Love is of source unknown, yet it grows ever deeper. The living may die of it, by its power the dead live again. Love is not love at its fullest if one who lives is unwilling to die for it, or if it cannot restore to life one who has died. And must love that comes in dream necessarily be unreal? For there is no lack of dream lovers in this world. Only for those whose love must be fulfilled on the pillow, and for whom affection deepens only after retirement from office, is it an entirely corporeal matter. – preface to The Peony Pavilion – Tang XianZu, 1598, Tang Dynasty.
Peony has neither seen nor spoken to any man other than her father, a wealthy Chinese nobleman. Nor has she ever ventured outside the cloistered women’s quarters of the family villa. As her 16th birthday approaches she finds herself betrothed to a man she does not know, but Peony has dreams of her own.
Her father engages a theatrical troupe to perform scenes from the Peony pavilion, a Chinese epic opera, in their garden amidst the scent of ginger, green tea and jasmine. ‘Unmarried girls’ should not be seen in public,’ says Peony’s mother, but her father allows the women to watch from behind a screen. Here peony catches sight of an elegant, handsome man and is immediately bewitched. She secretly met the stranger 3 times while the opera of The Peony Pavilion is played out on her family ground so that her family wouldn’t notice that she is missing. But the 3rd and final secret rendezvous attempt went awry and Peony is locked up by her mother 2 months following up to her wedding. Besotted, lovesickness, and certain that she is not marrying the stranger she fell in love with, she starved herself to death. It was on the brink of death that she discovered the man she is about to marry was in fact her beloved poet and she was silly not to look up when her father announced the impending marriage of Peony to this man, that coincidentally was the love of her life!
So a quarter into the book, the reader is in for shock when Peony died and roamed the earth as a ghost. It’s decisive moment like this that I am convinced that sometimes reading is a form of perversion when you know a story as such is so dumb but you are intrigued enough to read it till the end……
Thus Peony began her life as a ghost. Having read first hand experience of Elspeth the ghost in Her Fearful Symmetry, this is an elaborative version of the biography of a ghost. Peony watch over her family, watch how her mother grieved for her but Peony deserves no honour as a daughter to be given a tablet in the ancestor’s altar nor is she given a ghost marriage to be invited home to her fiancé’s, Wu Ren, house. How was that I – who’d been born into privilege, who’d been educated who was pretty and clever – had had so many bad things happen? How the belief of intelligent and beautiful women are too clever for their own good and almost always met with more life tragedies than if the girl is simple and naive. Peony watched as 5 years on, Wu Ren, the poet, took a new wife Tan Ze, Peony’s vicious cousin. Peony intervened as she guided her cousin’s thoughts to provide further commentaries to the opera of The Peony Pavilion, guided her thoughts to please her husband, treat her mother-in-law with respect, helped her during child labour, in the hope that Wu Ren would recognise her ghost presence as fashioned after The Peony Pavilion when Du LiNiang died and met MengMei in his dream. All these efforts expend to no avail, as Wu Ren is not superstitious enough to acknowledge Peony’s existence, not until Tan Ze died and Wu Ren faced the prospect of taking on a new wife, Yi, a decision which is indirectly influenced by Peony.
The writer has taken the liberty in painting an interesting afterlife. Lisa See also painted a sorrowful life without family and loved ones with her in the afterlife. Peony met the spirit of her grandmother who told her of the atrocities committed to women during the change from Ming to Ching dynasty. The selfishness of her grandfather and father who made their women suffered. You can even have a meaningful conversation with your mother in ghost land!
“Lacking pity, one is not human; Lacking shame, one is not human; Lacking a sense of pity, one is not Lacking a sense of right and wrong, one is not human.” Mama said.
“But I am not human. I’m a hungry ghost.”
“But you’ve experienced all that, haven’t you? You’ve felt pity, shame, remorse, and sadness for everything that happened to Tan Ze, right?” Mama asked.
Of course I had. I’d driven myself into exile as punishment for what I’d done.
“How can one test for humanity?” Mama asked. “By whether or not you cast a shadow or leave prints in the sand? Tang ZianZu gave you the answers in the opera you love so well when he wrote that no one can exist without joy, anger, grief, fear, love, hate and desire. So, you have it from the Book of Rites from The Peony Pavilion, and from me, that the Seven emotions are what make us human. You still have within yourself. You have to take all your ghostly attributes and put them to good use.”
Even a ghost has human attributes. So Peony begins her unforgettable journey of love, desire, sorrow and redemption.
The story expounded a lot of bizarre Chinese traditions, superstition and rituals, Chinese history, wisdom and the overdramatic take on love and relationship. Women are expected to be deferential and not encouraged to meddle with art and poetry. Women are raised for the ultimate aim of husband’s family, to honour his name, his career and tend to his every need. The superstitious belief in appeasing a ghost, and the belief of a family ghost will watch over and bless its family after death, and the ascend of different layers of heaven, ghost marriages, and the rites and rituals what one should do to appease the ghosts during the hungry ghost festival, and what one should do so that the soul would ceased to be a ghost and rest in peace and many more!!!
If you think back that this is a story set in the early Ching dynasty around 1694, with entrenched belief and superstition in the Chinese society, this is a very believable story. It brings you back to the practice of Ancient Chinese traditions and enticed readers to immerse in the story through the lives and ghosts of the characters of that era. I am amazed as to how detailed and knowledgeable of The Peony Pavilion opera the writer had imparted, even Chinese poetry is translated to English (I was more surprised when I found out that this book was written by an American who has a Chinese sounding name, as I assumed that such detailed cultural knowledge and beliefs would only have come from a true bred Chinese. Lisa See proved how wrong I was!).
This Bloombury 2008 edition also comes with an interview with Lisa See and a reading guide.
About the Writer:
Lisa See is a Chinese American writer and novelist, born in Paris February 18, 1955, but has spent many years in Los Angeles, especially Los Angeles Chinatown. The Chinese side of her family has had a great impact on her life and work. Her books include On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family (1995), Flower Net (1997), The Interior (1999), Dragon Bones (2003), Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005), Peony in Love (2007), and Shanghai Girls. Flower Net, The Interior, and Dragon Bones make up the Red Princess mystery series. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love focus on the lives of Chinese women in the 19th and 17th centuries respectively. Shanghai Girls (2009), chronicles the lives of two sisters who come to Los Angeles in arranged marriages and face, among other things, the pressures put on Chinese-Americans during the anti-Communist mania of the 1950’s.
The book Peony in Love is inspired by her research on the publication of The Three Wives’ Commentary of The Peony Pavilion Opera in 1694 who is the first book of its kind to be written and published by women anywhere in the world.
Lisa is the West Coast correspondent for Publishers Weekly (1983-1996); has written articles for Vogue, Self, and More; has written the libretto for the opera based on On Gold Mountain, and has helped develop the Family Discovery Gallery for the Autry Museum, which depicts 1930s Los Angeles from the perspective of her father as a seven-year-old boy. Her exhibition On Gold Mountain: A Chinese American Experience was featured in the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, and the Smithsonian. See is also a public speaker. She has written for and led in many cultural events emphasizing the importance of Los Angeles and Chinatown. Among her awards and recognitions are the Organization of Chinese American Women’s 2001 award as National Woman of the Year and the 2003 History Makers Award presented by the Chinese American Museum. See serves as a Los Angeles City Commissioner.