by Lisa See
Genre: historical fiction, romance,
Read: 23rd March 2017
“I finally understand what the poets have written. In spring, moved to passion; in autumn only regret.”
For young Peony, betrothed to a suitor she has never met, these lyrics from The Peony Pavilion mirror her own longings. In the garden of the Chen Family Villa, amid the scent of ginger, green tea, and jasmine, a small theatrical troupe is performing scenes from this epic opera, a live spectacle few females have ever seen. Like the heroine in the drama, Peony is the cloistered daughter of a wealthy family, trapped like a good-luck cricket in a bamboo-and-lacquer cage. Though raised to be obedient, Peony has dreams of her own.
Peony’s mother is against her daughter’s attending the production: “Unmarried girls should not be seen in public.” But Peony’s father assures his wife that proprieties will be maintained, and that the women will watch the opera from behind a screen. Yet through its cracks, Peony catches sight of an elegant, handsome man with hair as black as a cave–and is immediately overcome with emotion.
So begins Peony’s unforgettable journey of love and destiny, desire and sorrow–as Lisa See’s haunting new novel, based on actual historical events, takes readers back to seventeenth-century China, after the Manchus seize power and the Ming dynasty is crushed.
Steeped in traditions and ritual, this story brings to life another time and place–even the intricate realm of the afterworld, with its protocols, pathways, and stages of existence, a vividly imagined place where one’s soul is divided into three, ancestors offer guidance, misdeeds are punished, and hungry ghosts wander the earth. Immersed in the richness and magic of the Chinese vision of the afterlife, transcending even death, Peony in Love explores, beautifully, the many manifestations of love. Ultimately, Lisa See’s new novel addresses universal themes: the bonds of friendship, the power of words, and the age-old desire of women to be heard.
I don’t know if I was just in the right mood to read this, but I really loved the book once I got over the slow start. After seeing some heavy criticism I’m not sure I was reading the same book as the critics. Yes, the society depicted here is completely alien to our modern understanding of women’s rights, and the way women cling to repressive traditions is neigh incomprehensible to us, but the author does an amazing job clearly showing us the logic, the sentiments fuelling this ‘voluntary’ submission.
Readers, this is how people inside a cult or a repressive culture think. They may feel opressed by the rules at times, but eventually they bow down and make peace with them in some fashion, or turn the opression into some sort of martyrdom and embrace the rules; the more oppressive, the better. It’s reverse psychology, and it’s something we see in action today as well – let’s just remember FGM and contemplate the fact that it is a woman who cuts a girls genitalia, not a man. Mothers are proud of their girls for suffering throught this – it’s how they raise their worth in their culture. In this book, we have the practice of feet binding, but we can easily find other cultural traditions and beauty standards around the world that involve some sort of painful body transformation.
Feet binding is a horrible practice that permanently mutilates the foot (breaking bone, sometimes causing loss of toes, gangrene, not to mention the loss of mobility and permanent pain), and was once something Han Chinese high society families practiced. In the light of cultural defiance against the Manchu invasion, even the middle class women began to mutilate their feet as a sign of their ethnic and cultural identity. The changes the Manchu (Mongols) brought with them made people cling to old traditions with an even fiercer hold than at the height of the previous Ming dynasty. This is especially true for the female half of the society, which did not enjoy that many freedoms in the first place, but after the brutal regime change they retreated into their gardens. The heroine and other female characters explore this reality, offering us a nuanced view about their roles, their hopes and dreams, and even give us a glimpse of hope for the future in the way female literati carved out a niche for themselves. Though the Manchu tried to end the practice of feet binding with several laws, they never managed to do so. The practice was finally abolished by the Maoist regime, greatly helped by international pressure – a few women with bound feet are still alive today.
So Peony in Love offers us a rich and detailed look into the beliefs and everyday life of high society women, with a focus on rites and superstitions about ghosts. We follow Peony as she continues to grow as a person even after her untimely death, accompanying her ghostly travels, suffering through her tribulations, and experiencing her undying love for Ren and The Peony Pavillion opera. She gains insight and understanding about the world, which she lacked as a secluded maiden who never stepped out of her father’s home, and transforms into a mature woman who casts a critical eye on her society and the hidden voices of women. So she defies her culture’s norms and steps out of the shadow of anonimity to take her rightful place as a literary critic. She also learns much more about her family, but I won’t spoil the book for you with too many details.
Suffice it to say that several characters in the book rebel against the status quo in small ways that echo through the times. Like David Mitchell wrote: “Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?” Small rebellions, small defiances of the traditions, of what is considered proper and right, this is what transforms societies. Opening up the literary world to women’s voices gave them the ability to share ideas, share their experiences, and firmly put them in the public space. They were no longer only mothers and wives, they had their own lives as well. Peony transforms the public understanding of the opera, and shows the world that dreaming of love isn’t something immoral, but something beautiful and virtuous. A girl defying cultural norms, especially the strict modesty culture, doesn’t mean she has no morals or that she’s in any way defective, but that pure, mutual love can overcome even the most difficult of obstacles.
I recommend the book to any reader interested in China’s history.