief in the importance of dreams, particularly his own. In the Peony Pavilion, the heroine falls asleep in her family's garden in spring and dreams of a handsome young scholar making love to her. When she awakes and realizes that in life she has no lover, she languishes and eventually dies. Her grief-stricken parents bury her in the garden, and three years later the young man of her dream actually comes to the spot (although by now it has become a Buddhist temple) and stays there to convalesce from an illness. Her spirit comes to him at night, and the God of the Underworld, moved by her single-minded devotion to this youth, consents to let her return to life. After several complications, all ends happily as in the final scene hero and heroine enter the Imperial Palace for an audience with the emperor. Though the plot sounds implausible at best, it is the manner in which it is carried out that makes it probably the highest achievement of the Chinese drama. The dream scene of the heroine in the garden has become one of the great scenes of all time. Few well-brought-up girls in China could hope to choose a man of their dreams, or ever give themselves in passion and abandon, with marriages being political alliances between families; thus, this drama resonated particularly with female audiences, who found the idea of love having an existence of its own, regardless of outward circumstances, extremely moving. The play had appeal for others as well. A great comic wit, T'ang fills the dialogues of some of the supporting characters with clever puns, innuendoes, and apt allusions, and the extremely beautiful and moving lyrics of the arias are seamlessly blended with the lively colloquial language of the rest of the text.

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