Peony transplanted: Pai Hsien-yung and the preservation of Chinese Kunqu
This dissertation examines the preservation of Chinese kunqu, one of China’s indigenous operatic genres, in recent years with a special focus on renowned writer Pai Hsien-yung’s new adaptation of classic kunqu play The Peony Pavilion (Mudan ting). I use this adaptation as a case study to demonstrate how the actual shape of a stage production can be determined by a producer’s choice between tradition and innovation. The contention between the two variables can be identified in the hundreds of years of kunqu history. The introduction provides a brief overview of the ascension of kunqu to its dominance as a national opera between late Ming and early Qing dynasties (late sixteenth century to early nineteenth century). The first two chapters analyze the downfall of this genre and its struggle for existence and development from mid-Qing through the turbulent twentieth century with particular emphasis on exploring the interplay between tradition and innovation. The next two chapters focus entirely on Pai Hsien-yung’s stage production of Peony and its wide distribution. The last chapter examines the latest kunqu production modes developed under the influence of Pai’s approach. Through this detailed analysis of Pai’s kunqu production and its impact, this research identifies one of the most prominent trends in kunqu preservation and development in the twenty-first century. It explores the dialectical approach adopted in this trend to handle the relationship between tradition and innovation, and the particular redefinition of audience construction. A renewed wave of kunqu preservation efforts within China during the past decade created a favourable environment for Pai’s productions. The success of his works has drawn new attention to the opera and eased kunqu crisis to a fairly large extent. The most significant contribution of Pai’s works to Chinese kunqu discourse can be seen from the expansion of audience base, particularly among the educated youth, and the increasingly varied and creative strategies for kunqu production and distribution. These changes have greatly transformed the overall Chinese kunqu scene, and ushered in a new era when new kunqu stage works are made into collages of intrinsic kunqu aesthetics and certain traditional artistic values. Pai’s ability to negotiate a space for kunqu amidst fierce competition against the many different forms of modern entertainment has restored people’s confidence in both kunqu and Chinese cultural traditions at large. Pai’s experience of finding a particular balance between tradition and innovation, between art and market, has contributed critically not only to the emergence of more hybridized kunqu productions, but also to the preservation and development of other forms of traditional Chinese performing arts genres in the age of globalization and commercialization.