The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭; mǔdāntíng) is a play written by Tang Xianzu in the Ming Dynasty and first performed in 1598 at the Pavilion of Prince Teng. As one of Tang’s “Four Dreams”, it has traditionally been performed as a Kunqu opera, but Chuanand Gan opera versions also exist. It is by far the most popular play of the Ming Dynasty, and is the primary showcase of the guimendan (闺门旦/閨門旦) role type. All Kun theatre troupes include it in their repertoire. Recent adaptations have sought to inject new life into one of China’s best-loved classical operas, though such efforts have met with opposition from the Kun opera traditionalists.
The performance tradition has focused on the love story between Du Liniang (杜丽娘) and Liu Mengmei (柳梦梅), but its original text (standard translation: Cyril Birch) 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, her maid persuades Du Liniang, the sixteen year old daughter of an important official, Du Bao, to abandon her studies and take a walk in the garden, where she falls asleep. In Du Liniang’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 starts off a flaming romance between the two and it flourishes rapidly. Du Liniang’s dream is interrupted by a flower petal falling on her (according to her soliloquy recounting the incident in a later act: Reflection on the lost dream. However, she was apparently awoken by her mother according to the script itself). Du Liniang, however, is since preoccupied with the intense oneiric affair and her lovesickness quickly 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 who now inhabits the same garden where Du Liniang had her fatal dream. Once 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 newly resurrection. However, Liu is met with disbelief and 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.