The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭), Hall Of Longevity (长生殿), Thousands Of Martyrs (千忠戮) and The Fan Of Peach Flowers (桃花扇) are the four most celebrated ancient Chinese operas.

Among the four, The Peony Pavilion, also named The Return of Soul at the Peony Pavilion, written in 1598 by Tang Xianzu (汤显祖), one of the two greatest Chinese dramatists, along with Guan Hanqing (关汉卿), is the most popular Kunqu Opera for a good 400 years until this day.

Kunqu, based on folk music in the Suzhou region, is the mother of all Chinese operas. It developed during the early Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) and reached its golden age at the end of the Ming and shortly following Ming’s collapse.

Love at Peony Pavilion Transcends Life & Death

 The opening song of the Kunqu drama The Peony Pavilion.

Lyric: Tang Xianzu (汤显祖, 1550–1616)
Singer: Zhang Yongliang (张咏亮)

We lost ourselves in the mundane chore
Seldom find time to answer the inner call
I ask myself what is the meaning of life
Since the journey is so brief

The story of a Pavilion by Peony
Makes my heart aching and twinge
The toughest thing in the world
Is to understand your own mood

Red candles illuminate my room
Day by day I polish my poem
For recapping the tale of love
That transcends death and life



She Enters a Secret Garden With a Peony Pavilion

Kunqu Opera music: A Secret Spring Garden

Vertical Flute by Du Cong (杜聪)

Miss Du Lixiang accidentally entered a desolated spring garden that actually was her family’s backyard, yet she never knew its existence. Her parents did not want the young lady to see peony blossoms and willow trees to become sentimental and romantic:

Bright purple and passion pink bloom in profusion
Yet shielded by brocaded screens
She’s blind to such splendid scenes

Spring, oh spring,
How I long for you to stay
What shall I do when you are away

Visiting a Desolated Garden in Spring

Singer: Shan Wen (单雯)

What a pleasant day and
A wonderful night
In a private garden that is
Full of delight

The flowers in purple and red
Scattering here and there
Yet only accompanied by
Dry wells and ruined fence

The young and beautiful
Like flowers blooming in full
But the blossoms will fall
Pretty soon


This piece of aria describes how elated Miss Du Liniang feels when she steps into a refreshing and colourful natural environment for the first time in her life.

Kunqu opera The Peony Pavilion staged in a Suzhou garden residence 

Suzhou is the birthplace of both Kunqu opera and a Chinese garden. While Kunqu is the most sophisticated Chinese opera form, the theory and design of Suzhou-style garden represent the highest achievement in classic Chinese landscape architecture. When the two come together, the interplay can be so powerful that gives the audience a fully dimensional experience in which they observe past being projected into present and imaginations being materialised in reality.

In the old days, this was how classic Chinese operas performance was unfolded: a hall fully open in the front located by a pond (for best sound effect) was set up as the stage, while the audience from the host family and their guests would be arranged to sit in the garden structures opposite and verandas at the both sides.

Traditionally, opera performance was part of celebration occasions and often lasted for days. During the performance, the audience sat around tables with tea and snacks and were free to comment, either among themselves or expressing loudly. The focus in the theatre was the audience, not performers, and the objective of opera performance was to best entertain the audience.

She meets Her Dream Lover in Her Dream at the Peony Pavilion

Surrounded by the flowers blooming in full and realised how soon they might fall, Du Lixiang became emotionally unsettling and physically tiresome, so she fell into sleep in a pavilion located by peony flowers growing around garden rocks.

She found herself was approached by a handsome young scholar holding a willow branch.

An illustration by Ming artist for opera book The Peony Pavilion

Kunqu Opera Peony Pavilion: Meet in Dream
Du Liniang the dreamer by Sheng Fenying (沈丰英)
The young scholar in a dream by Yu Jiulin (俞玖林)

“For your beauty like flower,
Your youth like pure water,
Yet you’re left alone, lament,
Unable to escape from the deep chamber …..” the romantic, handsome and talented man said to her and invited her to join his artistic challenge of composing poems to applauding the enchanted spring scene.

She was so delighted and thought she had found her dream lover, but only realised shortly he was just the love in her dream.

She Drew Her Own Funerary Portrait

An illustration by Ming artist for opera book The Peony Pavilion

An illustration by Ming artist for opera book The Peony Pavilion

Months later, a lovesick Du Lixiang revisited the secret garden. The spring had long past and the splendid scene became a distant memory.

She realised the romance she experienced was just a fanciful illusion.

Kunqu Opera Peony Pavilion: Revisit the garden
Singer: Shan Wen (单雯)

Felt sorry for her wasted beauty that her dream lover would have no chance to appreciate, she produced her own portrait.

Kunqu Opera Peony Pavilion: Produce a Selfie
Singer: Gong Yinlei (龚隐雷)

On an Autumn Full Moon night, Du Liniang’s heart was eventually broken. Before drawing her last breath, she begged her mother to place her self-portrait under a decorative Taihu stone next to the Peony Pavilion.

Her Undying Love in Death Brought Her Back to Life

Illustration for The Peony Pavilion by a Ming Dynasty artist

After Du Liniang’s death, her parents relocated to another city and the scholar she once dreamed of moved in the abandoned garden where he discovered her portrait at the Peony Pavilion. He fell in love for the girl on the portrait at first sight.

Du Liniang’s affection for the man was equally strong and kept lingering in the air which enabled her to maintain a human appearance and visit the scholar at night when yin qi was in dominance. They couldn’t be together outside her dream when she was alive yet were able to enjoy their love after her death.

The power of love that transcends life and death eventually brought Du Liniang back to life to reunite with the man as husband and wife.

The two lived happily ever after.

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