Asian Theatre Journal 20.1 (2003) 96-97
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This is a book of literary and philosophical criticism. It takes up two of China's most famous plays and subjects them to detailed analysis for what they say about the personal identities and social roles of the main characters as well as social institutions, especially marriage. The two plays are Mudan Ting (Peony Pavilion), written at the end of the sixteenth century by Tang Xianzu, and Kong Shangren's Taohua Shan (Peach Blossom Fan), dating from about a century later. The book is a thorough and penetrating study of the big issues of love, life and death, social values, and philosophical notions. Although the focus is on China, there are plenty of comparisons and contrasts with other civilizations, notably those of Europe. There is discussion, also, of social and political institutions—especially marriage in the case of Peony Pavilion and the imperial throne in the case of Peach Blossom Fan.
Though a production of Peony Pavilion planned for New York in July 1998 was canceled at the last minute, performances did take place in Paris and elsewhere and a complete television series was made. (See ATJ 19/1 for essays on productions of the play.) The play is immensely long—fifty-five acts—and the performances covered several days, just as might have happened when the drama was written. As a reader of the book and admirer of the Chinese theatre, I found it useful to have the performance in mind as I read the analyses. But considering that the book was actually published well after the performances, it was surprising that Tina Lu, the author, made no reference to them or to the television series.
There is no doubt that Lu has read and experienced both plays exhaustively. She has taken up the slightest nuance of characterization and wording and derived meaning from what other viewers of the play might overlook. She is certainly a master literary analyst.
Lu has read her sources thoroughly and draws on a range of material in Chinese and English, as well as a few other languages. Not surprisingly, the two plays themselves are her main source of inspiration and analysis. Even so, she makes frequent reference to dramatists and scholars outside the Chinese tradition. It is one of the book's strengths that it sets the themes of personal identity in a cross-cultural context. Shakespeare's Winter's Tale gets a good deal of analysis, with comparisons and contrasts emphasized with Peony Pavilion, separated by only a few years in its time of composition.
There are, however, occasional lapses in the thoroughness of the annotation. In quite a few places Lu cites an author without giving any specific references. In note 30 on page 328, for example, she refers to Wang Qiugui (C. K. Wang) and his work on ritual and theatre in China. Indeed, as a leading Taiwanese scholar of the Chinese theatre Wang has done an enormous amount of work on these subjects. It is a pity that Lu does not cite any of these works.
The section on Peach Blossom Fan makes frequent mention, with comparison [End Page 96] and contrast, of Peony Pavilion, but there is no consolidated discussion of the two plays. One of the main similarities between the two plays is that they are love stories in which the protagonist is the woman. Among the main differences is that Peony Pavilion is a fantasy—a romantic comedy in which two people fall in love in a dream and the woman, Du Liniang, dies and is resurrected—whereas Peach Blossom Fan is based on historical people and each scene is tightly connected with a historical time and event, reflecting reality quite closely.
Both traditions, fantasy and history, have their place in the Chinese theatre tradition; the latter is probably stronger in the late imperial period...