Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Book Review - "The Peony Pavilion: Mudang Ting" (牡丹亭) by Tang Xianzu (湯顯祖)

I remember vividly a time in my childhood when my grandmother used to take me to watch Cantonese operas. A scene from one such opera etched an indelible mark on my young mind: the scene of reincarnation of a beauty who was the subject of a portrait. It just felt shockingly unbelievable to me then! The opera was The Peony Pavilion Dream (牡丹亭驚夢) directed by the iconic Tang Ti-sheng (唐滌生). It was only much later in life that I found out that the opera was based on Ming playwright giant Tang Xianzu's (湯顯祖) famous drama entitled The Peony Pavilion.

The play was written in 1598 (eleven years earlier Tang Xianzu had written the popular drama The Purple Hairpin (紫釵記)), and the setting was in Southern Song. The story is about a cloistered aristocratic young lady's listless pining for true love and freedom from social conventions, her dream of sexual romance with a young scholar in the garden pavilion, her tragic death from unfulfilled longing, the subsequent reincarnation through her own hand-drawn portrait and reunion with the scholar, her father's stubborn refusal to allow their marriage and the final happy ending brought about by the Emperor acting as the arbitrator.

It has taken me over six weeks to finish reading the play as it was written in classical Chinese text and was full of metaphors with historical allusions, which meant that I had to constantly refer to the annotations. Although I had had training in school in reading classical Chinese texts, it has been a long time since I last read anything in the antiquated language, except poetry. Yet it was such a pleasure to savor the lyrical metaphors and the choreography of imagery in the play. What struck me as most incredible was the occasional erotic description. Overall I was greatly impressed by the author's embrace of the idea of youthful optimism and relentless pursuit of freedom.

This literary gem deserves no less than 5 stars.

P.S. I've just stumbled upon a piece of beautiful artwork by Jason Pym - "The Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu Silk Scarf", the design of which combines scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Peony Pavilion.



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