The Peony Pavillion

Nicholas Quirke was amused by the room service robot when it delivered his dubious breakfast but when it appeared at his door for a second time on 11 July 2020 he was irritated by the waste of food. He had already had to throw away 2 yoghurts and there was no way he was going to force another congee and the breakfast delights down him. He was though pleased to have had an early start to the day and he ventured out swiftly to visit the Beijing Hangzhou Canal which he had cycled round it banks on a trip with Peng and it was good to have a finish to that story, though he didn’t think he could have cycled the whole way. What an adventure that would be. It was an interesting route through the city and took him into the bleak intimidaing environs of the financial district and its skyscrapers which always left him feeling uncomfortable and oddly unnerved. The views were completely different to what he was used to, but seeing the ancient dock was appealing. The map took him back to the hotel via a alternative route and he found himself on the shores of the West lake looking at it from a different angle. It was bustling with people and market stalls and a contrasting energy to the calm of the shores he had already visited. He was again a figure of interest, though it was not unusual to see westerners, the lockdown meant that Laowai’s had not been much in evidence for some time. Back at the hotel he finalised his packing, checked out and waited for the Didi, organised by Peng, to take him to the train station and a new destination. The station was coupled with the airport and was an impressive and vast futuristic construction. It was a much more sedate exit than his departure from Shanghai had been and he had time to relax before queuing for the train. He had become used since living in Beijing to being advised and assisted by Peng when they were travelling and he never had to think much for himself, which made the trip he was on, an experience of independence and both an anxious and an exciting challenge. Finding his way around the station, to the platform and to the right boarding post was both enjoyable and satisfying. The train journey to Suzhou was a short one and his arrival at the station where once again he anticipated problems was as smooth and untroubled as each step of his current journey had been. He took the subway to the hotel and checked in but a problem arose as it was now more than 7 days since he had taken the nucleic acid test and his paper was out of date. He tried to explain that he had been in Shanghai and Hangzhou and a test from those areas wasn’t required, in fact a test was no longer required even if he was coming direct from Beijing. They wanted to send him to the community office and a hospital to get a certificate. Having celebrated his independence he now had to get Peng on the phone to sort it out. He was mildly amused as he listened to his friend berate the staff and put a stop to the proposed interruption. He was checked in and that was that. It had taken a while and now meant that he only had time to drop off his luggage before heading off to his second live performance in a week. The Shanghai theatre had been a spur of the moment decision as he discovered theatres were now opening again; the visit to see The Peony Pavilion had been planned some time ago and as he sat in the exquisite gardens of the historic Suzhou Aimee Kun Opera museum he was in Chinese 7th heaven. The Peony Pavilion, written by dramatist Tang Xianzu in 1598, is a romantic tragicomedy play, conceived for staging as Kunqu opera, one of genres of traditional Chinese theatre arts and one of the oldest forms of Chinese opera, influencing the more widely known and lauded Peking style. With the promise of seeing the actors prepare he had arrived early and was in fact the first there. He was guided through the beautiful setting of the museum to his seat and informed that he could wander freely through the halls to observe and take part in various activities. It felt really special to be be given this liberty and thought he did not take part In the mask painting he studied the prints, felt vaguely voyeuristic as he watched an actress make up, saw a rehearsal with the chorus and was invited to join a stylish group of people in a tea ceremony. They were very interested in how he happened to be in Suzhou at this time and he engaged through the aid of the hostess Sylvie, in a lively conversation with them. It transpired the group were from the Xi An opera house and the glamorous woman was its director. He was exited and delighted to be able to meet and talk with people involved in performance at a high level and get an understanding of how their lives, business had been impacted by the crisis. He exchanged WeChat addresses with a couple with the intention of delving deeper and possibly finding counterparts he could meet with in Beijing. When the tea party broke up he found himself involved in an unpleasant confrontation with a drunk audience member who seemed to be implying that the English were big breasted and engaged in felatio. A horrified team of staff stepped in and rescued him from the potential abuse. The performance, when it started after a long introduction by the director on the sounds and style of Kunqu Qpera, of which he understood not one word, was astonishing. In it’s beautiful setting, the romantic Ming Dynasty story of a girl who falls asleep and dreams of a tragic love story, was captivating, the music more lyrical than the Peking form, the movement more fluid and less acrobatic, though the animal like sounds and tortured voice gymnastics were of a distinctly comparable genus. It looked and felt wonderful and his praise, when asked by a young woman who turned out to be the designer was effusive and genuine. He travelled back to the hotel feeling elated by the experience and delighted that another aspect of Chinese culture and its workings had been opened up to him. He was in high spirits when he finally sank into sleep.


  1. Nicholas – I’m envious!! Trying to envisage the glamorous – and how their glamour manifests itself.
    And trying to understand why you got the pre-show previews and insights. Is this the norm for Peony Opera goers? Or was it a privilege extended just to you? Keep well (you look it).
    Martin G

    1. Martin, good to hear from you. Perhaps I meant chic as opposed to glamour. Though I think as the director of the Xi An opera company Its a world of glamour anyway. It wasn’t a laowai privilege, I think all opera companies in China do the make up thing. But the surroundings of the museum made it very special.I hear Melbourne is back in Lockdown.

  2. Thanks for the filming of the Peony Pav opera…strange indeed and I can imagine how thrilled you were to be there. x

    1. It was good to be able to capture some of it. Its completely artificial, but then opera of any sort is. The story is a dream and the sounds add to the heightened reality. Xx

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