When a comet appeared in 1591, in the late Ming Dynasty, the Court was aghast, for it was taken to be an announcement from long-honored imperial ancestors expressing their displeasure with the Emperor. After learning of the comet’s appearance, a mid-level official, Tang Xianzu, the future author of The Peony Pavilion, dared to inform the Emperor that he agreed that the Emperor was at fault for running the country badly. Tang was swiftly punished and sent to a low-level job as a jailer in the hinterlands. Lucky to be alive, he decided to retire and turned to writing popular plays, and in 1598 completed a fantastical opera about long-lost lovers—a bold heroine and a complicit lover—who are finally reunited. But the play had an agenda that placed him in even more danger than when he was an official. What were the forces, the events, and the fears that drove Tang Xianzu to find his defiant voice with a popular romantic opera that would become one of China’s most enduring masterpieces?
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