Tang Xianzu is a renowned Ming Dynasty playwright, born in a family of scholars. Being perspicacious and bookish, he displayed his talents at the age of 12, became a successful candidate in the imperial examinations at the provincial level at the age of 21, and a successful candidate in the highest imperial examinations at the age of 34. He served as officials in Nanjing of Zhejiang Province, Guangdong Province and so on. At 48, he abdicated his official post and returned to his hometown.
Tang Xianzu wrote four great legends that share the theme of dreams. These legends are collectively known as The Four Dreams at Linchuan or The Four Dreams at Yu Ming Tang. Tang’s legends, like many works of Kunju opera, are based on preexisting sources, such as short novels or stories. For example, Tang’s Zi Chai Ji (The Tale of the Violet Hairpin) was rewritten from an unfinished story, Zi Xiao Ji (The Tale of the Violet Flute). The Peony Pavilion, widely acknowledged as Tang’s masterpiece and the finest of all Chinese legends, is likewise based on a Song Dynasty (960-1279) short story.
Tang Xianzu wrote the libretto of The Peony Pavilion to preexisting, established melodies. The score was arranged and further refined for each production of the piece, but the music for these early productions has been lost. In 1792, during the reign of Emperor Qianlong in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), a new, complete score for The Peony Pavilion was notated, the work of a great number of creators over the years, who again based their work on traditional melodies. The present production is based on the 1792 score, the earliest manuscript source.
The young girl Du Liniang is learning her first love poems, when she dreams of a young scholar whom she meets in a Peony Pavilion. Deeply moved by this dream, she makes a stroll in the garden and suddenly falls ill. She paints her portraits, write a poem and tells her maid to hide these below a stone. Shortly after, Du Liniang dies and is buried in the garden near. Years later, a scholar named Liu Mengmei comes into the town to participate in the state examinations. When he falls ill and looks for therapy in a small shrine, he finds the painting of a beautiful girl — the picture of Du Liniang. That night, he dreams of her. Liniang asks him to revive her. Opening her coffin, Liu Mengmei is able to revive Du Liniang. Afraid of being seen by anyone else, the two lovers decide to go to the capital of that time Lin’an (present-day Hangzhou). After passing the examination, Liu Mengmei takes the painting with him and visits Liniang’s father. The father accuses Mengmei to be a grave robber. Even when Liniang herself appears, her father does not believe that she is revived. The emperor himself finally frees Mengmei and allows the lovers to marry each other.
The Peony Pavilion was especially appreciated by women, and hand-copied manuscripts of the play were widely read. In the seventeenth century, a woman named Fang Xiaoqing, who was trapped in an unhappy marriage, became engulfed in sadness after reading The Peony Pavilion. She was so identified with Du Liniang that she herself lost all will to live. Upon her death, Fang’s story was in turn played out on the stage in another opera. Other women, too, pined away in sympathy with Du Liniang, and the deaths of these women constitute another legend that has grown up around The Peony Pavilion.