EXCERPT FROM THE NOVEL: CHAPTER 7 (THE
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.
TANG XIANZU'S THE PEONY PAVILION
"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
|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
FROM THE NOVEL: CHAPTER 7 (THE UNDERWORLD)
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?" 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
"How much of a backlog do I have?" he asked his chief
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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.
"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
"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
"Thank His Honor, and off with you now," the chief clerk
"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
"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,
"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
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
"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
"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
"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.
"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
"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 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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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.