The Global Influence and Time-Transcending Significance of Kenneth Pai’s The Young Lovers’ Edition of The Peony Pavilion (Cecca Xu)

The Global Influence and Time-Transcending Significance of Kenneth Pai’s The Young Lovers’ Edition of The Peony Pavilion


Originated in Suzhou in Jiangsu Province during the 16th century, Kunqu is a southern style regional drama which became popular in China during the 19th century. Known for its “delicate tunes and elegant melodies,” Kunqu, a combination of singing, dancing and drama, is performed in China and the rest of the world. In 2001, Kunqu is honored as the World’s No.1 Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage.” Written by Tang Xianzu, The Peony Pavilion is one of the most famous Kunqu plays in the history of Chinese drama. Tang Xianzu, often referred as the Eastern Shakespeare in China, is the most influential poet and playwright during the Ming Dynasty. With refined poetic style and technique, this play has been adapted and performed throughout Chinese history.

The Peony Pavilion tells a romantic story of Du Liniang, a beautiful young lady from an elite family, is strictly controlled by her father, the governor of the city. One day, without her parents’ knowledge, Du goes to the garden with her maid Chunxiang. In her dream, she meets a young scholar named Liu Mengmei by the Peony Pavilion and falls in love with him. She becomes ill after thinking about him every day and seeking the dream in vain. She paints her self-portrait before she died of a broken heart. Three years later, Liu Mengmei stays at the temple where Du was buried and finds Du’s portrait after wandering in the garden. He finds the lady in the portrait to be familiar and cannot help to calling her. The ghost of Du comes out of the picture and Liu soon falls in love with her. Liu decides to exhume her to bring her back to life. After Liu tops the result list of the civil service exam, the couple’s love is finally approved by the emperor and Du’s father. Du and Liu live happily thereafter.


Figure 1: Poster of The Young Lovers’ Edition of The Peony Pavilion in China, illustrating the production’s popularity in China.

Research Question and Central Argument

The research question is what aspects of Kenneth’s Pai’s production of The Peony Pavilion are preserved and developed that enables the play to transcend national borders and past and present?

This paper focuses on the international influence and time-transcending significance of this Kunqu masterpiece through the examination of Kenneth Pai or Bai Xianyong’s adaptation of the play. A professor of Chinese literature at the University of California and a playwright, Pai devoted himself to the cultural promotion of kunqu. He created The Young Lovers’ Edition of The Peony Pavilion, which was staged 166 times worldwide by 2009. It received great reviews from audience with different ages and praises from both Chinese and foreign audiences (Lam, pg. 1). Among all the versions of The Peony Pavilion, Kenneth Pai and the Suzhou Kun Opera Theatre of Jiangsu’s production of the play is the most influential in China and the world. The original Kunqu play is composed of 55 scenes with more than 400 arias of poetry. Pai condenses the 55 scenes into 27 scenes running for three evenings, three hours each night (Lam, pg. 1). His play focuses on the love story between 16 years old Du Liniang and 20 years old Liu Mengmei and Pai uses the youngest cast to perform the Kunqu play to appeal to the younger generation of audience. Targeting key audience such as university students in China and international audience, Pai effectively combines traditional Kunqu features with western elements to revive the authenticity of the play and develop the play to suit modern tastes. Through exploring the Kungqu elements that have been preserved and those that have been adapted in Pai’s production, I want to demonstrate The Peony Pavilion is able to create cultural influences in both China and the West.  Not only does the play contain classical Chinese cultural values, but it also combines itself with modern ideas and culture, transcending past and present.

Figure 2: Pai’s production of the Peony Pavilion, illustrating the preservation of traditional singing (chang) and dancing(zuo) Kunqu practices.


Traditional Kunqu Practices and Modernized Elements of Pai’s Production

In his production of The Peony Pavilion, Pai preserves the plot and many traditional performance practices of Kunqu to awake the senses of China’s glorious cultural past. Traditional Kunqu practices, such as the slow and gentle style of changqiang or singing and elegant sleeve dance movement, are seen in his adaptation of the play. Interestingly, the overall play has minimum use of props and setting. Such design is similar with traditional Kunqu that emphasizes on space for the audience’s imagination and the performer’s dance movements. For example, during the “Stroll in the Garden” part, Du Liniang and her maid take a walk in the garden and watch the spring flower blossom, enjoying the beauty of nature. But the use of bare stage highlights the dance of Du Liniang and enables the audience to imagine the beautiful spring blossom scene themselves. Her dance steps and her waving of the sleeves highlight her Qing or inner emotion, conveying a sense of joy and freedom in the Du Liniangcharacter. This corresponds with the traditional element of Kunqu that emphasizes on the sentiment and the inner sphere of the character. In this scene, it contrasts the happiness Du feels after entering the garden with the oppression of her life as a woman coming from a high-class family. While the singing and action are associated with traditional Kunqu practices, Pai modernized the play through adding western elements to other aspects of the play. In traditional Kunqu plays, musical instruments, such as “horizontal bamboo flute (dizi), wooden clappers and a small hardwood drum slung on a tripod” are used to synthesize with song and speech (Brandon, pg. 54). In his production, Pai adds western instruments, such as bass, cello, violin and arrayed bells, to traditional Chinese instruments in order to establish a sense of modernity (Zeitlin, pg. 124). During one of the interviews, Pai mentions, “We had Westerners watching the performance in China and they told us that they were deeply moved. The music, costumes, dance, and story line have universal appeal” (Lam, pg. 1). Pai’s addition of western elements makes the play well-received by western audience. The reason that the play impresses the western audience is its focus on the aesthetic appeal of Chinese Kunqu opera and its combination with modern elements that connects the western audience with the play more effectively. Therefore, the successful synthesis of traditional Kunqu aspects with western, modernized elements contributes to the international popularity of the play.

Pai’s production of the play focuses on Du Liniang’s character to further modify a simple romantic love story into a commentary on the Chinese society and classical Confucian values. Even though the story takes place during the Southern Song Dynasty, but the themes of the play are able to transcend the changing time periods and the evolving society. Pai’s version of the play places less emphasis on Liu Mengmei’s character which is opposite from western drama with protagonist being a masculine hero. Instead, the play sheds light on the female protagonist or Du Liniang’s inner life and her relationship with other characters (Lei, pg.100). Coming from an elite family with strict parents, Du Liniang’s life is confined and oppressed. She is not allowed to go out without her parents’ permission or freedom to do what she wants to do. In the play, Du’s father said to her, “There are books on the shelf to enlighten your eyes. Some day in your husband’s house, your learning and manners will make your parents proud.” The story focuses on Du’s role as a woman living under the Confucian definition and societal expectation. Therefore, Du is internally struggling between the repressed Confucian society and her desire for both physical and psychological freedom.

Du’s internal conflict is corresponding with the “third-space” concept. There are a lot of parallels drawn throughout the play, such as the existence of Du’s ghost and Du’s dream in the beginning. The second section of the play is referred to “Wandering from a Garden, Waking from a Dream.” Du’s dream is a parallel between imagination and reality, contrasting the freedom of loving whoever she wants in her dream with the cruel reality of her aimless and repressed life. The imagination world is composed of freedom and joy while the reality world is full of confinement and restriction. Du expresses her indifference toward death as long as she can be with the young scholar who she falls in love with in her dream, “Living or dying, let me be. Sad or troubled, none to reproach. Only to mingle with another soul.” Du’s dream symbolizes her attempted escape from the pains of life and her longing for true happiness (Lam, pg. 1). The ghost is one of the major supernatural elements of the play, serving as a “third-space” in between life and death. The inclusion of the ghost adds imagination to the play and challenges the conventional theater that focuses on realism. Such challenge corresponds with the theme of the play as Du challenges the traditional role of woman. The parallelism throughout the play highlights Du’s character as her quest for love defies not only her parents’ wills but also societal tradition in China.

Video Link: “A Stroll in the Garden” section of the play, illustrating the contrast between Du’s happiness in the garden and her oppressed life.

What enables The Peony Pavilion to be a timeless work is that the play is beyond a romantic love story. Indeed, the love story between Du and Liu serves as a commentary on the Chinese traditional society and offers a new perspective on the idea of marriage and love. It is the first literature work in China that discusses the freedom of love, which remains a controversial topic in later Chinese drama and literature. Tang’s work is often compared to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Instead of having a tragic ending, the play is a social comedy that ends with the happy marriage of the couple (Lei, pg. 133). Such difference makes the play a lampoon that criticizes the ideas of Confucian orthodoxy in a light-hearted way. First of all, Du’s father, Du Bao, does not approve the couple’s relationship initially. As the high-class Confucian governor, Du Bao worships the traditional arranged marriage which he thinks only man from the same social class as him can marry his daughter. Du Bao symbolizes the tradition and the barrier the couple has to overcome in order to be with each other (Lam, pg. 1). The interaction between Du and Liu when they meet in the garden amplifies their passionate love, which challenges the value of marriage based on social class. The ending of the play demonstrates marriage based on love triumphs traditional arranged marriage, which is one of the central themes of the play.

At the same time, The Peony Pavilion illustrates the struggle between emotion (Qing) and rationality (Li) which is an avant-garde subject in Chinese theater. The Confucian value and Dao Philosophy (Dao Xue) both place high emphasis on rationality where people make decision based on logic and social good. However, the couple’s love story places love over reason and challenges the society’s advocacy of Li. This connects to the title of the play that draws on the contradictory nature of the peony symbolism. As the national flower of China, peony represents richness, honor and high social class. As a symbol of spring, peony is also referred to romance and happy marriage. The double meanings behind the flower peony connects with Du’s passion for Liu that contradicts with her social class and tradition. The ending of the play reveals emotion has triumphed over rationality. This directly criticizes the Confucian orthodoxy that places high emphasis on rigid social structure. Du and Liu’s story implies that love and human emotion can eventually overcome the barrier of social class and lead to true happiness. Tang brings up a fresh view that it is human passion that shapes human relations and destinies. The emphasis on the inner sphere of the main characters highlights the importance of emotion, which is also connected with the constant debate between Qing and Li in present Chinese society. The struggle between Qing and Li is a timeless theme that enables the play to connect to both past and present.

Connections with the Class

The Peony Pavilion is connected to the concepts and performers we have learned in class in various ways. Kenneth Pai’s combination of traditional Kunqu with western elements in his production is similar to Jay Chou’s work. One of the most popular Taiwanese musicians, Jay Chou is known for his unique style or Chou’s Style. His music is an innovative combination of Chinese and Western music with a fusion of western R&B, hip hop style and distinct Chinese music style. While the music structure of the song is western, the lyrics are often written in the form of ancient Chinese poetry, as seen in his song “Blue and White Porcelain” and “An Herbalist’s Manual” (Jay Chou Presentation, 03/07/2016). Interestingly, both Pai and Jay Chou’s works start in Taiwan and become extremely popular in mainland China. The inclusion of Chinese traditional elements in their works awaken the sense of China’s cultural past to foster nationalism in Chinese audience while the addition of western influence makes their works more popular among the younger generation. Both Kenneth Pai and Jay Chou innovatively combine western music structure with Chinese traditional elements in their works, which enables them to stand out among other artists and contributes to their popularity in China.

Kenneth Pai and Jay Chou’s innovative works are connected to the “dynamic inheritance” concept we learned about when talking about Chinese traditional dances. The concept of dynamic inheritance does not advocate the preservation of local folk culture but emphasizes on developing and modernizing traditional dance forms to fit the tastes of contemporary audience. An example would be Dai Ailian and her development of Chinese folk dance forms. Through collection (zhouji) and organization (zhengli), Dai conducts research on authentic folk dance forms and innovates modernized dance moves based on the traditional local dance form. Her work demonstrates the inseparable connection between tradition and modernity. This concept applies to the role of Pai as he preserves the original Kunqu practices while developing it to fit the tastes of a new generation of audience. Even though Pai’s adaptation is the abridged version of the Tang’s play, he preserves the original plot and techniques, such as sleeve dance movement, costume and set design, to revive the cultural value of the play to ensure its authenticity. At the same time, he adds western instruments and relatively young cast to modernize the play and appeal to younger audience. Through the play, Pai is able to inherit the essential elements of Kunqu while modifying it to bring his work on a larger stage, illustrating the concept of dynamic inheritance.

The major themes of The Peony Pavilion are also seen in other forms of opera, such as the Yue Opera Aspiration Sky High. Even though Aspiration Sky High is another form of regional opera originated in Zhejiang Province, but Hedda or the protagonist is similar to Du Liniang’s character in The Peony Pavilion. Both Hedda and Du Liniang are from elite families that are bound to strict Confucian orthodoxy. Hedda’s name translated into Chinese means high aspiration and strong ambition. The Yue Opera highlights her independence and ambition. But living under the patriarchal Chinese society, Haida is oppressed in her marriage and is unable to fulfill her love and desire, illustrating the irony behind her name. Similar to Du Liniang, Haida is determined to challenge the traditional role of woman and pursue her passion for love. Contrasted with the happy ending of The Peony Pavilion, Haidda’s struggle with the patriarchal society was not as successful as Du Liniang. After being threatened by Master Bai and the experiencing the death of her loved one, Haida commits suicide by stabbing herself with a sword. The red dress she wears during her death scene not only portrays her tragic death but also her desire and passion for love that is unfortunately constrained by the male-dominated Chinese society. Through Haida and Du Liniang, both operas transform a romantic love story into a social commentary on the role of woman in Chinese society, connecting the romantic story plot with Chinese cultural context.


Figure 3: Kenneth Pai (Center) with the two young lead actors of The Peony Pavilion during an interview in China.


Kenneth Pai’s The Young Lovers’ Edition of The Peony Pavilion creates powerful influence in both China and the world. Through effectively synthesizing traditional Kunqu practices with modernized elements, Pai demonstrates the time-transcending significance and increases the global influence of the play. He remains faithful to the original play by keeping the traditional Kunqu singing and dance movements to highlight the inner emotion (Qing) of the characters. But he also modifies the music with the addition of western instruments and emphasizes on Du Liniang’s character to highlight the central themes of the play, making the play more suited to modern audience. Through the romantic love story between Du and Liu, the play reflects on the role of woman in China and challenges the society’s emphasis on rationality (Li) over emotion (Qing) as the couple’s passionate love triumphs the barrier of social class and classical Confucian values. These themes can be apply to both ancient and modern society which highlights the timelessness of the play. With various connections to the materials taught in class, it is unquestionable that Kenneth Pai’s work has made a significant contribution to the cultural values of Kunqu Opera and Tang Xianzu’s masterpiece.




Relevant Links

The following two links are the western reviews of The Young Lovers’ Edition of The Peony Pavilion performed on the University of California, Berkeley campus:




Emigh, John, Martin Banham, and James R. Brandon. “The Cambridge Guide to World Theatre.” Asian Theatre Journal 8.1 (1991): 92. Web.


Lam, Andrew. “The Deaths and Lives of The Peony Pavilion.” Cal Alumni Association. Web.


Lei, Daphne Pi-Wei. Alternative Chinese Opera in the Age of Globalization: Performing Zero. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.


Zeitlin, Judith T. “My Year of Peonies.” Asian Theatre Journal 19.1 (2002): 124-33. Web.