Dying for Love in the Peony Pavilion and Romeo and Juliet

By Qingjun, Li | Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Annual 2005 | Go to article overview

Dying for Love in the Peony Pavilion and Romeo and Juliet


Qingjun, Li, Southeast Review of Asian Studies


Introduction

The Peony Pavilion and Romeo and Juliet are two extraordinary canonical works about feverish love on the international stage of drama. The Peony Pavilion was written in 1598 by the famous Chinese dramatist Tang Xianzu of the Ming Dynasty. It has been referred to by some critics as the Chinese version of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, which was written just two years earlier in 1596. Tang Xianzu (1550-1617) and William Shakespeare (1564-1616), were contemporaries living in vastly different cultures. In the two works under study in this paper, the shared theme of the hero and the heroine pursuing genuine love relentlessly, even to the sacrifice of death, forms a very interesting perspective from which we can consider the way in which dying for love is presented in two significant works of Western and Eastern drama. (1)

The two texts both illustrate the universal subject of love. Both dramas depict the fervent love and burning passion of a young couple. Both texts explore the relationship between love and death and the valuable meaning created by lovers dying for love. In these two works death turns out to be the sacrifice required as the remedy for lovers who cannot have their beloved.

In this comparison of these two works I will first provide an overview of each text. (2) Then, I will reconstruct how each play utilizes the idea of dying for love, giving more extended discussion of The Peony Pavilion. After laying this groundwork, I will pursue my principal objective which is to make some comparisons about how "dying for love" is presented in the two texts. This final stage of the paper will give me an opportunity to make some concluding observations about what both authors say concerning the life-threatening and life-giving nature of love, and how this is a reflection of their different cultural and literary world views.

Overview of the Texts

The Peony Pavilion, also translated as The Return of the Soul, is called Mudan Ting [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in Chinese. Written in a beautifully poetic style, the drama revolves around the love story of Liu Mengmei [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Willow Dreaming Plum), a young scholar, and Du Liniang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the daughter of a high official in Nan'an in southern China. In a visit to the family garden at the back of the official residence, Liniang falls asleep and is approached in a dream by Mengmei, with whom she then has a romantic affair in the Peony Pavilion. Awakening from her dream, she becomes lovesick (xiangsi bing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and inconsolable in her longing for Mengmei. She eventually pines away with a broken heart in the seclusion of her maidenly chamber in spite of the efforts to save her by a female Daoist spiritual medium and her pharmacologist, Teacher Chen. Before she dies, she paints a self-portrait which is interred under a stone in the garden alongside her remains beside a plum tree. (3)

After her death, Mengmei comes into the foreground of the play. We see him on his way to the imperial examination in Hangzhou. But he falls ill at Nan'an and is given a resting-place in the Du family garden. Walking in the garden, he happens to discover Liniang's portrait and he spends many hours of longing and fond gazing at her lovely form. Immediately he develops a deep feeling that he knows the woman in the portrait from a dream in his past. One night, Liniang as a ghost appears to him and yet they are able to renew the passionate relationship they enjoyed in their shared dream in the past. At her request, Mengmei opens Liniang's coffin and she is revived because she has found her love. The two young lovers marry in a hurry. Then, worried by the news of a war that had spread to her father's new governing district, Liniang sends her husband to look for her parents, taking her portrait as an authentication of who he is. However, instead of being honored as his son-in-law, Governor Du has Mengmei arrested and accuses him of robbing Liniang's grave. …

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