|A Girl's Look-out Pavilion in Hangzhou, click for larger
In 2000, I wrote a short piece for Vogue magazine about Lincoln Center’s full-length production of The Peony Pavilion. While doing research for that article, I came across the lovesick maidens. They intrigued me, and long after I wrote the article I kept thinking about them. We usually hear that in the past there were no women writers, no women artists, no women historians, no women chefs, but of course women did these things. It’s just that too often what they did was lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up. So when I had a moment here or there, I looked up whatever I could find about the lovesick maidens and came to learn that they were part of a much larger phenomenon.
In the mid-17th century, more women writers were being published in China’s Yangzi delta than in all the rest of the world at that time. By that I mean there were thousands of women—bound-footed, often living in seclusion, from wealthy families—who were being published. Some families published a single poem written by a mother or daughter whom they wanted to commemorate or honor, but there were other women—professional women writers—who not only wrote for large public audiences but also supported their families with their written words. How could so many women have done something so extraordinary and I didn’t know about it? Why didn’t we all know? Then I came across The Three Wives’ Commentary—the first book of its kind to have been published anywhere in the world to have been written by women—three wives, no less. With that, my interest turned into an obsession.
There are several elements here—Tang Xianzu’s opera, the lovesick maidens, the history of The Three Wives’ Commentary, and the societal changes that allowed it to be written. I know they’re rather complicated and overlap a bit, so please bear with me.
# # #
Tang Xianzu set The Peony Pavilion in the Song dynasty (960-1127), but he was writing about the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), a time of artistic ferment as well as political turmoil and corruption.
In 1598, with the completion of the opera,Tang became one of the most important promoters of qing—deep emotions and sentimental love. Like all good writers, Tang wrote what he knew, but that didn’t mean the government necessarily wanted to hear it. Almost immediately, different groups advocated for the opera’s censorship, because it was considered too political and too lascivious. New versions appeared in quick succession, until eventually only a paltry eight out of the original fifty-five scenes were performed. The text suffered even worse treatment. Some versions were abridged, while others were revised or totally rewritten to fit society’s changing mores.
In 1780, during the Qianlong reign, opposition to the opera escalated and it was blacklisted as “profane.” But it wasn’t until 1868 that the Tongzhi emperor issued the first official ban, labeling The Peony Pavilion debauched and ordering all copies burned and all productions forbidden.
Censorship of the opera has continued right up to today. The Lincoln Center production was temporarily delayed when the Chinese government discovered the content of the restored scenes and barred the actors, costumes, and sets from leaving the country, showing once again that the more things change, the more they remain the same.