The magic of the Peony Pavilion

There was a buzz at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre of the NCPA in South Mumbai when I arrived there shortly before 7 pm on Tuesday, earlier this week.

There was the swish of silks, satins and chiffons, the aroma of different perfumes, the glint of pearls and diamonds… There were celebrities, socialites, office-goers, aficionados, students, first-timers, regulars, critics, cynics, the-eager-for-a-new-experience… There were air kisses, handshakes, shoulder hugs, backslaps and some tinkling laughter too.

And then there was anticipation in the air. An anticipation of attending my very first Chinese Opera, which also happened to be the Indian première of the legendary Kunqu Opera, The Peony Pavilion, staged by the Beijing-based Northern Kunqu Opera Theatre. This was an anticipation that had built and grown from the moment I received an invitation, along with some background information and some photographs, Sadir Theater Festival to attend the Opera from, about two weeks ago.

The Peony Pavilion, Chinese Kunqu Opera, Shao Zheng as Liu Mengmei, Zhang Yuanyuan as Du Liniang
(L) Zhang Yuanyuan as Du Liniang and (R) Shao Zheng as Liu Mengmei, the principal characters in “The Peony Pavilion”

It was a good that I received the background information as my knowledge about Chinese Opera could be summed up in one word: Zilch! Accepting the invitation and beginning the countdown to the actual event was the first step towards remedying that ! 🙂
The Peony Pavilion, Chinese Kunqu Opera, Shao Zheng as Liu Mengmei, Zhang Yuanyuan as Du LiniangBy the time I took my seat in the theatre with the programme brochure in hand, the anticipation had reached fever pitch. The soft and soothing live music being played on stage did distract me a bit, but not much. It didn’t help that the programme didn’t begin on time and even when it did there were those mandatory introductory speeches. Thankfully, they were short and to the point and after an introduction to the Kunqu (pronounced kwin chu) form of theatre and The Peony Pavilion, the performance began.

The name Kunqu refers to the musical element of this art form. Kun refers to Kunshan district in China and qu means music; and a Kunqu performance is the synthesis of music, words, and dance. Each Kunqu performance is accompanied by a live instrumental ensemble consisting of wind, string and percussion instruments. The words are recited in a particular way or sung and expressed with highly stylised hand gestures. Kunqu was listed as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2001.

The Peony Pavilion is, perhaps, the best known of all Kunqu operas. A love story set during the times of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279), it was written by Tang Xianzu and first performed in 1598. The original play is 20 hours long, but for the performance we were going to see that day, it had been condensed to just 90 minutes. Live English translation of the poetry was projected on stage to enable the audience to follow the performance.

The story of The Peony Pavilion goes something like this:

Du Liniang, the 16-year-old daughter of an important official in the Na’nan province of China, leads a very sheltered life and cannot leave the protection of her boudoir. One day, when her father is away, Liniang is persuaded by her maid to take a walk in the garden. It is spring time and the young Liniang is entranced by the beauty all around. On her return home, a tired Liniang falls asleep and slips into a dream.

In her dream, she encounters a young scholar, Liu Mengmei, and a flaming romance flourishes rapidly between the two. The girl’s dream is interrupted by when her mother comes in. Liniang, however, becomes preoccupied with her dream affair, and is soon lovesick. Unable to recover from or overcome her fixation, she wastes away and dies. Unknown to her, Liu has also had the same dream and he is now trying to find Liniang.

In her afterlife, Liniang roams as a restless spirit. Impressed with her love, passion and sincerity, the judge of the underworld concludes that a marriage between Liniang and Liu is pre-destined and she ought to return to the earthly world. Liniang comes to life, is reunited with Liu, and they proceed to live happily ever after.

The Peony Pavilion, Chinese Opera, Kunqu
Some scenes from the performance. Please click on the picture for the source

The Peony Pavilion was not just a drama or an opera or a musical, but rather a combination of all three, and also one where I found some commonality with Indian music and dance. Take for instance the music, which was instantly recognisable as the Hindustani Raga Bhoopali or the Carnatic Mohanam. But what was remarkable was the way the same 5 notes of the ‘raga’ conveyed the joy of spring, the first stirrings of love, loss, pain, death, restlessness, and resurrection. It was brilliant.

And the hand gestures? They were quite like the hasta mudras we see in Indian classical dances. There is one scene in The Peony Pavilion where Liniang and her maid mimic the flight of swallows with hand gestures. That was my moment of connect with the Opera.

I loved the minimalistic set contrasted by the richly embroidered costumes of the characters. I also loved how colour was subtly used to reinforce the mood or occasion. For example, Liniang would wear a simple outer robe of a particular colour over her main richly embroidered costume — a very pale pink for spring and the awakening of love, green for love sickness, a white over a brighter pink for the restless spirit, and blue for a ghost.

Zhang Yuanyuan, who played the role of Du Liniang, was simply superb. As a 16-year-old experiencing the freedom of just being outside her room, her joy at being in the midst of nature, her shyness at meeting Liu, her bashfulness, her awakening passion, her growing lovesickness, death, restlessness, and reunion with her love… she was amazing. There were times when I didn’t even have to look at the English transliteration as Zhang conveyed the emotion, the scene perfectly.

90 minutes. That’s all it took for me to fall in love with The Peony Pavilion. In spite of the language barrier, which I’ll admit I was concerned about, I had no problem in appreciating the Opera. The projected translation was a great idea and that certainly helped initially. But once I connected with the music, everything else just fell into place. In fact, in retrospect, I’m glad that I didn’t do any reading or research on The Peony Pavilion (as I would have usually done for stuff I know nothing or little about). I loved being delighted and surprised at every stage. It allowed me to enjoy the Opera without ‘bookish’ knowledge.

The time for reading more on The Peony Pavilion begins now. I have just ordered this book for myself. Do you approve? 🙂

PS: The Peony Pavilion may well have been my first Chinese Opera, but it is definitely not going to be my last. Maybe I should make travel plans for China. What say? 😉

Note: I received complimentary tickets for The Peony Pavilion from the organisers. The opinions expressed here, however, are my own.

8 thoughts on “The magic of the Peony Pavilion

  1. I’m sure it would have been a wonderful experience watching the opera! I would love to do that some time…

    Have you heard of Lisa See’s books? She writes historical fiction based on Chinese history, and I think you will love them. She has even written a book about The Peony Pavilion – it is called Peony In Love. Here’s the Amazon link, in case you want to look it up: I haven’t read the book yet, but I have it with me and am looking forward to reading it.

    A couple of years back, I read my first Lisa See book, called Snow Flower and The Secret Fan and loved it. You might want to read that one too. It has quite a lot of information about ancient Chinese customs. Here’s my review of the book:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, TGND. I do remember this review of yours and didn’t pay much heed then. But now, it is different. 🙂

      I think you would have enjoyed the opera very much and if you get a chance to go for it, grab the opportunity and don’t let go !


  2. It surely seems like a superb performance you witnessed Sudha. I can totally visualise the scenes as you have described and especially loved the idea of changing the color of the robe to match with the emotion or the scene. I haven’t had the chance to witness Chinese opera and this only makes me want to not miss, whenever it’s here in town! May be we can watch together? 🙂 Thanks for a wonderful post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Atula, don’t know how I missed replying to your comment considering that I was looking forward to it. So sorry.

      I hope The Peony Pavilion is only the first of the many performance from China that we will get in India. Now that I have got a taste of it, I can’t wait to sample more treasures from this land that seems so near and yet so distant. I hope that performances happen in other parts of the country as well.

      I would have loved to know what you thought of The Peony Pavilion as your theatre and music background would have given me another perspective altogether. Hopefully, we can watch a performance together. 🙂


  3. I don’t know why, but the pictures bring to mind Manipuri dance, not that the costumes resemble it. How was the music? Your description as usual is graphic and brings it all before my eyes. The opening para was interesting too 🙂 As for your not reading up on Chinese opera, remember my comment on your status on FB? So you decided to be surprised with the opera and then read up to connect the experience with the information!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hmmm… now that you mention it, the movements were definitely as graceful as Manipuri. 🙂 And as I’ve mentioned in the post, the music was the highlight of the performance. It was Mohanam throughout and it was amazing how the five notes of Sa Ri Ga Pa Dha conveyed all possible emeotions.

      I haven’t done any reading post the performance and have used the information given in the programme brochure for this post. But have ordered a book and the one that TGND suggested in my wishlist. 🙂


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