Shanghai Social Diary: Shanghai Comes to New York

This scene, in a Zhujiajiao garden, is from Chinese composer Tan Dun’s version of the opera The Peony Pavilion. It was recently brought to New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.


I had just returned to New York City from a fall in Shanghai when I was mentally transported back. I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue, watching The Peony Pavilion, a 16th century Kunqu opera masterpiece.

The opera was performed in conjunction with the Met’s special exhibition, Chinese Gardens: Pavilions, Studios, Retreats, on display through January 6, 2013.

I first learned about this New York production from Shirley Young, Chair of the US-China Cultural Institute (USCCI), which co-produced the Met performance. Shirley and I were part of a group that attended composer Tan Dun’s staging of The Peony Pavilion in a garden in the ancient water town Zhujiajiao, about an hour’s drive from Shanghai.

The Peony Pavilion being performed in the water town of Zhujiajiao.

The performance in Zhujiajiao took place in an ancient Chinese garden.


World-famous Oscar-winning composer Tan Dun, who divides his time between Shanghai and New York, had brought his production of this classical opera to the Met’s Astor Court Chinese Scholar Garden.

Dun’s work spans both Eastern and Western styles. His credits include the Oscar-winning scores for Ang Lee’s film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s Hero; music for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and Shanghai 2010 Expo; and the operas Marco Polo and The First Emperor, performed in 2006 at the Metropolitan Opera with tenor Placido Domingo.

Composer Tan Dun brought his version of The Peony Pavilion to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Astor Court Chinese Scholar Garden.

Tan Dun and the cast that flew in from China to perform a limited run.


Kunqu is one of the oldest forms of traditional Chinese theater. The elite opera style was first developed during the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) in southeastern China. Though it has largely fallen out of favor, there has been a recent movement to keep it alive.

The Peony Pavilion, written in 1598 by the celebrated Chinese writer Tang Xianzu, is a love story. It is the Eastern equivalent of Romeo and Juliet, which Shakespeare wrote at about the same time.

In order to broaden its appeal, Dun has made changes to the opera. In its original form, the story consisted of fifty-five acts that take more than twenty hours to perform over several days. Dun condensed it into a seventy-minute version with four parts.

In the Met’s Astor Court, Scene One of the opera, “An Amazing Dream,” opens with the young heroine and her maid in the garden.

In Kunqu opera, male and female performers both sing in high falsetto voices.

Composer Tan Dun reduced the music to just the guqin (zither), xiao (horizontal bamboo flute), dizi (flute), and the bangu (drum).

Huang Doudou, one of China’s most renowned dancers, choreographed the opera.

Wei Tao designed the brilliant, classic costumes.

The story continues with Scene Two, “The Infernal Judge.”


In the love story, 16-year-old heroine Du Liniang (played by Zhang Ran) falls asleep in the peony pavilion in her family’s garden on a spring day. She dreams of a young scholar named Liu Mengmei (played by Zhang Jun), whom she’s never met in real life, and falls in love.

I was amused when the teenager sang, “My hair is dressed for a bride, but where is the bridegroom? I’m wasting the prime of my life.” (Young women are still singing those words today!)

As the story unfolds, Liniang dies of a broken heart from unrequited longing and descends into the afterlife. But before her death, she had painted a picture of herself and hidden it in the garden. After Mengmei finds the painting and falls in love with her, Liniang appears in his dreams and the story continues.

Liniang has a happier fate than Juliet, though: She comes back to life, finds her dream man, and love conquers all.


The male lead, Zhang Jun, known as “the Prince of Kunqu,” is considered one of China’s most respected Kunqu performers. In an attempt to keep the culture of Kunqu alive, he founded the Zhang Jun Kunqu Art Center in Shanghai. He was later named a UNESCO Artist for Peace for his work in promoting the art form.

The performers wore gorgeous long, flowing Chinese gowns with embroidered peonies (pink for her, blue for him). They twirled about and made sweeping arm and hand gestures, their movements accentuated by the billowing of the long silk sleeves.

One of the reasons I enjoy China and its culture is that it offers so much visual beauty. This stage setting, the extravagant makeup, and the vivid colors are a prime example.

Although only 50 guests were able to enjoy the opera in the Astor Court because of its small size, a larger gathering was treated to a high-definition simulcast in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium.

Actors Zhang Ran and Zhang Jun (no relation) with Maxwell Hearn, Director of the Met’s Department of Asian Art.

The Judge of Hell (played by Ran Pengcheng) strikes a pose for the camera.

Actors Zhang Ran and Zhang Jun with Jeanne Lawrence.


In conjunction with the performance, Tan Dun and Maxwell H. Hearn, Director of the Met’s Department of Asian Art, gave a talk about Kunqu. Dun mentioned that many major cities in the world have a Chinese garden, some of which were gifts from “sister cities” that he calls “Sleeping Beauties,” as not much is happening in them.

He described gardens as a platform, a perfect stage. He envisions people infusing the gardens with life, as they did in the past, when gardens were the sites of artistic and intellectual pursuits.

Tan Dun and Maxwell H. Hearn discuss music and Kunqu opera.

Sarina Tang, Shirley Young, Jeanne Lawrence, and performer Zhang Jun’s wife Jasmine Pang.

Maria Yang, soprano He Hui, and Lucia Hwong Gordon.

Dr. Edmond Pi, Suzy Moser, and Robert Dickie.

Met Museum President Emily Rafferty with Sanford and Jeanne Robertson.

Zhu Wanjin (Deputy Consulate General of China to NY), Shirley Young, and Tan Dun.

Barbara and Donald Tober with Jennifer Russell of the Met.

A fan with Tan Dun and Jeanne Lawrence.


The Met Museum’s Astor Court Chinese Scholar Garden was a wonderfully appropriate and intimate setting for this performance. The Court was conceived by Brooke Russell Astor in 1976 and built in 1980 by a team of Chinese craftsmen and American workers.

The first authentic Ming-style garden courtyard constructed outside of China, it was modeled on the Garden of the Master of the Fishing Nets in Suzhou, a city west of Shanghai known for its gardens and silk production.


While in Shanghai this fall, I made a point of visiting Suzhou, as I wanted to see the Garden of the Master of the Fishing Nets, upon which Astor Court is modeled. Several friends and I made the 30-minute train trip from Shanghai that in the past would have taken over one hour and maybe three by car.

The famously refined and elegant Suzhou gardens span thousands of years, and some have been selected by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. We visited a variety of gardens, all with poetic names such as “The Humble Administrator’s Garden,” “The Lion Grove Garden,” and “The Lingering Garden.”

The gateway to the Garden of the Master of the Fishing Nets, the Suzhou garden upon which the Met’s Astor Court Chinese Scholar Garden is modeled.

A map of the Garden of the Master of the Fishing Nets illustrating the elements of a typical Suzhou garden: a lake, residential buildings, pathways, pavilions, and landscapes.

Andrea Mingai Chu, Adriana Mannering, and Jeanne Lawrence visit the garden.

Mina Hanbury-Tenison and Jeanne Lawrence with the Moon Comes with the Breeze Pavilion in the background.

Many of the intimate Suzhou gardens were built by scholars. An attempt to recreate natural landscapes in miniature, they feature key aspects of classical Chinese gardens such as landscapes of rocks, hills, and rivers, with strategically located pavilions and pagodas.

For years, I’ve dreamed of enjoying these gardens in pleasant weather without the throngs of tourists. My last visit was in the summer high season with unbearable heat and crowds.

Visiting in November, when the leaves were beginning to turn and the fall weather was perfect, I enjoyed the peace and quiet. We were able to hear the sounds of running water and birds calling, and we experienced the gardens as they were intended to be experienced. A dream fulfilled.

The walkway leading into one of the courtyards.

The courtyard after which the Met’s Astor Court is modeled.

The Late Spring Cottage.

Furnishings inside the Late Spring Cottage.

Some of the rooms display Ming and Qing-dynasty artifacts.

The Duck Shooting Corridor and the Branch Beyond Bamboo Porch, used for tea ceremonies.

The Washing Ribbon Pavilion.

The Leading to Quietude Bridge, allegedly the smallest in Suzhou.

The Moon Comes with the Breeze Pavilion.

Following the winding walkway as we leave the garden.


In town we also visited the modern I. M. Pei-designed Suzhou Museum (2006). As a youngster, Pei was influenced by the architecture and the famous gardens of Suzhou, and you can see the influences in his designs.

I. M. Pei reinterpreted Suzhou architecture, including whitewashed plaster walls, dark gray tile roofs, and garden elements.

The Suzhou Museum incorporates almost all the Chinese garden features: pavilions, bridges, bamboo, water elements, and landscaping.


After the Met’s performance, there was a gala reception in the 15th-century sandstone Egyptian Temple of Dendur. This dramatic backdrop was a little discombobulating after being in the intimate Chinese Suzhou garden mood. But hey, it was right next door, and it is a spectacular setting.

Dim sum and open bar kept the energy up until midnight. As I left, I thought how beautifully the actors had performed even though they must have been jet lagged. After all, there is a 12-hour time difference between Shanghai and New York City.

With the Egyptian gods watching over us, we had a real cross-cultural experience.

We left ancient China and entered the world of ancient Egypt at the Temple of Dendur, where the USCCI-sponsored reception was held.

A gift from Egypt, the Temple of Dendur was installed at the Met in 1978.

Even the actors in full costume got into the spirit of things.

The actors happily posed for photos in front of the temple.

Lu Hailin and her husband Li BaoDong (Chinese Ambassador to the UN and a co-host of the after-party) with Annabel Fang Hsieh and Shirley Young.

Toby Perlman and her husband, world-renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman.

Actors Zhang Ran and Zhang Jun made their entrance to applause. After they went backstage and returned sans makeup, we noticed how young they seemed.

Shirley Young and Alicia Adams of the Kennedy Center.

Gary Parr (Chair of the New York Philharmonic) and Zhang Jun.

Zhang Jun, Lucy Lu, and Gary Parr.

Manfred Dirrheimer, Jasmine Pang, and Hans d’Orville of UNESCO (another co-host of the after-party).

Maxwell Hearn, Tan Dun, Oscar Tang, Shirley Young, Jasmine Pang, Zhu Bingcong, and Zhang Jun.

Jeanne Lawrence, Dana Tang Darrell, Hanifa Mezoui, Muna al-Nasser, Shirley Young, Patricia Shiah, and Lucia Hwong Gordon.


After seeing this production, out of curiosity I went back to my 300,000 (and counting) photos from China, to find the images of the Peony Pavilion production in Zhujiajiao. (It took me a year to finally learn to pronounce this city’s name, which sounds something like “zoo jaw jowl”—to me, anyway.)

When you arrive at the canal town, often referred to as the “Venice of Shanghai,” you’re transported into another world of whitewashed houses, shops, cafes, restaurants, museums, and 36 stone bridges.

It’s a photographer’s dream and a favorite spot, so be warned: It’s always crowded on the weekends. But in the fall and in the evening, we enjoyed the beauty of the night scenery and atmosphere without the crowds.

One of many stone bridges crossing a canal in the Chinese water town of Zhujiajiao.

The dimly lit canals provide atmosphere at night.

Tourists can take boat rides through the canals and stop at restaurants on the way.

A shopping street with a view of the interior rafters of an ancient building.


The Ming-style Kezhi Garden in Zhujiajiao was the perfect setting for the staging of this tale of deep longing and love.

In comparing the two productions, I enjoyed the story more at the Met, as by then I understood the plot. I also appreciated the intimacy of Astor Court, where we could watch the actors perform close up.

In Zhujiajiao, the historic setting was magnificent; I loved viewing the actors in the garden while surrounded by nature and the natural sounds of the environment. In both places, I felt I’d left the world behind while I enjoyed the eternal story of youthful passion.

That night in the garden I again became aware of how China has become such an international hub. I ran into Shanghai-born Jay Xu, Director of the San Francisco Asian Art Museum; San Diegan music patrons Dolly and Victor Woo; art patron and gallerist Pearl Lam; San Franciscan art collectors Pam and Dick Kramlich; and London’s Jude Kelley.

All the elements of the opera were here: The garden, the costumes, the makeup, and the love.

Our entry into Kezhi Garden.

On the way, we ran into Luke Yang, Pearl Lam, who has art galleries in London, Shanghai, and now Hong Kong, and Shirley Young.

Pam and Dick Kramlich of San Francisco.

Dolly and Victor Woo from San Diego.

Jude Kelley (artistic director of London Southbank Centre), Tan Dun, Jeanne Lawrence, Shirley Young, and Dolly Woo.

Composer Tan Dun welcomed the audience.


Still today, traditional Chinese gardens are being built. At the performance, I met Suzy Moser and Dr. Edmond Pi of the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, who mentioned that the library is creating a twelve-acre “Garden of Flowing Fragrance.”

Some of the garden elements are being built by more than 60 Suzhou artists and shipped from China. When complete, it will feature seven pavilions and five stone bridges. The library so far has raised $32 million of the $50 million needed for the entire project.

I wonder if Tan Dun is already envisioning a Peony Pavilion performance in this classical garden setting?

But whether it’s being performed in the Met’s Astor Court, Zhujiajiao, the Huntington garden, or one of the many Chinese gardens around the world, try to see this delightful opera, which brings to contemporary life the elegant culture of ancient China.


Photos by Jeanne Lawrence, Stephanie Berger, Zhang Yi, and Karl von Moler.

*Urbanite Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in San Francisco, Shanghai, and New York, and wherever else she finds a good story.

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