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
, 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

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

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

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

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

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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