The story takes place in the Southern Song period (960-1269)
Part I: The Dream of Love
Du Liniang, a sheltered, lonely girl of sixteen, dreams of a handsome young scholar. Saddened that he was only a dream, she pines away. Before she dies, she paints a self-portrait and hides it in the garden. Her mother buries her under a plum tree, and a shrine is erected to her memory. Most of the singing and action in Part I is done by the female lead, in melismatic, haunting melodies.
Part II: Romance and Resurrection
Liu Mengmei, an impoverished scholar, dreams of a beautiful young woman under a plum tree who prophesies that only she will bring him happiness. While traveling, he finds Du Liniang's portrait, and falls in love with the image. Liniang's ghost appears. Convinced of Mengmei's love, she reveals that she is a ghost, but that she can be revived. Braving his own fears, Mengmei opens the grave. Liniang returns to life.
Part III: Reunion and Triumph
The lively resolution to the story. Mengmei succeeds as a scholar, but not before being punished on suspicion of grave robbing. Liniang is reunited with her parents, but not before her stern father admits that love can conquer death. This final section contains some of the liveliest and most humorous episodes in all of Kunqu.
Performances of Peony Pavilion span three consecutive days.