Asia-PacificBeijing Letter

‘You’ll cry next time’: a night to remember at the Chinese opera

Beijing Letter: A moving performance at the city’s 300-year-old wooden theatre

The Peony Pavilion is the most famous work of Kunqu opera by the Ming Dynasty playwright Tang Xianzu. Photograph: Pedro Martin González Castillo/Getty Images

The stage was empty as a single figure moved across it, dressed in a full-length, pale green robe with white sleeves long enough to reach the floor. Her intricately embroidered headdress had ribbons on either side stretching almost to her feet and in her hand was a fan, which she opened to reveal a painting of flowers on a gold background.

Just offstage to her right but visible to much of the audience was a small band playing a bamboo flute, a two-stringed fiddle, a Chinese lute, a gong, cymbals and a clapper. Closing the fan and tracing a circle in the air with it, the woman onstage began to sing and my friend tapped me on the knee.

“Tissues, tissues,” he said, a tear gleaming on his cheek.

We were in the Zhengyici Theatre, a 300-year-old wooden theatre in one of Beijing’s hutongs, or alleys, believed to be the oldest surviving building of its kind in China. The show was The Peony Pavilion, the most famous work of Kunqu opera by the Ming Dynasty playwright Tang Xianzu.


Tang was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s and The Peony Pavilion has been compared to Romeo and Juliet on account of its themes of love, death and destiny. Played in full it can run to 22 hours but most performances, including this one, feature only a selection of scenes.

“You have to identify with the female character Du Liniang, otherwise you won’t get it,” my friend told me over a hotpot before the show.

He reckoned that he had seen The Peony Pavilion at least 15 times and he knew some of Du Liniang’s arias by heart, one of which he sang while we ate. His performance included the elaborate, stylised gestures associated with the role, to the indulgent amusement of those around us.

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One of the oldest forms of Chinese opera, kunqu flourished during the Ming Dynasty between the 14th and 17th centuries but fell into decline under the succeeding Qing Dynasty. Peking opera, the form introduced to a global audience through the 1993 film Farewell My Concubine, became dominant in the 19th century although regional variations survived throughout China.

Sponsored by the imperial court, Peking opera often focused on public morality, serving almost as an educational tool in the emperor’s interest. Kunqu opera, on the other hand, was more concerned with human relationships and the interior life of the individual.

Kept alive by a handful of dedicated performers during the first half of the 20th century, Kunqu opera was thriving in 1966 when the Cultural Revolution began. For the next 10 years traditional Chinese opera was banned as only eight model dramas, all with revolutionary themes, were allowed to be performed.

During that time, no performers were trained and the audience lost the habit of going to the opera in mainland China. It was left to performers in Hong Kong and Taiwan to keep the art alive until the reopening under Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s.

Kunqu combines song, dance, gesture and the spoken word delivered in a falsetto recitative. The arias are sung to a limited number of traditional melodies, accompanied by an intricate pattern of stylised gestures and dance movements.

In The Peony Pavilion, 17-year-old Du Liniang takes a walk in the garden where she is entranced by its beauty and when she returns home falls asleep and drifts into a dream. In her dream, she meets a young scholar called Liu Mengmei in the garden and they fall in love and she remains preoccupied with him when she wakes up.

Unable to get her mind off him, Du Liniang wastes away and dies, unaware that he has been having the same dream about her. She remains a restless spirit in the afterlife and the judge of the underworld allows her to return to Earth as a ghost to meet her dream lover.

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When she meets him, they spend some time together as lovers but they cannot fulfil their destiny as long as she remains a ghost. So Lei Mengmei digs up her body, opens up her coffin and she comes back to life so that they can live happily ever after.

As we left the theatre, I asked my friend what had made him cry and he told me it was the scene when Du Liniang returned to the garden after she woke up from her dream.

“The garden is the same but her lover is not there and she realises she can’t have him but she will always have the feeling for him she had in the dream,” he said.

“They say about this scene that the first time you see it you sleep through it but after you get to know The Peony Pavilion it makes you cry. You’ll cry next time.”