Peony Dreams

Best-Selling Chinese Author Brings a Kunqu Classic to His Hometown

Photos courtesy Hsu Pei-Hung

Few Santa Barbarans are as cool as the Empress Palace staff, so unflappable they seem balanced on the edge of the void. Even the most seasoned among them though, such as Mark Wong and owner Su Mei Luo, get flustered when Pai Hsien-Yung visits. Early last summer, Pai came into the Hong Kong-style eatery with a group of people who were working on the monumental Chinese production of The Peony Pavilion, a nine-hour, three-day Kunqu opera that will be performed in early October at the Lobero. The usually stolid waiters clustered around Pai as though he were a rock star, asking for autographs and wanting their photos taken with the great man.

Torture-1.jpgThe elegant 69-year-old Kenneth Pai, as he is known to his colleagues and students at UCSB, where he has taught Chinese language and literature for three decades, is also one of China’s most revered contemporary authors. His first novel, Crystal Boys, which dealt with the then controversial subject of homosexuality, was a huge success in Hong Kong and Taiwan where it was published in 1971, but was banned by the Communist regime on the mainland. Today, his short stories, plays, and screenplays have brought him great fame throughout all the Chinas. Described in his lengthy Wikipedia entry as the “melancholic pioneer,” he is credited with bringing modernist tendencies and complicated perspectives to Chinese literature. UCSB professor of Taiwan studies and East Asian languages Kuo-Ch’ing Tu recently said, “Kenneth Pai is probably the most famous contemporary writer in the Chinese diaspora, often mentioned in conversation among Chinese intellectuals as a potential candidate for the Nobel Prize.” But perhaps nothing has burnished his reputation and given him more satisfaction than the work he has done to revitalize the Kunqu opera.

Kunqu, translated as songs of Kun, evolved 600 years ago in the delta town of Kunshan (its namesake) and consisted at first of epic poems sung as arias and accompanied by woodwind ensembles. Later, during the Golden Age of partying, they were performed as elaborately choreographed productions, sponsored by wealthy merchants and lasting as long as a week during birthday celebrations. During the 1960s, under Chairman Mao, Kunqu and other forms of classical Chinese opera were virtually obliterated in the brutal Cultural Revolution.

WEL_5214.jpgToday, these operas are enjoying an enthusiastic renaissance in China, not in small part because of the efforts of Kenneth Pai, the quiet, dignified UCSB professor. When his translation of The Peony Pavilion first played in Beijing in 2004, the cast was surprised to see throngs of students crowding into the theater. Until then, few young people had shown any interest in classical Chinese opera. Soon it became clear that the young audience had been drawn to see this Kunqu opera because it had been produced by the famous once-censored author. When asked about his popularity in the country of his birth, Pai demurred: “It’s true hundreds of students came out to see me when I brought The Peony Pavilion; if they came because of me, but ended up liking the opera, well?” He gestured with an upward movement of his shoulders. Who could have known that living in a modest tract house in Hidden Valley, introducing legions of American students to ancient Chinese culture, was the quiet revolutionary, the melancholic pioneer, Pai Hsien-Yung?

The Journey West

Pai was born in Guilin, China, July 11, 1937. His father was a general in the Kuomintang — Chiang Kai-shek’s army — and was described by an Asian herbalist in Santa Barbara as a Chinese warlord. When the war began between China and Japan, his family moved around the country, stopping for a time in Shanghai, where Pai attended school. His first experience with Chinese literature was the historical romances told to him by the family chef. “He was a very good storyteller,” Pai remembered. “The stories were very vivid.” Later Pai devoured the martial arts tales with flying heroes. “They were like supermen. The stories I read then were from Chinese Buddhist mythology, like the Monkey King and The Journey West.” Although he was born Muslim and attended missionary Catholic schools, Pai came to embrace Buddhist meditation practices here in America. “A very complicated religious life,” he laughed.

Contracting tuberculosis when he was 7, Pai spent the next two years in bed. “I lost most of my childhood, though I read a lot. When you are left alone you want to imagine things,” said Pai, a gracious, somewhat formal man, who moved occasionally with expansive gestures and high-pitched liquid laughter. After his recuperation, he went for long walks and to the movies. “I saw Gone with the Wind. Ah, Scarlett O’Hara.” When the Japanese were defeated in World War II and the civil war raged in China between the armies of Chiang Kai-shek and Mao, Pai got his first glimpse of The Peony Pavilion.

The_Soul_Departs-2.jpg“We went to see it because there was a very famous actor, Mei Lanfang, who was a female impersonator, very famous,” Pai explained. Originally all Kunqu actors were male, much like Elizabethan thespians. “It was 1949, and we went to see her perform in one act from Peony Pavilion — titled ‘Interrupted Dream’ — and I didn’t understand the story or the words. But the spectacle and the costumes! The music is so moving!” A few years later, after Pai’s family had fled the mainland and Mao’s Red Army controlled the government, all opera was banned. “So I guess I saw the last glimmer of the ancient regime,” he said.

In Hong Kong and then Taiwan, where his family settled, Pai attended Catholic high schools, taught by rigorous Irish Jesuits. It was here that he began his love affair with literature, both English and Chinese. He read Dickens and Shakespeare, first in Chinese and then in English. He fell in love with Chinese poetry, too, especially the complexity of ancient verse, with rhymes and assonances meant to be sung. He also had teachers who encouraged him to write.

At Taiwan University, he began as an engineering student, but quickly shifted to literature, immersing himself in the Western canon — he read Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary, and Anna Karenina. But it wasn’t long before he discovered the moderns, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, which influenced Pai and his friends to put together a literary magazine. Called Modern Literature, it drew the attention of Chinese readers to the 20th century. “All the people who worked on that journal became famous writers in China,” Pai said.

He had published stories by then and also served in the military. Though he initially dreaded the army life, he came to appreciate it both for the discipline and for the view into the lives of older soldiers who had lost a war for their country — sad yet dignified men who were featured prominently in Pai’s later fiction.

In the late 1950s, though, Pai decided to become a writer the hard way. He applied to the University of Iowa writers’ program and got a scholarship. He met Beat authors and wrote only in English while there. After graduating, Pai heard of an opening at the brand-new campus in Santa Barbara. “When the plane landed it was evening, and I saw everything — all the violet color and everything was so green; I said to myself, this is the place.”

The_Emperors_Verdicts-1.jpgThough his notoriety in China is radically incongruous with the quiet life he leads in Santa Barbara, Pai has not been invisible. Finding his center here as a UCSB professor, he would teach afternoon classes and write fiction late into the night. All his works are originally written in Chinese, though many have been translated into English and other Western languages. He’s also a gourmand who loves to gossip about restaurants and cooking. He’s sharp on topics of Santa Barbara public life. And, most fortuitously, he introduced Tommy Chung of the recently departed Jimmy’s restaurant to his wife Julie. She was a teacher in Hong Kong and one of Pai’s former students at UCSB.

Now all of Santa Barbara will get a chance to see the fruits of his long labor. Pai’s production of The Peony Pavilion began its tour in Taiwan in 2004, traveled throughout China, and has had California performances at Berkeley, Irvine, and UCLA. The last stop on this two-year, 75-venue tour will be here when it opens on October 6 for three consecutive nights at the Lobero. “I’m looking forward very much to sharing this play with my hometown,” he said.

Interrupted Dreams

The Peony Pavilion, written by the Ming Dynasty poet Tang Xianzu in the same year Shakespeare’s company first mounted As You Like It, is both epic and ethereal. Many westerners have at least encountered Peking Opera, which is ritualized and exaggerated, but heavily dependent on acrobatic as well as musical interludes. There is a gestalt of dance, music, and poetry in Kunqu opera.

The Peony Pavilion tells the story of a beautiful young woman who falls asleep in a spring garden and dreams of a perfect lover. Upon waking, she finds it difficult to reconcile her disappointment and slowly succumbs, but not before leaving behind a portrait and a poem, which, of course, the same man of her dreams discovers by chance — himself falling in love with a shade. The end — which would no doubt be ridiculous or tragic in Shakespeare — is jubilant here, though the road to a happy ending takes three full nights of performances.

Traditionally, the performance clocked in at 18 hours. There have been a few versions of Peony presented in the United States, including a famous Lincoln Center production which ran the full 18 hours in a three-day period — six hours each evening. In the interest of popularizing the work, Pai joined with four of his distinguished colleagues, including the Harvard-trained Chang Shu-hsiang and a Kunqu expert from UC Berkeley, Hua Wei. They took on the massive, almost heartbreaking task of cutting down the opera to what they call a “young lovers’ version.”

As the producer, Pai hoped to reintroduce the opera to a younger Chinese audience as well as to Western theatergoers. He faced great challenges. First, he had to find actors who could faithfully reenact the rigorously traditional roles. To do this he convinced one of the few surviving Kunqu masters to take on the difficult task of streamlining the 500-year-old method of actor training which historically took almost two decades to accomplish. Amazingly, this was done, and Pai’s troupe was trained during one intense year of tutelage. More than 200 costumes had to be hand-embroidered; he employed calligraphers, artists, and dance directors from all over China; and he brought a large number of theatrical technicians from Taiwan to create his masterful, contemporary version of a classic Chinese opera.

Stranded_at_Huaian-2.jpgWhat had originally propelled Pai into taking on this great pursuit was not a childhood memory of an earlier performance but an eerie experience he had in the 1980s when he first returned to Shanghai, a city that had been so magical in his youth. In the city for a performance of one of his plays, Pai had the opportunity to attend a three-act version of Peony, which deeply reinforced his love of the form. After the performance, he asked the cast out to dinner, but since it was late and still hard to find such things as restaurants in mainland China, the cast suggested they go to a kind of club where artists gather after-hours. He followed them to a neighborhood where he felt a strange familiarity. “When we entered the place, I suddenly realized that it was my childhood home,” he said, appearing still amazed to this day. “The communists had taken the house over. Upstairs in a room that was now an office, I saw my old bedroom. So you must realize what this all seemed like to me.”

Maybe it’s enough to say it propelled him into action. Overall, it’s been a great success. At first the earliest performances were held on Chinese college campuses, often to sold-out crowds. The theater festival in Beijing, where Pai’s Peony production was one of only two Chinese entries, was where he was mobbed by students and the festival attended by international press. Everywhere, the play has received great reviews and standing ovations.

Now Pai and this production, which includes a troupe of 70 actors, dancers, acrobats, and orchestra members, are in the last stage of the tour. Though tired and nervous — he had to fight United States customs just to get the sets and costumes into the country — Pai is elated. He’s been involved in almost every aspect of promoting The Peony Pavilion, even debating which flags should be used on State Street before the show. “I think it’s the biggest play that ever came to Santa Barbara, don’t you?” he asked over plum ice cream last week. “I’ve been here for 40 years and I don’t remember anything bigger. But I am very excited. Oh, God, I can’t wait for it to be over.” And it was then that he confided in me that he was thinking of taking it to Broadway.

4•1•1 The Peony Pavilion, presented by Suzhou Kun Opera Theatre of Jiangsu, will show Friday, October 6 and Saturday, October 7 at 7 p.m. and conclude on Sunday, October 8 at 2 p.m. All performances will be held at the Lobero Theatre. Tickets are $60, $45, and $15 for UCSB students. Call 963-0761 or visit for more information.

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