The Ming Dynasty play Peony Pavilion (Mǔdān Tíng 牡丹亭), written by Tāng Xiǎnzǔ (汤显祖) (1550-1616), is a very different work from the film Suzhou River (Sūzhōu Hé 苏州河), directed by Lóu Yè (婁燁) (1965-) and released several hundred years later in 2000. However, in spite of their differences, both share at least one feature—they reflect and comment on the relentless march of time. Both works contain motifs that explore the fleeting nature of the present and the bittersweet remembrance of the past. In both cases, however, the qíng, or deep and everlasting love, felt between lovers proves strong enough to enable them to unite with one another against all odds, including the seemingly irrevocable changes that occur with the passage of time.
While it is qíng that drives Bridal Du to paint her portrait, the role of artistic representation in the effort to fight back against passing time is also important. It is this piece of art that ultimately enacts the qíng between the two lovers, enabling them to utilize its power to find each other across the boundaries of time. In other words, it is the portrait that helps Liu Mengmei to recognize that he feels qíng for Bridal Du. The narrator’s films in Suzhou River, however, are not capable of this—they do not keep him and Meimei together. This reflects a pessimism in the modern era toward the idea that art can inspire the way that lovers shape their future, like the portrait in Peony Pavilion did. Mardar and Moudan, because they have qíng in their relationship, successfully conquer the passage of time that strives to keep them apart, but it is not through art that they achieve this. If anything, it is due to Mardar’s stubborn persistence in refusing to allow his love interest to recede into the back of his memory that he and Moudan are eventually reunited. In other words, the message of Suzhou River is that artwork no longer possesses the power it did in the era of Peony Pavilion to aid qíng in conquering cosmic forces like the passing of time. The power of internalized preservation of the past is thus esteemed over its memorialization through material representation. This reflects the difference in sensibilities in the historical and cultural contexts of the two works concerning what constituted ideal love. In Peony Pavilion, ideal love is externally manifested and expressed, often in art and poetry. In Suzhou River, however, this more sentimental view of ideal love is discarded for one in which love is essentially understated—it is not vocalized or expressed through poetry and art, yet lovers who have qíng sense each other’s feelings without having to externally demonstrate their emotions in grand fashion.
The continuing passage of time, and the positioning of this force as a barrier to love and happiness, is a major theme in both works. In Peony Pavilion, Bridal Du first encounters Liu Mengmei in a dream (57). Indeed, this is the only way that she ever knows him, before her death. The medium in which she encounters him is important, because dreams are by their very nature ethereal. The intransient quality of her meeting with Liu is highlighted repeatedly by Bridal Du in the way that she refers to the dream. At one point, she sighs, “Through scudding of ‘clouds and rain’ I had touched the borders of a dream when…my mother called me, alas! And broke this slumber by window’s sunlit gaze” (52). Everything about this description emphasizes her dream’s fleeting nature. First of all, the verb “scudding” literally denotes a quick movement, as of something that moves so quickly as to disappear out of one’s sight before one has fully registered it. Secondly, the “clouds” and “rain” through which Bridal Du scudded are fleeting elements of the weather. Clouds cannot be easily grasped by the hand, and also shapeshift, fade, and reappear easily in the sky—for this reason, they are associated with impermanence. Rain is somewhat more tangible, but ultimately, it too is impermanent—several days after a rainfall, there is often no sign that it ever happened.
Additionally, the image of Bridal Du “touching the borders of a dream” denotes an action that occurs quickly and emphasizes the impermanence of dreams. Normally, borders are well-defined areas, but because of a dream’s intangible, ungraspable quality, the “border” of a dream must be intangible as well. This already-stark contrast is highlighted by the act of reaching out to physically “touch” something that is so impossible to catch hold of as the border of a dream. Finally, her mother’s abrupt interruption of this surreal image, highlighted by the strong verb “broke,” suggests that the dream is a delicately-spun creation, easily shattered once the circumstances surrounding it cease to be conducive to its existence—or, in other words, once the dreamer has awakened. Therefore, Bridal Du’s statement about her dream emphasizes its ethereal and fleeting quality, there one moment and gone the next, slippery and impossible to grasp. This is only one example—Bridal Du refers to her dream with Liu Mengmei in ways that similarly emphasize its ephemereality many times throughout the course of the play. Like everything else in life, the dream recedes unreachably into Bridal Du’s past each time that she awakes, and she is unable to bask in the happiness and true love she feels while in it more than momentarily. Thus, the force of time is acting as a barrier to Bridal Du’s and Liu Mengmei’s ability to enjoy their love, or qíng, for one another.
The other major motif in Peony Pavilion that emphasizes the passage of time is the garden in which Bridal Du first has her dream, and in which much of the action in the play occurs. When Bridal Du first visits the garden, she feels that the beauty of her surroundings is tinged with sorrow. She sighs:
Ah, spring, now that you and I have formed so strong an attachment, what shall I find to fill my days when you are past?…Ah Heaven, now I begin to realize how disturbing the spring’s splendor can truly be…They were all telling the truth, those poems and ballads I read that that spoke of girls in ancient times ‘in springtime moved to passion, in autumn to regret.’ (46)
It is clear that the beauty of the spring distresses Bridal Du as much as, if not more than, it pleases her. The spring days are beautiful in the present, but she cannot help but feel a pang of regret for them before they have even passed, knowing as she does that they must eventually give way to summer, fall, and winter. Her use of the word “disturbing” to describe the effect of this bittersweet enjoyment of the garden’s beauty indicates that she is deeply unsettled by her underlying knowledge that her surroundings are impermanent, and that erasure and change is unavoidable. Immediately after she laments the eventual passing of spring, she pines:
Here I am at…my sixteenth year, yet no fine ‘scholar to break the cassia bough’ has come my way… The green springtime of my own life passes unfulfilled, and swift the time speeds by as dawn and dusk interchange…O pity one whose beauty is a bright flower, when life endures no longer than leaf on tree! (46).
The fact that Bridal Du complains that she has not yet found a husband immediately after she reflects on the transience of spring beauty indicates that this thought has reminded her of the impermanence of her own beauty. As much is explicitly made clear when she talks about the “green springtime of her life” passing “unfulfilled.” In this metaphor, she is explicitly comparing her beauty and her youth to the splendor of the spring around her. This comparison, paired with the use of the verb “passing,” stresses that her prized beauty will fade with time, hence the reason that she is so distraught over having not yet found a husband. Her observations that time speeds by swiftly and that “life endures no longer than leaf on tree” reinforce the image of passing time as a powerful cosmic force that no element of human existence can escape.
Another incident later on in the play confirms this garden as a space where characters are reminded of and reflect on irreversible passing time and the change that accompanies it. When Liu Mengmei enters it, he sees a sign that reads, “All may freely enter/this noted demesne/but few can be aware/of the sorrows of its past” (136). The sign therefore labels the garden as a space in which the shadows of the past loom, and the passage of time is apparent. By ‘few can be aware/of the sorrows of its past,’ the sign likely means that few can ever know the specific circumstances in which the garden fell into decay. It certainly does not mean that its past, or rather clues to the fact that it once had a past that differed in every respect from its present, cannot be observed by those who enter. As Liu Mengmei travels through the garden, he sighs, “How overgrown is this wicket gate, and half of it collapsed…still leaning on this marble balustrade, my sad gaze shuns the walls on every side. Such moons, such breezes, nights of long ago! Willows once lush as mist now sere and dry” (136). Clearly, the contrast in this garden’s current dilapidated state and the splendor it once must have enjoyed is clear to Liu Mengmei with each passing step. The half-collapsed wicket gate, for instance, encapsulates the faded glory of the locale. Liu Mengmei’s exclamations concerning “nights of long ago” and the “willows that were “once lush as mist” proves that, as he looks upon the dreary state of the garden, he cannot help but be saddened by its reminder that no beauty is everlasting.
Although it is ultimately qíng that helps these two lovers to conquer the passage of time and regain one another, the medium through which they accomplish this is art—more specifically, the portrait of herself that Bridal Du paints and that Liu eventually falls in love with. Her decision to paint the portrait comes after her maidservant Fragrance makes her aware of the fact that her beauty is already passing. Upon hearing this, Bridal Du looks in the mirror and exclaims, “…how could I have grown as thin and frail as this? Before it’s too late let me make a portrait of myself to leave to the world, lest the worst should suddenly befall me and no one then ever learn of the beauty of Bridal Du who came from far Sichuan!” (67). The exclamation point at the end of this sentence, as well as the dramatic way in which Bridal Du refers to herself in the third person, indicates the alarm that the physical signs of her passing beauty causes her. She clearly undertakes to paint the portrait in a deliberate attempt to resist the passage of time to the greatest extent that she can, which is to memorialize herself as she looked in her youth. Furthermore, it is clear that ultimately, it is because of qíng that she wants to preserve her beauty in this fashion. She explains to Fragrance:
The young scholar who appeared in my dream had broken off a branch of willow to
present to me. Surely this must be a sign that the husband I shall meet in time to come
will have the surname Liu, for “willow”? What would you say to my making up a poem
now, to inscribe at the head of this scroll, which would contain hints of my spring
Bridal Du ends up carrying out her own suggestion of writing a poem at the head of her portrait scroll with clues as to the identity of her future husband, the lover she has met in her dreams and pines about continually. Clearly, then, her underlying purpose in painting the scroll is not simply to preserve her beauty for vanity’s sake, but in order to aid her lover in finding her someday. In doing this, she expresses the kind of confidence in regards to her future that only somebody with true feelings of qíng could possess.
Sure enough, the portrait does work, as was inevitable, since it has the inexorable force of qíng underlying it. Liu Mengmei, because he also possesses the strength of qíng, is so swept away by the portrait he recovered from the garden that he falls in love with the woman it depicts (156). In the time that Liu has obtained the portrait and begun to desire romantically the woman it represents, Bridal Du has passed away. However, once the portrait has done its job of enacting Liu’s qíng, the strength of the qíng is enough for the lovers to conquer even this seemingly inconquerable boundary. In the twenty-eighth scene of the play, Bridal Du’s spirit comes to visit Liu, encouraged to approach him by his vocalized pinings for her (155-165). After this initial moment of introduction, the two lovers go through the necessary steps for her to be resurrected as a living being once more, and sure enough, this goal is realized in the thirty-fifth scene (199-204). Qíng is thus depicted in Peony Pavilion as a force strong enough to defeat even that most unbeatable of cosmic forces, the seemingly unstoppable passage of time. Furthermore, it is through the medium of art that qíng is able to enact its power. This fact suggests that a component of ideal love in the social and historical context of Peony Pavilion is its ability to be expressed and captured by external representation, high-quality artwork and poetry.
Like Peony Pavilion, Suzhou River also concerns itself with the passage of time. Both the beginning and the end of the film take place on river after which the film is named, presumably as the narrator drifts down it in a boat (at many points in the film, the camera angle seems to be from the narrator’s point of view). Moudan initially disappears by throwing herself into the river, and it is the same river that she and Mardar eventually drown in (whether on purpose or by accident is intentionally left unclear). Obviously, then, the river provides a framework for the plot of the film, and is therefore key to the story as a whole. It can, in fact, be seen as a symbol of the passage of time. The very fact of its presence at every key moment of the film suggests that it represents a force greater than any of the individual characters. Its waters rush forward in one direction continuously. Likewise, time marches steadily onward toward the future. The movement of the river is emphasized by the film’s initial and closing camera angles, in which the narrator watches the people and buildings on the shores of the river drift first into and then once more out of his line of view and is reminded of its, and his, ongoing motion.
The entire plot of the film is entwined with the notion of the passage of time and the changes that inevitably accompany that passage. Mardar and Moudan are at first together, then they are not. Mardar is continually tortured by the remembrance of her and the desire to find her again. The instance of their separation is when Moudan throws herself into the river. In a sense, she is throwing herself into the passage of time, letting it move her away from her past and toward an unknown future, leaving Mardar behind. Additionally, the entire premise of Mardar and Meimei’s relationship is Mardar’s past, butting into his present—he would never have become interested in her if he did not suspect at some level that she might be Moudan. His past even upsets the relationship between the narrator and Meimei, mostly because Meimei is so moved by the devotion Mardar demonstrates for Moudan that she cannot bring herself to settle for the average, run-of-the-mill relationship she has with the narrator. The plot sequence of the narrator and Meimei’s relationship is literally interrupted by the plot sequence of Moudan and Mardar’s initial acquaintanceship up until Moudan’s departure. Thus, the form of the film reinforces the manner in which Mardar’s past rears itself into both his own present and the present of tangentially-involved Meimei and her boyfriend the narrator.
In Peony Pavilion, art is the medium that Bridal Du uses in order for her and Liu’s qíng to successfully defeat seemingly inexorable time. Art, or at the very least a kind of visual representation, also makes an appearance in Suzhou River—the narrator is obsessed with filming. He works as a videographer and films everything he encounters in his spare time, as evidenced by the films he makes of his rides on the Suzhou River and his various outings with Meimei. This obsession with filming suggests a desire on his part to want to try to fight off the passage of time by memorializing all of his experiences through film. However, unlike the portrait, the narrator’s filming seems to be a weak antidote to the passage of time at best. Even though he is passionate about both his films of Meimei and Meimei herself, he nevertheless seems apathetic when she leaves him for good at the end of the film. He accepts that Meimei has become a part of his past and moves on, instead of relentlessly seeking to recapture those former days.
It is clear from the narrator’s attitude toward Meimei at the end that whatever they had between them was not true qíng. If either of the two couples can be said to possess qíng, it is certainly Mardar and Moudan. Mardar, through his stubborn persistence in tracking down every possible lead to his past—essentially, in his refusal to forget—eventually does find Moudan once more. While it is obvious that he refuses to forget her from his very determination to find her, there are small clues throughout the film that hint at just how obsessively he remembers certain details that he believes will help him to find her. For example, he remembered the seemingly insignificant and thus forgettable observation that Moudan used to wear a temporary tatoo of a flower on her leg, like Meimei does. He also remembers the appearance of the mermaid doll he once gave Moudan, which bears a striking resemblance to Meimei’s mermaid costume that she wears as a performer at a bar.
Eventually, Mardar and Moudan are united at the end of the film, seemingly effortlessly. Mardar searches for her fruitlessly, and then one day simply stumbles upon her. This makes sense, as their qíng is strong enough that they were destined to find one another. It’s true that they both die, but they do so together, joined as one. When they are last seen in the film, they are lying next to one another on a tarp by the riverside. It is as if once they found each other, they jumped into the rivers of passing time together to be certain that they did not become separated again in this lifetime.
In both Peony Pavilion and Suzhou River, qíng is strong enough to prevail even in the face of the unstoppable passage of time, and the two sets of lovers who possess this quality are reunited with one another. However, the medium through which qíng enacts itself differs in both of these two works. In Peony Pavilion, art is the medium through which qíng achieves its success, whereas in Suzhou River, the relationship of Meimei and the Narrator seemingly exists at least in part to demonstrate the futility of visual art as a means to preserve everlasting love and fight back against the march of time. Despite the narrator’s strong desire for her when she was a part of his life, his films do not have the power to enact the qíng that would have been necessary for them to once again find each other. In the more successful relationship of Mardar, on the contrary, it seems to be nothing more than his sheer persistence in refusal to forget Moudan and what she meant to him that eventually leads him to her.
The film thus reflects pessimism about the role of visual art and representation in enacting qíng in contemporary society. Rather than relying on some kind of material medium to cause individuals to “remember” what once was and strive to regain it, the film celebrates the perseverence and persistence of human memory directly, as unreliable and intangible as it is. Thus, the value of artistic representation is diminished, while representations created from the reconstruction of memories are elevated. One effect of this is that the way qíng is enacted as presented in Suzhou River is much more internalized, and also less sentimental, than the showy way it is enacted in Peony Pavilion. Perhaps, then, the two separate ways of enacting qíng ultimately reflect the preferences of what constitutes ideal love in the context of Peony Pavilion versus that of Suzhou River. That is to say, whereas in the context of Peony Pavilion, ideal love was externalized and captured in beautiful poetry and artwork, the ideal love of contemporary society espoused in Suzhou River is quieter, more understated, and more internalized. This distinction will hopefully help to provide greater insight into the characteristics of social and moral values that distinguishes the contemporary Chinese urban lifestyle from that in Tang Dynasty China.
Suzhou River (Sūzhōu Hé 苏州河). Dir. Lóu Yè (婁燁). Perf. Zhou Xun, Jiǎ Hóngshēng (贾宏声).
Essential Filmproduktion GmbH, 2000. Film.
Tāng Xiǎnzǔ (汤显祖). Peony Pavilion/ Mǔdān Tíng牡丹亭. Húnán (湖南): Rénmín Chūbǎnshè (人民出版社), 2000.