Dream of Nanke (南柯梦) is one of the four Kunqu Opera dramas about dreams, written by Tang Xianzu (1550-1616) of the Ming Dynasty.
While Peony Pavilion is the best known among the four, Dream of Nanke is the most mind-blowing, exploring time, space, multi-worlds and the meaning of life.
A Chance Meeting in a Buddhist Temple
One day military officer Chunyu visited a Buddhist temple where he had a chance to meet with three pretty women.
The women were in fact not humans but ants. They were sent by their king to find a suitable husband for the ant king’s only daughter.
The Zen master tried to warn Chunyu, telling him “beware the insects”, but the man who quickly befriended the three females failed to pay attention to the warning.
A Trip to the Great Kingdom of Ash Tree
After a temple visit, Chunyu was invited by his new friends to have a drink, and when he returned home, he was rather drunk.
While waiting for his servant to prepare tea, he fell to sleep.
Soon he was woken up by a man, and the man told him he was chosen to be the husband of a princess in a kingdom located in his backyard.
Out of curiosity, he followed the man to the garden. Once he come to the ash tree, he was urged to get into a hole in the ground.
After a hard journey through some narrow tunnels, he eventually spotted a city in the distance. As he drew closer, he could see large characters on the front gate read “Great Kingdom Of Ash Tree”.
A Grand Royal Wedding
The gates of the city were thrown open, and Chunyu was invited to the royal palace to meet the princess.
When he set his sight on the girl, he immediately fell in love with her. So was the girl. A splendid royal wedding proceeded without delay.
A Happy Family
After the wedding, Chunyu was appointed as the Governor of Nanke County where he worked and lived for twenty years with his wife and together they raised two kids.
Death Did the Loving Couple Apart
Beyond the border of Nanke County was another nation called the Great Kingdom of Vine which had 340,000 households, slightly smaller in territory and less in population than the Ash Tree Kingdom. Yet they were militarily better equipped.
Vine Kingdom army declared war against the Tree Kingdom again. Although their assault was defeated by Chunyu’s army, 50,000 Ash Tree troops were lost.
The prince, who suffered from a chronic illness for years, died of a heart attack when receiving the news.
Chunyu lost his love of life.
Wake up from the Dream
Without the protection of his wife, Chunyu quickly fell victim to vicious factional battles and palace politics.
One day, the skywatch officer reported to the king that a deadly catastrophe was approaching due to the emergence of a guest star in the sky.
As Chunyu was the only migrant in the kingdom, he became the prime suspect for bringing the doomed event to the nation.
The king had no choice but to deport him. Chunyu was heartbroken because he would never be able to see his kids again.
Just at this moment, he was woken up by his servant, informing him that his tea was ready.
Only by then, he realised that all his twenty years of married life, the warfare and the palace politics just occurred within a few minutes when he took a short nap.
Catastrophe to Ants in the Garden
Chunyu went to his backyard to check the ants’ kingdom. Next to the giant Ash Tree, he spotted a huge ant world under a hole in the ground, where he met, married and buried his love of life. Next to the tree, along with the network of vines, he discovered another ant community – he believed it must be the militant Vine Kingdom.
Soon a violent storm arrived. Once the late afternoon sun reemerged, he found both ant kingdoms were gone, along with the hostility and the wars between them.
By then he realised what the deadly catastrophe meant – it was this powerful downpour. Apparently, the ant civilisations were so short-lived and only survived between two summer storms.
A Buddhist Rite for Deceased
Chunyu heard the Zen Master was holding a mantra chanting rite to assist the deceased to find a better world to reincarnate, so he plead with the old monk to help the souls of his ant friends.
The master questioned him, “Are you still in love with your late wife?”
“Nope,” the man chuckled. “Now I know she was just an ant, and her pretty human appearance was an illusion, how can I still be obsessed with her?”
The master cackled.
After some mantra chanting and ritual performing, they heard a thunderous voice announcing: The gate of Trayastrimsa Heaven is opening.
Following the announcement, they saw millions of dots moving in the air like rain during a storm, only they were moving upwards.
He Was Still in the Dream
After all the souls from the Ash Tree Kingdom ascended to heaven, the master arranged for the man to meet his late wife.
Chunyu previously thought he had woken up from the dream and would never be attracted to her again. Yet, since she was no longer an ant but a fairy now, he could not help but fell in love with her again.
“No, you can’t be with me,” the fairy said. “Because we belong to different worlds. However, I can wait for you to come to heaven.”
Final Wake Up
Zen Master told Chunyu that if his goal of endeavour was just to be with her happily forever in Heaven, he could be disappointed, as no life form is eternal.
“I see,” Chunyu nodded his understanding, “Now I see Nothing.’
“What is Nothing?” the master pursued.
Chunyu grinned but said nothing.
The master knew the man had really woken up this time.
The worlds we see
Are just like the flowers
Formed by the pterygium
In our eyes;
We are obsessed
With what we experienced
In recent years, Chinese Kunqu artists restaged this drama and the video clips are from the one performed by Jiangsu Kunqu Opera House with the human military officer Mr Chunyu played by Shi Xiaming (施夏明), the ant princess by Shan Wen (单雯) and Buddhist Zen Master by Zhao Yutao (赵于涛).