Setting the scene – A Macao-inspired masterpiece by a Chinese playwright during the Ming dynasty

1 April 2016

A visit to the new Portuguese settlement of Macao in 1591 was the inspiration for the masterpiece of the Chinese playwright Tang Xian-zu which has been performed across the centuries up to present day.

Tang completed ‘The Peony Pavilion’ in 1598; it has 55 scenes and 403 arias. Even today it needs more than seven and a half hours to perform. In 1999, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York produced a 20-hour version of thåis masterpiece which was toured extensively, playing in Paris, Milan, Singapore, Caen, Charleston, Aarhus, Berlin, Perth and Vienna.

“Tang’s visit to Macao inspired him to include Macao as the locale on the stage in the play,” said Christina Miu Bing Cheng, a scholar and author of “Tracing Macau – Through Chinese Writers and Buddhist/Daoist Temples,” which has a chapter on the play. “Tang is considered one of the most gifted playwrights of the Ming dynasty and one of the greatest dramatists in the history of Chinese literature.”

“The Peony Pavilion is Tang’s most pro-tracted and profound meditation on the nature of love. It is the best-known and best-liked of his literary works, with beautiful verses and excellent character portrayal,” she said. “It was the first time that Macao appeared in a Chinese drama, although it had been mentioned in many poems by different poets.”

In 2016, UNESCO will hold big celebrations to honour three famous writers who have made great contributions to world cultural develop-ment, including Tang Xian-zu, Shakes-peare from England and Cervantes from Spain. Tang has also been ranked as one of the 100 international cultural celebrities.

He was a versatile and prolific writer who left behind about 2,200 poems, essays and verse essays, in addition to four plays. He gained success in literature and enjoyed popularity as a drama-tist in his lifetime, unlike many who achieved fame only after their death; he even personally directed the actors performing his plays.

The Script Road – Macau Literary Festival paid tribute to Tang this year, the 400th anni-versary of his death.  Tang will also be honoured at the 27th Macao Arts Festival, organised by the Cultural Affairs Bureau, in May. His romantic tragedy, ‘The Purple Hairpin,’ adapted by the playwright Tang Ti-shen in the mid-1950s, will be performed by the renowned Macao Cantonese Opera artist Chu Cha Wa and by local Cantonese opera artists, offering the audience a unique opportunity to explore the masterpiece in depth.

Dramatic Life

Tang was born in 1550 into a genteel family in Linchuan, Jiangxi province in southeast China. He showed extraordinary talent from early childhood; he passed the imperial examination at the county level at the age of 14 and at the provincial level at 21. In 1583, he succeeded in gaining the title of Advanced Scholar at national level. This enabled Tang to obtain a post in the Imperial Sacrifice in Nanjing in 1584. During his first five years, he wasn’t very busy and found the time to complete his first play, ‘The Purple Hairpin,’ in 1587.

In 1589, he was appointed Secretary at the Bureau of Sacrifices in the Ministry of Rites. In early 1591, he submitted a petition to Emperor Shenzong, in which he criticised the poor administration of the court and widespread corruption among officials.

“He was in his early 40s, ambitious and wanted to change things. He did not have the calculating nature of someone older,” said Cheng. The petition was fatal to his official career.

He was banished from the capital Nanjing in the fifth lunar month of 1591. He returned to his home in Linchuan where he lay ill for four months. Then, in the ninth lunar month, he began the journey to Guangdong. In the 10th month, he reached Guangzhou and took the chance to see nearby places, including Xiangshan and Macao. During the 11th lunar month, he reached Xuwen county to take up the post of a clerk; Xuwen is in the far south of Guangdong province, opposite Hainan island. For an intelligent and ambitious official like Tang, it was a banishment of the worst kind. This remote place was far from the centre of power and his position very humble.

Macao, which had become an overseas settlement of the Portuguese empire in 1557 was an eye-opening experience.

For the first time in his life, Tang came across the luxurious merchandise from the West and Southeast Asia that was for sale there; he was impressed by the exquisite bric-a-brac that were totally foreign to him. He also saw for the first time the ‘western barbarians’ – the merchants in their elegant suits.

The sight inspired him to write a poem “The Encounter of Foreign Traders in Xiangshan Ao (Macao)”:

They neither stay in fields and gardens nor grow mulberrry trees,

Handsomely attired, they arrive here by the great carracks.

Pearls from the sea glitter like twinkling stars,

White jades by the riverbank shine like the mellow moonlight.

Peony Pavilion

The time in Macao also inspired him to incorporate Macao into ‘The Peony Pavilion’, in the style of a dramatic romance.  An adaptation of ‘The Peony Pavilion – Peony My Beauty’ was performed by the Foshan Cantonese Opera Troupe in Macao on the 6th of March 2016 as part of the Script Road.

The play is an eccentric love story about Du Li-niang and Liu Meng-mei. Du is the 16-year-old daughter of a magistrate from Nanan, Jiangxi; Liu is a brilliant scholar of 20 years, from Guangdong. Li-niang has a dream in which she meets a young man and they consummate their love in the Peony Pavilion. When she wakes up, she is haunted by the dream and pines for love. She soon dies of lovesickness. The man in her dream is Meng–mei; he finally marries her after her miraculous resurrection.

“Macao plays a part in the story,” said Cheng. “Liu was a poor student supported only by a servant for a living. In scene six, he visits a friend in Guangzhou who advises him to go to Macao to look for a patron. This he does and was able to find an Imperial Envoy who liked him. So his career was able to advance. Without that support in Macao, he would have had no chance to gain the financial aid needed to go to the capital for the examination. Macao was a stepping stone for his success.”

But, despite its great length comprising 55 scenes, Macao seldom appears in the per-formance.

Cheng first saw the play performed in Kunju style, one of the main forms of Chinese opera on the stage in 2006. “It was so long that it ran for three nights, each two hours and a half, at the Cultural Centre in Kowloon.  It was so popular that the theatre was fully packed for three nights.”

“The director was Pai Hsien-yung from Taiwan. He chose a young actor and actress to play the two main characters, who were better suited for the passionate love scenes of the play than the older actors usually chosen,” she said.

Tang himself wrote in a dense literary style, full of allusions and metaphors, that most people then and now perhaps cannot fully understand. So, after his death, this play was adapted to Kunju style, making it more comprehensible to the public.

“In Kunju style, the melodies and singing tones are smooth and mellow, very different to Beijing and Cantonese opera,” said Cheng.

Brave writer

The plot – a passionate love story – was against the rigid conventions of the Neo-Confucian society of Tang’s era. “Neo-Confucianism stressed reason. That was prevailing. To get around this, Tang wrote scenes: one was in a dream and the other in the netherworld, where you could do things not allowed in the real world. In scene 28, in the netherworld, the heroine seduces the main character. It was very daring.”

This is how Tang himself described the power of love: “love is of source unknown, yet it grows ever deeper. The living may have died of it, by its power the dead live again. Love is not love at its fullest if one who lives is unwilling to die for it, or if it cannot restore to life one who has so died. And must the love that comes in dream necessarily be unreal? For there is no lack of dream lovers in the world. Only for those whose love must be fulfilled on the pillow and for whom affection deepens only after retirement from office, is it entirely a corporeal matter.”

The play has about 160 characters, providing a panorama of the social life at that time. They include elite literati and a Buddist abbot to foreign traders and an interpreter; the Tartar King and his generals; a Daoist nun, a grave digger, ruffians and prostitutes, a flower fairy from heaven and the Judge of Hell.

The settings for the action are also extremely varied – including a bed-chamber, a courtroom in hell, a prison cell, a brothel, a river, a mountain, a military ship and the imperial court.

In scene 21, entitled ‘An Audience with the Envoy’, Macao is the centre of attention; Liu Meng-mei is shown all kinds of treasures from abroad.

Fame after his death

Tang’s fame has grown since his death in 1616. In the first half of the 20th century, the study of his works became a university subject.

In 1999, during the 50th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, The Peony Pavilion was performed. In 2000, an international symposium was held in Tang’s birthplace, Linchuan, commemorating his 450th birthday. His works have been translated into Japanese, German, French, Russian and English.

With the hindsight of history, we can say that his demotion from high office – a terrible blow to him at the time – was a blessing for us. It meant that, for the rest of his life, he devoted his energies not to his career but to his literary creations. They have been enjoyed by millions of people over the five centuries since.

And they brought to people all over China the news of the existence of Macao. (Macao Magazine, text by Mark O’Neill, photos by Cheong Kam Ka and courtesy of Christina Miu Beng Cheng and illustration by Fernando Chan)