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The Peony Pavilion

Title: The Peony Pavilion: A Novel
Author: Xiaoping Yen
ISBN-13: 978-0-9665421-2-7
ISBN-10: 0966542126
Order No. 1002
Size: 5.5 x 8.5
256 pages with 8 illustrations
Pub Year: 1999
Price: $16.95
20% off: $13.56




    A sixteen-year-old girl visits a forbidden garden and falls in love with a young man she meets in a dream. She has an affair with her dream-lover and dies longing for him. After death, her unflagging spirit continues to wait for her dream-lover. Does her lover really exist? Can a youthful love born of a garden dream ever blossom?

    Based on a famous sixteenth-century Chinese opera (now a major Lincoln Center Festival production) written by Tang Xianzu, "the Shakespeare of China," the novel leads the reader into a mythical world of passion and romance. Its many fascinating characters include a failed scholar, a Taoist nun, a husband and wife rebel team, a dissolute emperor, and Tartar invaders from the North.


    "A canonic work?one of the most venerable and refined forms of Chinese opera."
    -- New York Times

    "No soap opera; it's a Chinese love story ?that evokes the subdued sensuality of Ming Dynasty romance."
    -- Washington Post

    "A masterpiece of China's kunju opera."
    -- Los Angeles Times



    • Author:
      Xiaoping Yan
      Xiaoping Yen teaches composition and literature at City University of New York. From 1981 to 1989 he taught English at East China Normal University in Shanghai, China. He earned a Ph.D. degree from Syracuse University in 1994. With his China background and American experience, Dr. Yen has written a book that best keeps Tang Xianzu's spirit while making it more enjoyable for readers of a different culture.


    Chapter Seven

    THE UNDERWORLD was a horrifying place. Every day after the bugle blew three times, guards would come into the prison with a list. They opened cell doors and dragged out people whose names were on the list. The prisoners who were dragged out beseeched, implored, and pleaded with the guards, but the stony-faced guards never let go of anyone.

    Those dragged out of their cells were hauled into a cave painted blood red at one end of the corridor. Then from the cave would come blood-curdling screams that could last for hours. No one ever came back from the cave.

    "Are we all going to end like that?" Liniang asked her next door neighbor one day, pointing at the cave.

    "Pray we go to the other cave," the elderly woman pointed to a yellow stone gate on the other end of the corridor.

    "What's the difference?"

    "If you go through the yellow gate, you're going to live again."

    "Live again?" Liniang asked incredulously.

    "Yes," her neighbor nodded her head, her eyes filled with a glimmer of hope.

    "As humans?" Liniang asked hopefully.

    "As humans, or as animals, depending on the way you lived your last life."

    "But I haven't seen anyone go through the yellow door. Everyone went to the red cave there."

    "Pray, young lady, pray."

    Liniang had spent almost three years in her cell praying. Then finally, one day, after the bugle blew three times, a guard with a list came to her door.

    Fear and hope rose simultaneously in her.

    "Let me go to the yellow cave," she prayed her last prayer and readied herself.


    The yellow cave was very large. Candles flickered on many ledges, giving the cave a bright look compared with the gloom in the prison cells.

    Judge Hu of the Tenth Circuit Court was a bony old man with a sparse beard. He had just come back from a very long vacation, but he was already depressed by the prospect of work.

    "How much of a backlog do I have?" he asked his chief clerk impatiently.

    "Your Honor," the chief clerk, a short man as bony as the judge, answered, "over the three years when you were away, our officers snatched four hundred fifteen sinners. I have already disposed of those sinners with a history of mortal transgressions."

    "Very good," the judge nodded his head.

    "Now we have one hundred fifty-six sinners left. Since they have committed only venial offenses, I am awaiting your decision as to what form of reincarnation to give them."

    "One hundred fifty-six cases for me to decide?" the judge frowned. "I will handle four cases today."

    The chief clerk thumbed through his file. "Of the first four prisoners, three are male and one female. The male prisoners have been making all sorts of protests in prison."

    "Call the male prisoners," the judge ordered.

    "Call the male prisoners," the clerk blew a bugle and repeated the judge's order.

    From a narrow tunnel behind a protruding rock in the left of the courthouse came out two fiends, one with a horse-head and the other with a buffalo-head. They were followed by three totally naked prisoners. For a short moment, the candlelight dazed the prisoners, so they covered their eyes. When their eyes adjusted, they filed before the judge, and bowed.

    "What's your name?" the judge asked the first prisoner.

    "My name is Chang the Eldest."

    "For what offense were you punished with death?"

    "I was guilty of no offense, Your Honor," the prisoner protested.

    "Why are you here then?"

    "Ask them," Chang pointed at the fiends angrily. "They dragged me here for no reason."

    "Your Honor," the horse-headed fiend answered, "the prisoner was fond of drinking. Three years ago, at his fiftieth birthday, I saw him totally drunk and collapsed on the floor, but he was still demanding more wine. So I choked him and brought him here."

    "Is that right, Chang the Eldest?" the judge asked.

    "Yes," the man answered. "I begged the ugly creature to at least let me finish the drink, but he was rude and impatient."

    "Stand aside," the judge ordered. He then turned to the second prisoner. "What was your offense?"

    "My name is Ling the Handsome," the second prisoner answered. "I committed no offense."

    The judge turned to the fiends. The buffalo-headed fiend stepped forward.

    "This young prisoner liked to indulge himself in the local brothel," the fiend began. "Three years ago, after he finished with one prostitute, he started with a second one called 'the Powdered Bosom.' So I kicked him in the loins and dragged him here."

    "You evil creature," the young prisoner cursed at the fiend. "You made me crush onto the most delicate sister in the brothel, crushing I don't know how many delicate ribs of hers."

    "Stand aside," the judge ordered the young man and turned to the last male prisoner.

    "My name is Wang the Monkey," the prisoner volunteered. "I was guilty of an offense."

    "What was that?" the judge asked.

    "I practiced sodomy."

    "Your Honor, even in his dark prison cell, he's been ogling Ling the Handsome all the time," the chief clerk added.

    "Let the prisoners hear the verdict," the judge stared at the prisoners for a few minutes and announced.

    "Kneel," the chief clerk shouted at the three men.

    They knelt.

    "I found all of you guilty of behavior detrimental to the good order and morality of society."

    The three men started to cry.

    "Our officers were justified in terminating your lives as humans," he further announced.

    The crying became louder and angrier.

    "I sentence you to be reborn as flying creatures," the judge pronounced.

    "Oh, no, we want to be humans, not flying creatures." The three naked men started to run amok in the courtroom, yelling and cursing, until they were subdued by the fiends.

    Ignoring the prisoners, the judge continued his sentence. "Since Chang the Eldest likes to drink, he shall be an oriole. Since Ling the Handsome spent his money on prostitutes, he shall be a butterfly..."

    Wang the Monkey, kowtowing, begged the judge, "Let me be a butterfly too, so I can be with Ling the Handsome."

    "You are the sodomite," the judge answered. "You should be a bee and have a sting in your backside."

    "Oh, my dear, what can I do with a sting?" Wang the Monkey wailed.

    "Thank His Honor, and off with you now," the chief clerk yelled.

    "Please, Your Honor, let me become a butterfly," Wang the Monkey pleaded. "If you make me into a bee, I'll come back here and sting your big and bony head."

    "That's enough. Off with you all. Fly away, quick!" The judge banged his gavel three times.

    The prisoners instantly froze and metamorphosed one by one into an oriole, a butterfly, and a bee. They circled the courtroom several time and finally flew away into a dark crevice.


    "What is the female prisoner charged with?" the judge asked the chief clerk after the flying creatures were all gone.

    "She is charged with free love."

    "Call the female prisoner," the judge ordered.

    Liniang came into the court. One hand covering her breasts and the other hand covering her lower belly, she looked mortified. But at the same time, she was happy that she had gone through the yellow gate and finally had a chance at reclaiming her human life.

    "Oh, my heaven, what an unearthly beauty," the judge grabbed the candle on his table and shone it on Liniang. His eyes transfixed on her.

    Embarrassed, Liniang lowered her head, "Your Honor, please."

    "I am sorry, your prettiness. I couldn't help myself," he apologized to Liniang.

    The chief clerk, seeing his boss's interest, whispered in his ear. "If you like her, sir, why don't you keep her as your concubine?"

    "Be my matchmaker," the judge told the chief clerk, his eyes still on Liniang.

    The clerk drew Liniang aside and whispered, "Congratu-lations, young lady. The judge wants you to be his concubine."

    Liniang lowered her head, "I'm flattered, but I can't."

    "You refuse to accept his proposal?" the chief clerk was surprised. He could not imagine why a prisoner whose fate depended on the good will of the judge would flatly refuse such an opportunity.

    "Yes, sir. I'm sorry."

    "Don't be stupid, young lady," the clerk admonished Liniang. Then he lowered his voice further. "If I were you, I would live with the old man for a few years. When he got bored with me, I would then ask the old man to give back my human life. I'm giving you this advice because I like you, young lady."

    "Thank you very much, sir, but I can't."

    "You can't refuse him," the clerk was annoyed by Liniang's stubbornness. "He can burn you, he can slice you, he can hammer you, he can grind you, or he can turn you into the lowest life form."

    "Please don't do it to me," Liniang begged.

    "Then be his concubine."

    "I can't," Liniang again shook her head.

    The chief clerk turned to the judge, "Sir, maybe I should take the young lady on a tour of the red cave."

    "Why can't you be my concubine, my prettiness?" the judge asked Liniang. He looked deeply hurt. "Am I too old?"

    The judge's hair was completely white, his face was deeply wrinkled, and his head shook sideways as he spoke. To Liniang, he looked at least in his eighties. But Liniang was too clever to speak her mind. "No, you look young to me."

    "Am I too ugly?"

    "No, Your Honor. You are very attractive."

    "Then why can't you accept my proposal?"

    "I am in love, Your Honor."

    "In love? With whom?"

    "With a man I met in my back garden. He was very affectionate and loving."

    "Did your parents approve of him?"

    "My parents did not know of it."

    "You had a liaison with a man before the holy ceremony of marriage and without the consent of your parents-this is free love, a very serious offense, my prettiness," the judge said sternly.

    "Your Honor, all that happened in a dream," Liniang pleaded.

    "In a dream?" The judge turned to his chief clerk. "Don't tell me our officers are snatching up pretty young girls just because they had an amorous dream?"

    "What was your justification?" the clerk turned to the horse-headed fiend that was standing beside him.

    "Your Honor," the fiend answered, "this young lady had a dream in the garden, which was morally repugnant but not a criminal offense. However, after the dream, she pined away, visiting the garden everyday, rain or shine. That surely was a flagrant disregard of maidenly virtues."

    The judge nodded his head. "Although you are not guilty of free love as charged," he told Liniang, "you are guilty of self-indulgence. Accept my proposal, or I'll have to turn you into a flying creature."

    "Please give back my life," Liniang pleaded with the judge, "and let me wait for him in my garden."

    "Wait for him in your garden?" the judge laughed hilariously. "What makes you think that the man you dreamed of in your garden dream will reappear in your garden?"

    "He asked me to wait, and I believe him."

    "You are crazy, my prettiness," the judge told Liniang.

    "Crazy or not, please give me a chance," Liniang begged the judge with tears in her eyes.

    The judge hesitated. He knew it was a ridiculous idea, but he hated to disappoint a pretty and earnest girl who had just told him that he looked young and attractive.

    "May I remind Your Honor of a tradition here?" Irked at the female prisoner's disregard for his advice, the clerk whispered to the judge. "Anyone who is guilty of self-indulgence, no matter how minor it is, cannot get his former life back. He has to be reincarnated into a lower life form."

    "Shut up," the judge pushed his chief clerk away from him. "I am the judge and I decide as I see fit."

    "Of course, Your Honor," the chief clerk retreated, his face red with embarrassment.

    "Well, my beauty, I shall give you a chance on one condition," the judge told Liniang.

    "What is it, Your Honor?"

    "Your spirit will have one year to roam freely in your former residence and the attached garden. If, during the time period, you meet the man of your dream and you two unite in holy matrimony, I shall let your spirit return to your body. If not, you have to willingly and happily become my concubine."

    Liniang wavered. She was not sure whether the man in her dream would ever appear again, but the judge's offer seemed to be her only opportunity.

    "What do you say?" the judge urged her.

    "I accept your proposal," Liniang told the judge.

    "Very good."

    "Kneel," the clerk yelled at Liniang, sore that she got a better deal than the one he had brokered.

    Liniang knelt and thanked the judge for his generosity.

    "Get up, young beauty. I like it better when you are standing." As if it were only an afterthought, the judge added, "By the way, every morning when roosters crow, you must come here to report to this court on your progress."

    "Can I put on something when I come to report?" Liniang asked bashfully.

    "A spirit has no worldly possession, at least not in this court," Judge Hu gazed at Liniang for a few seconds and burst into a hearty laughter.

    "Treat this wandering spirit well and make sure that her body remains intact and fresh in the grave," the judge ordered his chief clerk. "Remember she will be my favorite concubine in one year."


    After Liniang agreed to his condition, Judge Hu allowed her to wait in a guest cave adjacent to his court for the nightfall.

    The guest cave was as dark and damp as her prison cell, but there at least she could stand up and pace the floor, something she could never do in her little prison cave. Besides, it was a quiet place. She heard no terrified wailing of pain from tortured inmates.

    But time ticked by very slowly, more slowly than in her prison cell. From time to time, she asked a thin and tall guard in a bright red uniform, who squatted by the door because the roof was not high enough for him, what time it was. The guard would shake his head, without an answer or a word of explanation.

    After a long time, she heard a bugle blowing, one, two, three, four, five times. Suddenly, the court was filled with noise. Grotesque creatures of all shapes and sizes appeared from nooks and crannies she had not known existed. They greeted one another, bickered over work assignments, and laughed over jokes Liniang did not understand.

    "What disgusting creatures," Liniang couldn't help but exclaim.

    "Shh, young lady," the guard, who had not spoken for the whole day, unexpectedly told Liniang. "Unfavorable descriptions of officers on duty are a misdemeanor punishable with thirty days in jail."

    Liniang had enough of the jail in the underworld. She didn't want any more of it. "When I say disgusting, I actually meant lovely," she corrected herself hastily.

    "Flattering officers is also a misdemeanor," the guard told her curtly.

    "I am sorry. I'll just shut up," Liniang apologized.

    "All day long, you wanted to leave. Now that it is time for you to leave, you want to talk. Do you know I have a wife and two kids who are waiting for me at the dinner table?" the guard grumbled.

    "I am sorry. I didn't mean to delay you."

    The guard impatiently brushed off her apologies. "Here is your passport. Remember to come back after the first cockcrow." Quickly taking off his bright red uniform, he rushed off into one of the numerous tunnels that connected the courtroom with other parts of the underworld.

    Liniang looked at her passport and suddenly wondered how she was supposed to leave the underworld and get back to her house. Holding her passport tightly, she walked out of the guest cave nervously. There was no one to ask except the ugly-looking fiends.

    "Excuse me, officers," she asked nervously.

    The creatures ignored her. They carried on their conversa-tions as if they had not seen her or heard her.

    Liniang rushed along the edges of the cave that housed the courthouse. There were at least a dozen tunnels. None of them was marked, and all of them were dark and unfathomable.

    Liniang was desperate. She wanted to get out of the underworld immediately and did not want to wait for the judge until tomorrow.

    Then she saw the fiends lining up at one of the larger tunnels and crawling into it one by one. She waited patiently until all of them were out of the courthouse. Then she followed them.

    The tunnel was narrow and dark. But the fiends seemed to be very familiar with the terrain, and Liniang soon lost track of them. Without their noise to lead the way, Liniang had to pick her way very carefully with her hands.

    Finally, Liniang saw a dim light coming into the tunnel. As she crawled closer to the light, she saw a dark blue night sky studded with stars. The tunnel ended in the middle of a vertical cliff. Holding tightly onto a rock, Liniang looked down into the valley beneath the cliff. Everything was cloaked in darkness and silence. Only ominous shadows of bats seemed to exist in this valley. Liniang almost fainted.

    "How can I get out of here?" Liniang sat down at the edge of the opening, frustrated.

    Suddenly, a strong wind blew up from inside the tunnel. The current rushed out toward the night sky, blowing dirt and pebbles with it. Liniang held tightly to the rock. But the wind grew stronger, and Liniang felt that she was losing grip of the rock. Finally, a violent gust wrestled Liniang out of the tunnel and into the air.

    "Help!" Liniang yelled.

    The current seemed to have come out of the tunnel with her. As she tumbled down through the thin air, she suddenly hit the soft cushions of the gust. It surged below her and buoyed her up. She started to fly effortlessly toward the direction where the moon was.

    The journey did not take long. Before Liniang had time to figure out what was happening, she saw the city of Nan'an, the hill, the river, the estate house, and the back garden.

    "I'm home," she cried happily.

    Soon, she found herself hovering over the clearing amid the plum trees in the back garden where the willow man had taken her. Before she died, she had asked her mother to bury her here. Now she could see a marble tombstone shining in the moonlight.

    It was a night with a bright moon and a gentle breeze. A sweet scent of incense drifted up from her grave and two human forms were praying in front of it amid candles of light and among overgrown grass and bushes.

    "They must be my mother and Fragrance, my maid," Liniang told herself.

    Hovering closer, however, Liniang recognized the older woman as her mother's friend, Sister Stone, who had come to the estate on the day of her death to burn a pyramid of willow trees. Beside Sister Stone was a young and slender woman, who was also in a Taoist garb, but Liniang could not recognize who she was.

    Liniang was disappointed that the two women were not her mother and Fragrance, but she was nonetheless grateful to Sister Stone and her companion.

    "Hello, sisters," Liniang alighted on her tombstone and greeted them.

    The two women did not seem to see her or hear her; they continued to pray.

    "I'm a spirit, and I'm invisible to mortal eyes," Liniang suddenly realized.

    Liniang flew to the pavilion. Its floor was covered with layers of leaves, one of its side walls had collapsed, but the peony shrubs that surrounded the pavilion were growing as healthily as ever. She picked several leaves and flew back to her grave. There she scattered a few leaves onto the two kneeling women.

    The descending leaves surprised the nuns. Looking up and around, the young woman asked Sister Stone, "How did the peony leaves come here in a gentle breeze?"

    "I don't know, Sister Shy," Sister Stone answered in bewilderment. "I have been taking care of the grave since Madam Du left for Yangzhou, but I have never seen this happen."

    Liniang now knew why her mother was not at her grave. "Thank you, sisters," she threw the rest of the leaves onto the nuns.

    The two women were silent for a moment. Then the young nun said, "Liniang's spirit must be present today and she must be showing her appreciation."

    "Yes," Liniang answered, and she flew to the pavilion again, picked a few more leaves, and dropped them over the two nuns.

    As the third wave of leaves fluttered down, the two women looked up in wonder, their faces pious and devout.


    Liniang was happy that on her first night out of the underworld, she was able to witness such respect for her. She was also happy that she was able to communicate her presence to the two good nuns.

    "I need to get my self-portrait," she suddenly remembered.

    Flying to the main house, she saw the oak door padlocked and all the windows closed.

    "I am a spirit now," Liniang told herself. "I must be able to walk into the house even if it is locked."

    Anyway, was that what all the ghost stories she had heard said? A ghost should be able to walk into any house. Assuring herself, Liniang took a few steps back, eyed the door intently and rushed at it.

    Uncertain of the truthfulness of the ghost stories, Liniang expected a painful collision. But there was no collision. Instead, she flew through the door as painlessly and effortlessly as she flew through the air. Besides, although the center hall was pitch dark, she could see everything clearly as if she had an owl's vision.

    Liniang hurried into her own apartment. She went through all the rooms. They were all dark and empty, void of any human presence. All she smelled was the stale smells of past years. There were no more scents of shrubs, flowers, and herbs that Fragrance had been so fond of.

    She opened the chest of drawers in her bedroom. In the top drawer, she saw the rosewood box. Opening the box and unrolling the scroll, she saw her self-portrait smiling at her. Liniang wiped a tear off her face and smiled back at the portrait.

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