Because I'm a slightly perverse creature, I'm going to start this series about feminist literary icons with a one you've probably never heard of. Written by a man. Featuring a woman who dies of longing when her dreamed-of lover doesn't materialize. It has fifty-five scenes, runs for twenty hours and has been performed only a handful of times over the last century. So how on earth does a play like this get to be a literary icon of feminist interest? That's a question of a convergence of the most extraordinary historical, literary and gendered factors.
Tang Xianzu's The Peony Pavilion, (1598) or Mudan ting, enjoyed a cultish status in seventeenth-century China, remaining iconic in Chinese culture. It's the story of Du Liniang, who falls in love with a figure she meets in a dream. Unsure if he's real or not, unable to think about anything else, she dies of love at only sixteen. Liu Mengmei, a promising young scholar, finds Du's self-portrait. ("Whence comes this lovely maid portrayed in colored inks flowing clear as moonlight from brush's tip?"—isn't that gorgeous?) Realizing "that what will come to pass was already perceived in dream," Liu raises Du from the dead. The play ends happily, with the overhanging threat of Jin invasion overcome, Liu named Prize Candidate, Du reunited with her family and, of course, the young lovers married.
Because only the elite had the kind of leisure time that would allow attendance at a performance like this, Mudan ting was largely encountered in private homes, usually in abstract form. It was here that the woman reader gained access to a work that was to change how Chinese women made culture. Much of Ming and Qing women's culture revolved around an intense engagement with what they read, including responsive works. The most famous of these was the Three Wives commentary. I like to think of this culture as being a bit like fan fiction communities: a group of women take a cultural product by one in a more powerful position than they. Then they dream about it and rework it and create something amazing for themselves.
There's a lot to be said for the literary merits of Mudan ting. It's an incredible piece of writing: the scene in which Du is judged worthy to return to life features thirty-eight flower puns, typifying Tang's comedic sense and intellectual prowess. He comes out with incredible dreamy metaphors of the natural world, like "The spring a rippling thread of gossamer gleaming sinuous in the sun." But the play's appeal wasn't simply a product of this delicacy of feeling running it. There's a concept known as qing, which, as best I can put it, means essence, the raw, good force underlying humanity. Du's and Liu's relationship is understood as epitomizing qing, a love so powerful it overcomes death. Historian Dorothy Ko argues that the cult of qing and the appearance of the woman reader/writer were vital in building the play's popularity. She says in her book, Teachers of the Inner Chambers, that the "thriving publishing industry and the popularity of theater in seventeenth-century Jiangnan magnified its impact, creating a cult out of the drama itself." The play emerged at the right moment to facilitate women's making of culture.
I'm afraid that Mudan ting is hardly of feminist interest in entirely positive senses. There are numerous stories of illness and death surrounding the play. One is that an actress playing Du died of passion during a performance. There are many stories of young women who identified with Du so much that they killed themselves. What these stories, irrespective of whether they're all true or not, indicate, and where a good part of the play's status comes from, is a fascination at the time with the idea of a young woman's righteous hardship, love, and death. (If you wish to read more about this, I recommend Wilt Idema's and Beata Grant's The Red Brush: Writing Women of Imperial China). A lot of the responsive works feature early death, and as the play is considered to have inestimable impact on following works, I can't begin to imagine the impact this play has had on women's literature and, extremely sadly, lives. There's a line in the play, "Your classical exegesis has torn her heart to pieces," that springs to mind here.
There is a world of things I could say about this play, but I am running out of space. It's really cool to see a play with such respect for a young woman's sexual desires where chastity was so highly prized. Du is a tenacious character, and the play is worth reading just for her. There's a kind of desperately sad joy in her that reaches across the ages to me, and frankly I'm amazed to find a work in which the lady lead dies for her man (ugh) yet retains an independent, wonderful spirit.
If you want to pick up a copy, I always like Cyril Birch's translations. His version of The Peony Pavilion is excellent and, I'm given to understand, a beautiful and loyal rendering of the original text.