The Peony Pavilion: love in life and death

chinese opera

“It’s so beautiful, I am gonna cry.”

Quoting from my friend, whom I went with to Kunqu opera, the Peony Pavilion. What she said pretty much summed it up. It was simply stunning.

book 1 of peony pavilion by Tang xianzu young lover's edition

This is the second time The Peony Pavilion-Young lover’s edition took place in London, this time in the Troxy. It is an adaption of Tanxianzu’s (a great Chinese playwright of the 16th century) opera, by the Taiwanese writer Bai Xianyong. 55 scenes  distilled into 9 hours, spreading over three nights. It was a modern take of the traditional opera, divided into three books: Love in Dream, Love in Death and Love on Earth.

Troxy theatre

Young lovers edition


Du Liniang, the sixteen-year-old daughter of Nan’an governor was lured by the beautiful spring, so took a stroll in the garden with her maid. Du Liniang fell asleep in the gardem, and in her dream she encountered a young handsome scholar Liu Mengmei. Although never had met the scholar in real life, Du Liniang hopelessly fell in love during her dream. Upon waking up, Du Liniang became preoccupied with the man from her dream and became ill, eventually died from her lovesickness. However, fate has that Du Liniang was predestined to form a marriage with Liu Mengmei, so she ought to return to earth from the underworld. Years later, Liu Mengmei came to the same garden where Du Liniang had the stroll and found a self-portrait of Du Liniang, and he also fell hopelessly in love. Du Liniang then appeared in Liu Mengmei’s dream requesting him to resurrect her from the grave. After Du Liniang came  alive, they married. Liu Mengmei then visited Du Liniang’s father to report the good news, but was captured instead for grave robbery. Liu Mengmei underwent tortures until he was informed that he came top for the imperial exams.  The case was brought to the emperor, who then pardoned all.

Young lovers edition

The singing techniques of the main casts fell short of the traditionalists. Many Kunqu experts would only dub the production as subpar. Traditionally, Kunqu would only have a handful of Chinese instrument such as bamboo flute, Yangqin and Sanxian. Whereas this adaption introduced western instruments, viola, to add depth. Some have commented that the music was too loud and overshadowed the singers’ voice, yet some applauded Bai Xianyong’s brave innovative idea in reviving Kunqu to 21st century audience. I have learned the more traditional version of singing and movements. Sure, there were areas I found slightly ‘odd’ in execution, such as the prima donna’s voice trended to go down on certain notes.


The costumes were beautiful, combining with the lighting, they looked as delicate as Chinese porcelains.

Young lovers edition

The first book had the most famous Kunqu pieces: A Stroll in the Garden, The Pursuit of the Dream , and The Startling Dream. We have learned the pieces, so could sing from memory. Although the lyrics were so beautiful, it would have been slightly difficult for someone with little Kunqu knowledge to appreciate. Book II and Book III included more acrobatic performance, which was probably more suitable for the general public. The arias presented in these 2 books are rarely performed, so it was also my first time to see it on the stage. The storyline was dynamic and humorous. Initially, I planned to leave after the interval in Book II, due to a meeting next morning; however, I was hooked by the performance and stayed until the end.

Peony pavilion

marriage kunqu chinese opera. Peony pavilion young lovers edition

The story line would make very little sense when taking out of the historical, cultural and locational context. Critics have stated ‘Du Liniang’ dues as a ‘sexy’, and came ‘alive’ as a ‘virgin’. Really, this reflected the social pressure on how a lady should have behaved at the time. “Extra-marital” and “Pre-marital” sex at that era was out of the question. So only in death can Duliniang and Liu Mengmei consummate their love. This forbidden love was further illustrated by Du’s father refusing to accept her as daughter, and would only do so if Du left Liu. Does the story remind you of anything? Somehow, it is echoing the plot in “Romeo and Juliet”, the star-crossed lovers.

Young lovers edition

Young lovers edition

Moreover, the story emphasised on people’s perception of academic achievement and political career. It was only when Liu received the top place for the Imperial Exams, he became bold enough to confront his so called “father in law”

Young Lovers edition

Young lovers edition

All in all, enough with what I think about the story line. It was a beautiful performance, everything was like a dream and executed with grace. I applaud the attention to detail attitude and the willingness of bringing this ancient opera to the 21st century. How much would a non-Chinese speaking viewer get out of it? Well, I do know my boyfriend, who in fact knows a bit of Chinese, still found it hard to grasp the idea of the opera. Perhaps, there is still some distance between reality and expectation in the deliverance of Kunqu opera to the global audience. Meanwhile, I just enjoy Kunqu as I always have done…

Young lovers edition