The Peony Pavilion
(The Return of the Soul)

By Tang Hsien-tsu (1550-1616)

Synopsis

  A long play of fifty-five scenes, revolves round the love story of Liu Meng-mei (Willow Dreaming Plum), a young student, and Tu Li-niang, the daughter of a high official in Nan-an in southern Kiangsi. In a visit to the family garden a the back of the official residence, Tu Li-niang fell asleep and was accosted in a dream by a young scholar, Liu Meng-mei, with whom she had an affair in the Peony Pavilion. Having awakened from her dream, she became lovesick and un-consoled in her longing, until she finally pined away with a broken heart in the seclusion of her maidenly chamber.

Before she died, she had a picture painted of herself which she buried under a stone in the garden, where her remains were later interred beside a plum tree.

Shortly afterwards, Governor Tu was transferred to a military post in northern Kiangsu. Before the family departure, provision was made for sacrifices to her spirit tablet in a shrine in the garden.

In the meantime, Liu Meng-mei, on his way from Kwangtung to the imperial examination in Hangchow, fell ill at Nan-an and was given a resting-place at the summer house in the Tu family garden. The discovery of the girl's portrait led to many hours of longing and fond gazing at her lovely form; his wishes were granted, for one night she appeared to him and they renewed the relationship of the dream. At her bidding, the coffin was opened and there she lay alive, as fresh and beautiful as ever.

The couple then left for Hangchow, where Liu Meng-mei took the examination, but there was a delay in the proclamation of its result due to a national crisis caused by the invasion of northern Kiangsu by a rebel leader in the employ of the Jurchen Tartars.

Worried by the news of the war that had spread to her father's district, Tu Li-niang sent her husband to look for him, taking her portrait as an identification.

By this time, Governor Tu had already quelled the rebellion through a ruse. In celebration of the victory, his subordinates gave him a feast in the yamen (Governor's office). This happy event, however, was disturbed by the intrusion of Liu Meng-mei, who claimed to be the honor-guest's son-in-law. Having been told previously of the supposed burglary of his daughter's grave, Governor Tu suspected imposture and foul play. Instead of recognizing Liu as his son-in-law, he had him arrested and sent under escort to Hangchow, where Governor Tu himself had an appointment for an audience with the emperor.

Upon arriving at Hangchow, Liu Meng-mei was given a sound whipping in he governor's yamen before he was rescued by an official party in search of the scholar who had come out first in the imperial examination.

Finally, in an audience before the throne, Liu Meng-mei proved successively his claims, with the help of his resurrected wife.

The play ends, as usual, with the official promotion and family reconciliation and reunion.

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