Following the runaway success of Snow Flower
and the Secret Fan, which was set in a remote corner
of nineteenth-century China where tradition and foot-bound women
developed their own secret code for communication known as nu
shu (woman's writing), Lisa See returns to tell a story set two
centuries earlier in which, for a short period, wealthy women in
the Yangtze delta area, often living in seclusion, published
The mid-17th century was a turbulent time for China; the Ming dynasty that had controlled China for almost 300 years (not the China we know today but the South-East corner of the continent) collapsed as the Manchus (from the North-East) invaded, raping and pillaging as they went (eventually establishing the Qing Dynasty which ruled until its collapse in 1912). During the brief period between the collapse of one dynasty and the consolidation of the next, a few brave female voices rebelled in a literary way, not only writing but publishing their poetry.
Peony In Love brings to life two 17th century writings - the opera "The Peony Pavilion which celebrates the supremacy of love over mortality, and "The Three Wives' Commentary" - musings on love inspired by "The Peony Pavilion". "The Peony Pavilion", a fifty-five scene play, which would have been performed over several days, tells the love story of a young male student and the daughter of a high official who, inconsolable in her grief at not being able to be with her beloved, starves herself to death early on in the opera rather than be married to another man (an apparently not-uncommon response by young girls of the time who had control over nothing in their lives except their own bodies).
Like other young girls of her era, Lisa See's heroine, Peony, is obsessed by "The Peony Pavilion" even before she sees it performed at her family's house, during which she spies a beautiful young man with whom she becomes besotted. Believing herself betrothed to another and in thrall to the opera, she starves herself to death - not realizing that the man she loves, Wu Ren, is the same one that her family have promised her to. After death, Peony promptly returns to earth as a "hungry ghost" wishing to be reunited with her beloved.
Which leads on to the main flow of the story in which See gives fictional heft to the lives of three historically-based women - Chen Tong, Tan Ze and Qian Yi, who collaborated to write a collection of insights about love inspired by "The Peony Pavilion", known as "The Three Wives' Commentary". Whereas, in real life the three women were all wives of Wu Ren, in See's version, the dead Chen Tong (Peony) returns from the afterlife to inhabit the souls of Wu Ren's two wives and guide their hands to write "The Three Wives' Commentary".
Peony In Love hits all the right notes to be a popular book for 21st century female readers, especially book club members. In fact, it's an absolute shoo-in for book clubs, replete as it is with talking points that explore love, loss and redemption, and plentiful details about ancient Chinese rituals and beliefs, many of which live on into modern times (such as the believe that ghosts cannot turn corners). Added to which, See's heroines, in their downtrodden determination to follow the path of intellectual freedom, are very sympathetic to a modern reader. Some readers may find the level of detail a little too much - no opportunity to extrapolate on a cultural more is left untapped, no chance to expand on a ritual or piece of writing is left unexplored. But for those many readers who read to learn as much as to be entertained, this powerful, graceful and revealing book has a great deal to offer.
The Story of Peony In Love: Tang Xianzu's "The Peony Pavilion"
has caused controversy from when it was first performed in 1598
up until the current day. Almost immediately, different groups
advocated that it be censored, and many scenes were cut. In
1780, the opera was blacklisted as profane, and in 1868 it was
officially banned and all copies were ordered to be burned. In
2000, the Lincoln Center put on a full-length production that
was temporarily delayed when the Chinese government discovered
the content of the restored scenes and barred the actors,
costumes and sets from leaving the country. The reason for the
controversy? "The Peony Pavilion" was the first piece of
fiction in the history of China in which the heroine chose her
own destiny. Women of the time became entranced with the
concept, and many young girls destined for arranged marriages
chose to starve themselves to death so, like the heroine of the
opera, they too might choose their own destinies in their next
In 2000, Lisa See wrote a short piece for Vogue about the Lincoln Center's production of "The Peony Pavilion", and became intrigued by the "lovesick maidens" who, on researching the era, she found were part of a much larger phenomenon. Apparently, in the mid-17th century, more women writers were being published in China's Yangzi delta than in all the rest of the world at that time - literally thousands of women. Some women published just a poem or two, but others became professionals, supporting their families with their writing. When See came across the "The Three Wives' Commentary" - the first book of its kind written by women to have been published anywhere in the world, which on publication apparently caused such a furor that the Emperor clamped down even harder on the freedoms of women, See's interest turned into an obsession - and the result is Peony in Love.
Keep reading at Lisa See's website
This review is from the February 21, 2008 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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