Dream of Great Ash Tree Kingdom
Dream of Nanke (南柯梦) is one of the four Kunqu Opera dramas about dreams, written by Tang Xianzu (1550-1616) of Ming Dynasty.
While Peony Pavilion is the best known among the four, Dream of Nanke is the most mind-blowing, exploring time, space, muli-worlds and the meaning of life.
A Chance Meeting in a Buddhist Temple
One day military officer Chunyu visited a Buddhist temple where he had a chance meeting with three pretty women.
The women were in fact not humans but ants. They were sent by their king to find a suitable husband for the princess, the ant king’s only daughter.
The Zen master tried to warn Chunyu, telling him “beware the insects”, but the man who quickly befriended with the three women failed to pay attention to the warning.
A Trip to Great Kingdom of Ash Tree
After a temple visit, military officer Chunyu was invited by three pretty women he just met to have a drink, and when he returned home, he was rather drunk.
While waiting for his servant to prepare tea, he fell into sleep.
Soon he was woken up by a stranger man in purple outfit and the man told him he was chosen to be the husband of a princess in a kingdom located in his backyard.
Out of curiosity, he followed the man to the garden where he was urged to get into a hole on the ground next to a giant ash tree.
After some hard journey through a narrow tunnel, eventually he spotted a big city in a distance. Once he drew closer, he saw on the front gate characters specified “Great Kingdom Of Ash Tree”.
A Grand Royal Wedding
The gates of the city were thrown open, and the man was invited to the royal palace to meet a princess.
Upon set his sight on the girl, he immediately fell in love with her. And a splendid wedding in royal style was proceeded without delay.
A Happy Family
After wedding, the man was appointed as the Governor of Nanke County where he worked and lived for twenty years with his wife and together they raised two kids.
Death Did the Loving Couple Apart
Wake up from the Dream
Without the protection of his wife, the princess, the man quickly fell victim to vicious factional battle and palace politics.
One day, the sky watch officer reported to the king that the a deadly catastrophe was approaching due to the emergence of a guest star.
As Chunyu was the only migrant in the kingdom, he became the prime suspect causing the dreadful fortune of the nation.
The king deported him. He was heartbroken because he would never be able to see his kids again.
Then he was woken up by his servant, informing him that his tea was ready.
Only by then he realised that all his twenty years of marriage life, the warfare and the palace politics just occurred within a few minutes when he took a short nap.
Catastrophe to Ants in the Garden
Chunyu went to his backyard to check the ants kingdom. Next to the giant Ash Tree, he discovered a huge ant world where he med, married and buried his love of life, and along the vines he saw another ant community, the once fearful militant ant nation.
Soon a violent storm arrived. Once the late afternoon sun returned, he found both ant kingdoms were gone, along with the hostility and the wars between them.
By then he realised what the deadly catastrophe meant – it was the thunderstorm. Apparently the ant civilisations were so short-lived, and only survived between two summer storms.
A Buddhist Rite for Deceased
Chunyu heard the Zen Master was holding a powerful mantra chanting rite to help the deceased to find a better world to reincarnate, so he went to see the master and plead him to help the souls from half million households in the destroyed Ash Tree Kingdom.
The master asked him, “Are you still in love with your late wife?”
“Nope,” the man chuckled. “Now I know she was just an ant, and her pretty human face was just my own illusion, how can I still be obsessed with her?”
The master just grinned.
After some mantra chanting and ritual performance, they heard a thunderous announcing: The gate of Trayastrimsa Heaven is opening.
Following the announcement, they saw millions of dots moving in the space like during a heavy rainstorm, only they were moving upwards.
He Was Still in the Dream
Once all the souls from the Ash Tree Kingdom ascended to the heaven, the master arranged the man to meet his late wife.
Chunyu previously thought he had woken up from the dream and would never be attracted to that woman again as he knew she was just an ant. But, since she was no longer an ant but a celestial being, he couldn’t help but fell in love with her again.
“No, you can’t be with me,” the fairy told him. “Because we belong to different worlds. However, I can wait for you to come to the heaven. You just need to cultivate diligently.”
Final Wake Up
Zen Master told Chunyu that if his goal of cultivation was just to be with her happily forever in Heaven, he could be disappointed, as no life form is eternal.
I see now, said the man, I see Nothing.
“What is Nothing?” the master pursued.
The man said nothing.
The master knew the man has really woken up this time.
The worlds we see
Are just like the flowers
Formed by the pterygium
On our eyes;
We are obsessed
With what we experienced
In the recent years, Chinese Kunqu artists restaged this drama and the video clips are from the one by Jiangsu Kunqu Opera House with the human military officer Mr. Chunyu played by Shi Xiaming (施夏明), the ant princess by Shan Wen (单雯) and Buddhist Zen Master by Zhao Yutao (赵于涛).