Peony in Love

Peony in Love

by Lisa See

Paperback(Reprint)

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Overview

“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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812975222
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/19/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 266,404
Product dimensions: 5.21(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Lisa See is the New York Times bestselling author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Flower Net (an Edgar Award nominee), The Interior, and Dragon Bones, as well as the critically acclaimed memoir On Gold Mountain. The Organization of Chinese American Women named her the 2001 National Woman of the Year. She lives in Los Angeles. Visit the author’s website: www.LisaSee.com.
To schedule a speaking engagement, please contact American Program Bureau
at www.apbspeakers.com  

Hometown:

Los Angeles, California

Date of Birth:

February 18, 1955

Place of Birth:

Paris, France

Education:

B.A., Loyola Marymount University, 1979

Read an Excerpt

Riding the Wind

Two days before my sixteenth birthday, i woke up so early that my maid was still asleep on the floor at the foot of my bed. I should have scolded Willow, but I didn’t because I wanted a few moments alone to savor my excitement. Beginning tonight, I would attend a production of The Peony Pavilion mounted in our garden. I loved this opera and had collected eleven of the thirteen printed versions available. I liked to lie in bed and read of the maiden Liniang and her dream lover, their adventures, and their ultimate triumph. But for three nights, culminating on Double Seven–the seventh day of the seventh month, the day of the lovers’ festival, and my birthday–I would actually see the opera, which was normally forbidden to girls and women. My father had invited other families for the festivities. We’d have contests and banquets. It was going to be amazing.

Willow sat up and rubbed her eyes. When she saw me staring at her, she scrambled to her feet and offered good wishes. I felt another flutter of anticipation, so I was particular when Willow bathed me, helped me into a gown of lavender silk, and brushed my hair. I wanted to look perfect; I wanted to act perfectly.

A girl on the edge of sixteen knows how pretty she is, and as I looked in the mirror I burned with the knowledge. My hair was black and silky. When Willow brushed it, I felt the strokes from the top of my head all the way down my back. My eyes were shaped like bamboo leaves; my brows were like gentle brushstrokes limned by a calligrapher. My cheeks glowed the pale pink of a peony petal. My father and mother liked to comment on how appropriate this was, because my name was Peony. I tried, as only a young girl can, to live up to the delicateness of my name. My lips were full and soft. My waist was small and my breasts were ready for a husband’s touch. I wouldn’t say I was vain. I was just a typical fifteen-year-old girl. I was secure in my beauty but had enough wisdom to know it was only fleeting.

My parents adored me and made sure I was educated–highly educated. I lived a rarefied and precious existence, in which I arranged flowers, looked pretty, and sang for my parents’ entertainment. I was so privileged that even my maid had bound feet. As a small girl, I believed that all the gatherings we held and all the treats we ate during Double Seven were a celebration for me. No one corrected my mistake, because I was loved and very, very spoiled. I took a breath and let it out slowly– happy. This would be my last birthday at home before I married out, and I was going to enjoy every minute.

I left my room in the Unmarried Girls’ Hall and headed in the direction of our ancestral hall to make offerings to my grandmother. I’d spent so much time getting ready that I made a quick obeisance. I didn’t want to be late for breakfast. My feet couldn’t take me as fast as I wanted to go, but when I saw my parents sitting together in a pavilion overlooking the garden, I slowed. If Mama was late, I could be late too.

“Unmarried girls should not be seen in public,” I heard my mother say. “I’m even concerned for my sisters-in-law. You know I don’t encourage private excursions. Now to bring outsiders in for this performance . . .”

She let her voice trail off. I should have hurried on, but the opera meant so much to me that I stayed, lingering out of sight behind the twisted trunks of a wisteria vine.

“There is no public here,” Baba said. “This will not be some open affair where women disgrace themselves by sitting among men. You will be hidden behind screens.”

“But outside men will be within our walls. They may see our stockings and shoes beneath the screen. They may smell our hair and powder. And of all the operas, you have chosen one about a love affair that no unmarried girl should hear!”
My mother was old-fashioned in her beliefs and her behavior. In the social disorder that followed the Cataclysm, when the Ming dynasty fell and the Manchu invaders took power, many elite women enjoyed leaving their villas to travel the waterways in pleasure boats, write about what they saw, and publish their observations. Mama was completely against things like that. She was a loyalist–still dedicated to the overthrown Ming emperor–but she was excessively traditional in other ways. When many women in the Yangzi delta were reinterpreting the Four Virtues–virtue, demeanor, speech, and work–my mother constantly chided me to remember their original meaning and intent. “Hold your tongue at all times,” she liked to say. “But if you must speak, wait until there is a good moment. Do not offend anyone.”

My mother could get very emotional about these things because she was governed by qing: sentiment, passion, and love. These forces tie together the universe and stem from the heart, the seat of consciousness. My father, on the other hand, was ruled by li–cold reason and mastered emotions–and he snorted indifferently at her concern that strangers were coming.

“You don’t complain when the members of my poetry club visit.”

“But my daughter and my nieces aren’t in the garden when they’re here! There’s no opportunity for impropriety. And what about the other families you’ve invited?”

“You know why I invited them,” he spat out sharply, his patience gone. “Commissioner Tan is important to me right now. Do not argue further with me on this!”

I couldn’t see their faces, but I imagined Mama paling under his sudden severity; she didn’t speak.

Mama managed the inner realm, and she always kept fish-shaped locks of beaten metal hidden in the folds of her skirts in case she needed to secure a door to punish a concubine, preserve bolts of silk that had arrived from one of our factories for home use, or protect the pantry, the curtain-weaving quarters, or the room set aside for our servants to pawn their belongings when they needed extra money. That she never used a lock unjustly had earned her added respect and gratitude from those who resided in the women’s chambers, but when she was upset, as she was at this moment, she fingered the locks nervously.

Baba’s flash of anger was replaced by a conciliatory tone he often took with my mother. “No one will see our daughter or our nieces. All the proprieties will be maintained. This is a special occasion. I must be gracious in my dealings. If we open our doors this one time, other doors may soon open.”

“You must do what you think best for the family,” Mama conceded.

I took that moment to scurry past the pavilion. I hadn’t understood all that had been said, but I really didn’t care. What mattered was that the opera would still be performed in our garden, and my cousins and I would be the first girls in all Hangzhou to see it. Of course we would not be out among the men. We would sit behind screens so no one could see us, as my father said.

By the time Mama entered the Spring Pavilion for breakfast, she had regained her usual composure.

“It doesn’t show good breeding for girls to eat too quickly,” she cautioned my cousins and me as she passed our table. “Your mothers-in-law will not want to see you eat like hungry carp in a pond–mouths open with yearning–when you move to your husbands’ homes. That said, we should be ready when our guests arrive.”

So we ate as hurriedly as we could and still appear to be proper young ladies.

As soon as the servants cleared the dishes, I approached my mother. “May I go to the front gate?” I asked, hoping to greet our guests.

“Yes, on your wedding day,” she responded, smiling fondly as she always did when I asked a stupid question.

I waited patiently, knowing that palanquins were now being brought over our main threshold and into the Sitting-Down Hall, where our visitors would get out and drink tea before entering the main part of the compound. From there, the men would go to the Hall of Abundant Elegance, where my father would receive them. The women would come to our quarters, which lay at the back of the compound, protected from the eyes of all men.

Eventually, I heard the lilting voices of women as they neared. When my mother’s two sisters and their daughters arrived, I reminded myself to be modest in appearance, behavior, and movement. A couple of my aunts’ sisters came next, followed by several of my father’s friends’ wives. The most important of these was Madame Tan, the wife of the man my father had mentioned in his argument with my mother. (The Manchus had recently given her husband a high appointment as Commissioner of Imperial Rites.) She was tall and very thin. Her young daughter, Tan Ze, looked around eagerly. A wave of jealousy washed over me. I had never been outside the Chen Family Villa. Did Commissioner Tan let his daughter pass through their family’s front gate very often?

Kisses. Hugs. The exchange of gifts of fresh figs, jars of Shaoxing rice wine, and tea made from jasmine flowers. Showing the women and their daughters to their rooms. Unpacking. Changing from traveling costumes to fresh gowns. More kisses. More hugs. A few tears and lots of laughter. Then we moved to the Lotus-Blooming Hall, our main women’s gathering place, where the ceiling was high, shaped like a fish tail, and supported by round posts painted black. Windows and carved doors looked out into a private garden on one side and a pond filled with lotus on the other. On an altar table in the center of the room stood a small screen and a vase. When spoken together, the words for screen and vase sounded like safe, and we women and girls all felt safe here in the hall as we took chairs.

Once settled, my bound feet just barely floating on the surface of the cool stone floor, I looked around the room. I was glad I’d taken such care with my appearance, because the other women and girls were dressed in their finest gauze silk, embroidered with patterns of seasonal flowers. As I compared myself to the others, I had to admit that my cousin Lotus looked exceptionally beautiful, but then she always did. Truthfully, we all sparkled in anticipation of the festivities that were about to descend on our home. Even my chubby cousin Broom looked more pleasing than usual.

The servants set out little dishes of sweetmeats, and then my mother announced an embroidery contest, the first of several activities she’d planned for these three days. We laid our embroidery projects on a table and my mother examined them, looking for the most intricate designs and skillful stitches. When she came to the piece I’d made, she spoke with the honesty of her position.

“My daughter’s needlework improves. See how she tried to embroider chrysanthemums?” She paused. “They are chrysanthemums, aren’t they?” When I nodded, she said, “You’ve done well.” She kissed me lightly on the forehead, but anyone could see I would not win the embroidery contest, on this day or ever.

By late afternoon–between the tea, the contests, and our anticipation about tonight–we were all fidgety. Mama’s eyes swept through the room, taking in the wiggling little girls, the darting eyes of their mothers, Fourth Aunt’s swinging foot, and pudgy Broom pulling repeatedly at her tight collar. I clasped my hands together in my lap and sat as still as possible when Mama’s eyes found me, but inside I wanted to jump up, wave my arms, and scream my exhilaration.

Mama cleared her throat. A few women looked in her direction, but otherwise the tittering agitation continued. She cleared her throat again, tapped her fingernail on a table, and began to speak in a melodious voice. “One day the Kitchen God’s seven daughters were bathing in a pond when a Cowherd and his water buffalo came upon them.”

At the recognition of the opening lines to every girl and woman’s favorite story, quiet fell over the room. I nodded at my mother, acknowledging how clever she was to use this story to relax us, and we listened to her recount how the impudent Cowherd stole the clothes of the loveliest daughter, the Weaving Maid, leaving her to languish naked in the pond.

“As the chill of night settled in the forest,” Mama explained, “she had no choice but to go in nature’s full embarrassment to the Cowherd’s home to retrieve her clothes. The Weaving Maid knew she could save her reputation only one way. She decided to marry the Cowherd. What do you suppose happened next?”

“They fell in love,” Tan Ze, Madame Tan’s daughter, piped up in a shrill voice.

This was the unforeseen part of the story, since no one expected an immortal to love an ordinary man when even here in the mortal world husbands and wives in arranged marriages often did not find love.

“They had many children,” Ze went on. “Everyone was happy.”

“Until?” my mother asked, this time looking for a response from another girl.

“Until the gods and goddesses grew weary,” Ze answered again, ignoring my mother’s obvious wishes. “They missed the girl who spun cloud silk into cloth for their clothes and they wanted her back.”

My mother frowned. This Tan Ze had forgotten herself entirely! I guessed her to be about nine years old. I glanced at her feet, remembering that she’d walked in unassisted today. Her two-year footbinding was behind her. Maybe her enthusiasm had to do with being able to walk again. But her manners!

“Go on,” Ze said. “Tell us more!”

Mama winced and then continued as though yet another breach of the Four Virtues had not occurred. “The Queen of Heaven brought the Weaving Maid and the Cowherd back to the celestial skies, and then she took a hairpin and drew the Milky Way to separate them. In this way, the Weaving Maid would not be diverted from her work, and the Queen of Heaven would be beautifully robed. On Double Seven, the goddess allows all the magpies on earth to form a celestial bridge with their wings so the two lovers can meet. Three nights from now, if you girls are still awake between the hours of midnight and dawn and find yourselves sitting beneath a grape arbor under the quarter moon, you will hear the lovers weep at their parting.”

It was a romantic thought–and it coated us in warm feelings–but none of us would be alone under a grape arbor at that time of night, even if we were within the safety of this compound. And at least for me, it did little to still my quivering excitement about The Peony Pavilion. How much longer would I have to wait?

When it came time for dinner back in the Spring Pavilion, the women gathered in little groups–sisters with sisters, cousins with cousins–but Madame Tan and her daughter were strangers here. Ze plopped down beside me at the unmarried girls’ table as though she were soon to be married and not still a little girl. I knew it would make Mama happy if I gave my attention to our guest, but I was sorry I did.

“My father can buy me anything I want,” Ze crowed, telling me and everyone else who could hear that her family had more wealth than the Chen clan.
we had barely finished our meal when from outside came the sound of a drum and cymbals, calling us to the garden. I wanted to show my refinement and leave the room slowly, but I was first out the door. Lanterns flickered as I followed the corridor from the Spring Pavilion, along the edge of the central pond, to just past our Always-Pleasant Pavilion. I stepped through moon gates, which borrowed views of stands of bamboo, potted cymbidiums, and artfully trimmed branches on the other side. As the music grew louder, I forced myself to slow down. I needed to proceed cautiously, fully aware that men who were not family members stood within our walls tonight. If one of them should chance to see me, I would be blamed and a bad mark set against my character. But being careful and not rushing took more self-control than I thought possible. The opera would begin shortly, and I wanted to experience every second of it.

I reached the area that had been set aside for women and sat down on a cushion positioned near one of the screen’s folds so I could peek through the crack. I wouldn’t be able to see much of the opera, but it was more than I’d hoped for. The other women and girls came in behind me and took places on other cushions. I was so excited I didn’t even mind when Tan Ze sat beside me.

For weeks, my father–as director of the performance–had been tucked away in a side hall with the cast. He had hired a traveling all-male theatrical troupe of eight members, which had upset my mother terribly, because these were people of the lowest and basest class. He’d also coerced others from our household staff–including Willow and several other servants–into taking various roles.

“Your opera has fifty-five scenes and four hundred and three arias!” Willow had said to me in awe one day, as if I didn’t already know that. It would have taken more than twenty hours to perform the whole opera, but no matter how many times I asked, she wouldn’t tell me which scenes Baba had cut. “Your father wants it to be a surprise,” Willow said, enjoying the opportunity to disobey me. As the rehearsals became more demanding, consternation had rippled throughout the household when an uncle had called for a pipe and found no one to fill it, or an aunt had asked for hot water for her bath and no one had brought it. Even I had been inconvenienced, since Willow was busy now, having been given the important role of Spring Fragrance, the main character’s servant.

The music began. The narrator stepped out and gave a quick synopsis of the play, emphasizing how longing had lasted through three incarnations before Liu Mengmei and Du Liniang realized their love. Then we met the young hero, an impoverished scholar who had to leave his ancestral home to take the imperial exams. His family name was Liu, which means willow. He recalled how he dreamed of a beautiful maiden standing under a plum tree. When he woke up, he took the given name Mengmei, Dream of Plum. The plum tree, with its lush foliage and ripening fruit, brought to mind the forces of nature, so this name was suggestive even to me of Mengmei’s passionate nature. I listened attentively, but my heart had always been with Liniang and I could hardly wait to see her.

She arrived onstage for the scene called Admonishing the Daughter. She wore a robe of golden silk with red embroidery. From her headdress rose fluffy balls of spun silk, beaded butterflies, and flowers that quivered when she moved.

“We treasure our daughter like a pearl,” Madame Du sang to her husband, but she chastised her daughter. “You don’t want to be ignorant, do you?

And Prefect Du, Liniang’s father, added, “No virtuous and eligible young lady should fail to be educated. Take time from your embroidery and read the books on the shelves.”

But admonitions alone couldn’t change Liniang’s behavior, so soon enough she and Spring Fragrance were being tutored by a strict teacher. The lessons were tedious, full of the kind of memorization of rules that I knew only too well. “It is proper for a daughter at first cockcrow to wash her hands, to rinse her mouth, to dress her hair, to pin the same, and to pay respects to her mother and father.”

I heard things like this every day, along with Don’t show your teeth when you smile, Walk steadily and slowly, Look pure and pretty, Be respectful to your aunties, and Use scissors to trim any frayed or loose threads on your gowns.

Poor Spring Fragrance couldn’t stand the lessons and begged to be dismissed so she could pee. The men on the other side of the screen chortled when Willow bent over at the waist, squirmed, and held in her pee with both hands. It embarrassed me to see her behaving so, but she was only doing what my father had instructed (which shocked me, because how could he know about such things?).

In my discomfort, I let my eyes drift from the stage, and I saw men. Most of them had their backs to me, but some were angled so I could see their profiles. I was a maiden, but I looked. It was naughty, but I had lived fifteen years without having committed a single act that anyone in my family could call unfilial.

My eyes caught sight of a man as he turned his head to look at the gentleman sitting in the chair next to him. His cheekbones were high, his eyes wide and kind, and his hair black as a cave. He wore a long dark-blue gown of simple design. His forehead was shaved in deference to the Manchu emperor, and his long queue draped languidly over a shoulder. He brought his hand up to his mouth to make an aside, and I imagined in that simple gesture so much: gentleness, refinement, and a love of poetry. He smiled, revealing perfect white teeth and eyes that shone with merriment. His elegance and somnolence reminded me of a cat: long, slim, perfectly groomed, knowledgeable, and very contained. He was man-beautiful. When he turned his face back to the stage to watch the opera, I realized I’d been holding my breath. I let it out slowly and tried to concentrate as Spring Fragrance returned–relieved–with news of a garden she’d found.

When I read this part of the story, I felt great sympathy for Liniang, who was so cloistered she didn’t even know her family owned a garden. She had spent her entire life indoors. Now Spring Fragrance tempted her mistress to go outside to see the flowers, willows, and pavilions. Liniang was curious, but she artfully hid her interest from her maid.

The quiet and subtlety was broken by a great fanfare announcing the Speed the Plough scene. Prefect Du arrived in the countryside to exhort the farmers, herders, mulberry girls, and tea pickers to work hard in the coming season. Acrobats tumbled, clowns drank from flasks of wine, men in gaily decorated costumes tottered about the garden on stilts, and our maids and other servants performed country harvest songs and dances. It was such a li scene, filled with what I imagined the outside world of men to be: wild gestures, exaggerated facial expressions, and the dissonance of gongs, clackers, and drums. I closed my eyes against the cacophony and tried to draw more deeply into myself to find my interior reading quiet. My heart calmed. When I opened my eyes, I again saw through the slit in the screen the man I’d spotted earlier. His eyes were closed. Could he be feeling what I was feeling?
Someone pulled my sleeve. I glanced to my right and saw Tan Ze’s pinched little face looking up at me intently. “Are you staring at that boy out there?” she whispered.

I blinked a few times and tried to regain my composure by taking several shallow breaths.

“I was looking at him too,” she confided, acting much too bold for her years. “You must be betrothed already. But my father”–she brought her chin down while looking up at me with clever eyes–“has not yet arranged my marriage. He says that with so much turmoil still in the land, no one should agree to these things too early. You don’t know which family will go up and which will go down. My father says it’s terrible to marry a daughter to a mediocre man.”

Was there a way to make this girl close her mouth? I wondered, and not in a nice way.

Ze turned back to face the screen and squinted through the crack. “I will ask my father to make inquiries about that boy’s family.”

As though she would actually have a choice in her marriage! I don’t know how it could have happened so quickly, but I was jealous and angry that she would try to steal him for herself. Of course, there was no hope for the young man and me. As Ze said, I was already betrothed. But for these three nights of the opera I wanted to dream romantic thoughts and imagine that my life too might have a happy love-filled ending like Liniang’s.

I blocked Ze from my mind and let myself be transported back to the opera for The Interrupted Dream. At last Liniang ventured out into her– our–garden. Such a lovely moment when she sees it all for the first time. Liniang lamented that the beauty of the flowers was hidden in a place no one visited, but she also saw the garden as a version of herself: in full bloom but neglected. I understood how she felt. The emotions that stirred in her were stirred in me every time I read the lines.
Liniang returned to her room, changed into a robe embroidered with peony blossoms, and sat before a mirror, wondering at the fleeting nature of her beauty much as I had this morning. “Pity one whose beauty is a bright flower, when life endures no longer than a leaf on a tree,” she sang, expressing how disturbing spring’s splendor can be, and how temporary. “I finally understand what the poets have written. In spring, moved to passion; in autumn, only regret. Oh, will I ever see a man? How will love find me? Where can I reveal my true desires?”

Overcome by all she’d experienced, she fell asleep. In her dreams, she traveled to the Peony Pavilion, where the spirit of Liu Mengmei appeared, wearing a robe with a willow pattern and carrying a willow sprig. He touched Liniang gently with the leaves. They exchanged soft words, and he asked her to compose a poem about the willow. Then they danced together. Liniang was so delicate and touching in her movements that it was like watching a silkworm’s death–tender and subtle.

Mengmei led her into our garden’s rocky grotto. With the two of them gone from view, all I heard was Mengmei’s seductive voice. “Open the fastening at your neck, untie the sash around your waist, and cover your eyes with your sleeve. You may need to bite the fabric. . . .”

Alone in my bed I had tried in vain to imagine what might be going on in the rockery of the Peony Pavilion. I still couldn’t see what was happening and had to rely on the appearance of the Flower Spirit to explain their actions. “Ah, how the male force surges and leaps. . . .” But this didn’t help me either. As an unmarried girl, I’d been told about clouds and rain, but no one had yet explained what it really was.

At consummation, a shower of peony petals came floating over the top of the rockery. Liniang sang of the joys she and her scholar had found.

When Liniang woke from her dream, she realized she’d found true love. Spring Fragrance, on orders from Madame Du, instructed Liniang to eat. But how could she? Three meals a day held no promise, no love. Liniang sneaked away from her servant and went back to the garden to pursue her dream. She saw the ground carpeted in petals. Hawthorn branches caught her skirt, pulling at her, keeping her in the garden. Memories of her dream came back to her: “Against the withered rock he leaned my wilting body.” She remembered how he laid her down and how she spread the folds of her skirt as “a covering for earth for the fear of the eyes of Heaven,” until eventually she’d experienced her sweet melting.

She lingered under a plum tree thick with clusters of fruit. But this was no ordinary plum tree. It represented Liniang’s mysterious dream lover, vital and procreative. “I should count it a great good fortune to be buried here beside it when I die,” Liniang sang.

My mother had trained me never to show my feelings, but when I read The Peony Pavilion, I felt certain things: love, sadness, happiness. Now, watching the story played out before me, imagining what happened in our rockery between the scholar and Liniang, and seeing a young man not of my own family for the first time brought out too many emotions in me. I had to get away for a few moments; Liniang’s restlessness was my own.

I slowly rose and gingerly stepped between the cushions. I walked along one of our garden paths, Liniang’s words filling my heart with longing. I tried to rest my mind by letting my eyes find quiet in the greenery. There were no flowers in our main garden. Everything was green to create a feeling of tranquility like a cup of tea–the taste light but remaining a long time. I crossed the zigzag bridge that spanned one of our lesser lily ponds and stepped into the Riding-the-Wind Pavilion, which had been designed so that gentle breezes on a sultry summer evening would cool a hot face or burning heart. I sat down and tried to calm myself in the way the pavilion intended. I had so wanted to experience every second of the opera, but I’d been unprepared for how overwhelmed I would feel.

Arias and music wafted to me through the night, carrying with them Madame Du’s concern over her daughter’s listlessness. Madame Du didn’t recognize it yet, but her daughter was lovesick. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and let that knowledge seep into me.

Then I heard a disquieting echo of my breath near me. I opened my eyes and saw standing before me the young man I’d seen through the slit in the screen.

A tiny yip of surprise escaped from my lips before I could even begin to compose myself. I was alone with a man who was not a relative. Worse, he was a total stranger.

“I’m sorry.” He folded his hands together and bowed several times in apology.

My heart pounded–from fear, from excitement, from the sheer extraordinariness of the situation. This man had to be one of my father’s friends. I had to be gracious, yet maintain decorum. “I shouldn’t have left the performance,” I said hesitantly. “It’s my fault.”

“I shouldn’t have left either.” He took a step forward, and my body leaned away in automatic response. “But the love of those two . . .” He shook his head. “Imagine finding true love.”

“I’ve imagined it many times.”

I was sorry as soon as the words left my mouth. This was not the way to speak to a man, whether a stranger or a husband. I knew that, and yet the words had flown from my tongue. I put three fingers to my lips, hoping they would keep more thoughts from escaping.

“So have I,” he said. He took another step forward. “But Liniang and Mengmei find each other in the dream, and then they fall in love.”

“Perhaps you don’t know the opera,” I said. “They meet, true, but Liniang pursues Mengmei only after she becomes a ghost.”

“I know the story, but I disagree. The scholar must overcome his fear of her ghost–”

“A fear that arises only after she seduces him.

How could that sentence have come out of my mouth?

“You must forgive me,” I said. “I’m just an ignorant girl, and I should get back to the performance.”

“No, wait. Please don’t go.”

I looked through the darkness back toward the stage. I’d waited my entire life to see this opera. I could hear Liniang sing, “In my thin gown I tremble, wrapped against the morning chill only by regrets to see red tears of petals shake from the bough.” In her lovesickness, she’d become so thin and frail–haggard, really–that she decided to paint her self-portrait on silk. If she left the world, she would be remembered as she’d been in her dream, ripe with beauty and unfulfilled desire. This act–as it was, even for a living girl–was a tangible symptom of Liniang’s lovesickness, since it acknowledged and anticipated her death. With the fine lines of her brush, she painted a plum sprig in the figure’s hand to recall her dream lover, hoping that if he ever chanced upon the portrait he would recognize her. Finally, she added a poem expressing her wish to marry someone named Liu.

How could I be tempted to stay away from the opera so easily? And by a man? If I had been thinking at all, I would have realized right then why some people believed The Peony Pavilion lured young women into behaving improperly.

He must have sensed my indecision–how could he not?–for he said, “I won’t speak of this to anyone so please stay. I’ve never had a chance to hear what a woman thinks of the opera.”

A woman? The situation was getting worse. I stepped around him, making sure that no part of my clothes brushed against him. As I walked past, he spoke again.

“The author meant to stir female feelings of qing–of love and emotion–in us. I feel this story, but I don’t know if what I experience is true.”

We were just inches apart. I turned and looked up into his face. His features were even more refined than I’d thought. In the dim light of the soon-to-be quarter moon, I saw the high planes of his cheekbones, the gentleness in his eyes, and the fullness of his mouth.

“I . . .” My voice closed in on itself as he gazed down at me. I cleared my throat and began again. “How could a girl–cloistered and from an elite family–”

“A girl like you.”

“–choose her own husband? This is not possible for me, and it would have been impossible for her too.”

“Do you think you understand Liniang better than her creator?”

“I’m a girl. I’m the same age. I believe in filial duty,” I said, “and I will follow the course my father has set for me, but all girls have dreams, even if our destinies are set.”

“So you have the same kinds of dreams as Liniang?” he asked.

“I’m not a pleasure girl on one of the painted boats on the lake, if that’s what you’re asking!”

Suddenly I burned with embarrassment. I had said too much. I stared at the ground. My bound-foot shoes looked tiny and delicate next to his embroidered slippers. I felt his eyes on me and longed to look up, but I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. I tipped my head and, without another word, left the pavilion.

He called softly after me. “Meet me tomorrow?” A question, followed a heartbeat later by a stronger statement: “Meet me tomorrow night. Meet me here.”

I didn’t answer. I didn’t look back. Instead I walked straight to our main garden and once again threaded my way through the seated women to the pillow positioned in front of the screen’s fold. I glanced around, hoping no one had noticed my absence. I sat down and forced myself to look through the crack out to the performance, but I found it hard to pay attention. When I saw the young man return to his seat, I closed my eyes. I would not allow myself to look at him. Sitting there, my eyes shut tight, the music and the words penetrated me.

Reading Group Guide

1. On page 76, Lisa See quotes the poet Han Yun, who wrote, “All things not at peace will cry out.” What do you think he meant by that? And in what ways does this inspire Peony and the other women writers in the novel?

2.What are the different kinds of love that Peony experiences? How does her love for Ren (as well as for her mother, father, grandmother, Yi, and even Willow) change through the years? Have you had similar experiences in your life?

3.Anticipating her first meeting with Ren in the Moon-Viewing Pavilion, Peony states: “Monthly bleeding doesn’t turn a girl into a woman, nor does betrothal or new skills. Love had turned me into a woman” (p. 49). Is Peony’s statement true?

4.Peony is filled with doubt after meeting Ren–doubt about their relationship, doubt about ever finding love, and doubt about being a good mother. What is the source of this doubt and how does it grow within Peony?

5.In the nights of watching The Peony Pavilion, Peony has many visions of the man she will marry, and many visions of “her poet.” Why isn’t she able to make the connection that both men are one and the same? What signs does she overlook and why?

6.On page 94, Peony thinks she’s being dressed for her wedding, but instead she’s taken to the courtyard to die. Peony is certainly surprised by this turn of events. Were you? How does this moment affect Peony’s future actions and her feelings about her family? How do you feel about this practice?

7.Many men have told Lisa See that they don’t like the idea of the Chinese afterworld, where your relatives are still your relatives and your position remains the same as it was in life. Many women, on the other hand, have told her that they find the idea of the Chinese afterworld comforting. They want to be united with their families in the afterworld and still be able to interfere in the living world. What are the differences and similarities between the Chinese afterworld and Western religions’ concept of heaven and hell? Which would you prefer–for yourself and for your loved ones–and why?

8.We see a difference in Peony’s actions after Ze marries Ren and again after Ze dies. Do you see redemption here for Peony?

9.In what ways is mother love, from both a mother’s perspective and a daughter’s perspective, explored? What does Peony learn about mother love, and in what ways does she experience it herself? What aspects of mother love still hold true for mothers and daughters today?

10.How does what happened during the Cataclysm change depending on who’s telling the story?

11.Peony in Love shows the strength of women and women’s friendship, but in what ways does it also show the dark shadow side of women, whether in the women’s chambers, between a mother and daughter, between wives, or even between friends?

12.Peony in Love is very much a tale of secrets and the power secrets can exercise over others. What are the secrets? Who is affected by the secrets and how do they change through the story?

13.You have read about three generations of women, and also about the people around them–both male and female. Of all the characters, which do you feel you are most like, and why? Are there any people like these characters in your life today?

14.Often what we hate most about ourselves–our weight, our tendency toward selfishness, our vanity, etc.– is what we are most critical of in others. Trace the progress of Peony’s relationship with Tan Ze–through life together in the Chen Family Villa and then in the afterlife. In what ways are Peony and Tan Ze alike, and in what ways are they different? Why do they need each other, and how do they serve one another? Do you have similar symbiotic relationships in your life, and in what ways would you expect those relationships to change in the afterlife?

15.How do Peony’s experiences as a living girl and then as a hungry ghost parallel Liniang’s experiences in The Peony Pavilion?

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Peony in Love 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 283 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
With too much intelligent history to be pegged a romance, Peony in Love is, indeed, romantic. It is a tale of love and death in 17th century China - a time of Cataclysm and a place where, pound for pound, salt was more valuable than women. Painting her words on a ghostly dreamscape, See once again explores themes of love, language and the strength of women amidst a revealing and sometimes disturbing history................ Already promised in marriage, young Peony Chen falls in love under the spell of her favorite opera, The Peony Pavillion. Fated to follow in the footsteps of the opera's heroine, Peony dies of lovesickness soon thereafter. It is only after she dies and her tortured soul waits to be dispersed in the proper way that she learns her beloved and her betrothed were one in the same. Now a hungry ghost, Peony hopes to be reconciled with Wu Ren just as her opera heroine was reunited with her own true love............. But Peony confronts many obstacles, the least of which is the unfinished state of her written critical commentary on The Peony Pavillion. Although abundant in number and talent, China's earliest female writers were often published posthumously and anonymously. Yet, working between the worlds of life and death, Peony manages to have her work published and, more important, her words recognized by Wu Ren................ What kind of reconciliation can Peony possibly expect when so many ancient rules were broken, so many rituals left unperformed? How can a ghost-wife love a husband who loves someone else? See's rich writing style will keep you turning pages for answers. Drawing from resources including Tang Xianzu's opera The Peony Pavillion 'first published in 1598', Wu Wushan's Three Wives' Collaborative Commentary on The Peony Pavillion, Jingmei Chen's dissertation The Dream World of Love-Sick Maidens, a plethora of scholarly research and personal interviews See weaves a haunting blend of history and love.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is my first book by Lisa See, but it will definitely not be my last! Although there is certainly a point in the book that is so heartbreaking I almost stopped reading it, I'm so glad I continued on this journey with Peony. What a wonderful, incredible book on women, men, love, passion, mothers, daughters, and the golden threads of words that bind our souls together forever. Take your time reading this book - it is a complex, beautiful tapestry that deserves your time and attention.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was concerned that this book would be too complicated since I didn't know much about the Chinese culture and traditions but it wasn't a problem. Lisa See tells an amazing story and is very knowledgeable herself. As already stated, this isn't a fast read. I took my time and paid attention to the names and the descriptions. I was rewarded with an inspiring story about Peony and her family and how she learns and grows even in the afterworld. This was my first book by this author but I will be reading more of hers now.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Peony In Love was by far the most enjoyable book I have ever read. It takes a great look at China's society and reveals women's desire to be heard. The book mixes undying love with suspense, revenge, joy, and heartbreak. The book kept me on my toes, and as I became emotionally involved, I began to relate to the characters very easily. Reading Peony In Love was extremely full filing and I will never forget it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I just finished reading this novel, and I cannot seem to let her 'Peony' go. Such a beautifu, haunting story, all the more so knowing that the three wives did exist. While See has invented their biography here, she's done it in such a way that even the most supernatural elements seem to be their truths. In reading the novel, I can see where some impatient readers might not like it--if you're looking for a quick and airy summer read, don't go for this book--it is not meant to be read as such. It is meant to be reflected upon and savored. The themes within it are many, and are deep--they will not leave once you have closed the book for the last time. I myself became a little frustrated right around the time Peony died in the book--I stopped reading, because I didn't want her to die so unfulfilled! But I was so wrong in this, and once I resumed my reading, I could barely put the book down, let alone stop thinking about it. This work is a wonderful blessing, about a world that most of us, sadly, know little about.
Hooptykt2 More than 1 year ago
I really thought this would be an interesting story from the background and other reviews. However, I found it relatively boring, childish and too sweet for my tastes. If you like the unrealistic romances spiritual and otherwise this book is for you.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was the second book I read by Lisa See and it was just as good as I hoped it to be! I love how she told the story from a unique point of view.....
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this book b/c it is so rich in the Chinese culture and Lisa See does a wonderful job in explaining certain traditions and sticking to the facts. Although some parts were extremely depressing, I couldn't put down the book without wondering what will happen in the end. In some aspects I was so touched by the main character (Peony) that I started picking up on her emotions and feeling them myself. Through the experiences I've gone through in life and the beautifully crafted story of Peony, I've gained lots of insight about dreams, love, and death after reading See's book. I highly recommend it to anyone who is fascinated by the Chinese culture.
Anonymous 7 days ago
Great+read%2C+
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Simply loved this story. It was not my first Lisa See book, nor will it be my last. Written so well that i can almost see the characters and storyline unfold before me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is my first book by Lisa See and it defiantly won't be my last. She was an amazing author who perfectly described the book. It's not the best thing i have ever read, but its in my top three. See just perfectly built upon the Qing dynasty and the facts that she had about the lovesick maidens and turned it into a magnificent book. I would highly recommend for everyone to go on Peony's adventure because it's a brilliant one at that. She goes through many phases in her life and it is very interesting. You will also learn a lot about Chinese culture and the after life that follows with it.
SandSing7 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When the novel starts, Peony is ready to be married to a man of her father's choosing. In a series of scenes that are both melodramatic and totally unconvincing, she meets and falls in love with (unbeknownst to her) her soon to be husband. Thinking she is going to be married to another man, she throws herself into the study of an opera and starves herself to death. Consequently, she becomes a hungry ghost, trapped in a kind of spiritual limbo. She then proceeds to torture her husband's second wife by trying to live out through this woman what could have been her life had she not been an idiot and killed herself.Is this an oversimplification? Absolutly! However, I found no sympathy for Peony. Her death was not a production of her society or her surroundings, but of her own selfish impulses. Why spend your whole afterlife obsessed with a man who you've met for 20 minutes and to whom you were never married?
shifrack00 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Sad, but great at the end.
eileenmary on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Didn't care for this one as much as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Story told from perspective of one of Three Wives of 17th Century China and THe Peony Pavilion but it just didn't capture my interest as well as Snow Flower did.
MegsieG on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Peony in Love, by Lisa See, is an epic story which seeks to weave together the lives and souls of three young women during the transition from the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty. Peony in Love is a historical novel, in that the characters are based on real people and loosly on real events. The reader can expect to learn about the changing mores of Ming-Qing dynasty China as they pertain to womens' roles in society. To those who read Asian women's fiction, many of these ideas will not be new. However, it is Lisa See's story that sets this novel apart from the works of Amy Tan, Kathryn Harrison and Arthur Golden. Peony is a fully realized character whose struggle for self-realization takes us through the obstacles of a changing world to the murky obstacles of the afterworld. Her struggle, like that of the opera she so admires, is both a political and personal one. At times, Peony in Love can be didactic in its desire to drive home the point that women have been needlessly silenced. And yet, this is an idea that is dangerous to forget.
FicusFan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I got this book from the ER review program. I was hopeful that I would enjoy it. But I really didn't. It also was so bizarre that I really couldn't think of anything useful to say about it for a long time. I still can't be terribly positive, but I will write what I think and remember - it was 2 years ago.I enjoy Chinese and Asian fiction, and SFF, so there is nothing in the book that should have put me off. What did was the way the people in the book, adults, acceded to the demands of a spoiled silly child. They let her die. It was mind boggling. Can you imagine being ruled by a teenager, and allowing her to direct her life to the point of dying ?The premise is that a young teenage girl whose family is wealthy and aristocratic, is worried about who she will be required to marry. She is at the age to be married 14-16 and she is afraid not only about who her family will pick, she will not see or meet him until the wedding, but about leaving home. At a party in her home, she accidently and illicitly meets a young man. They have a brief time together. Peony decides she loves him, and will not marry anyone else. She refuses the match her parents make, and to prove her refusal, starves herself to death. While doing this she becomes enamored of the written version of an opera called Peony Pavilion, which glamorizes suffering for love. It has been suppressed not only for content, but because a woman wrote it.Not only was Peony silly, and lacking in life experience, but she reminded me of one of those teens who get a crush on TV stars/singers today, and who moon over their posters and plan their lives with them, even though they will never meet. Well Peony took it one step further, she died for hers. When she was alive, she was a horribly annoying character.The book then shifts to Peony in the antechamber of the afterlife. Seems her family forgot to 'dot' her spirit tablet, so her soul can't move on. She is a poor and hungry ghost with no one venerating her. She decides to watch the young man she loved, only to find out, he was the groom her parents wanted her to marry. She suffers for her stupidity, and determines to do good as a ghost. She even goes so far as to try to help the women who marry her love. The first she can't help and may even have driven to suicide. The second she can, and even saves their unborn child. Happiness and good things ensue.The idea that dying of 'love sickness' was actually anorexia was very interesting. These girls had no control over their lives, their bodies, or their actions. It may have been the only way for the girls to express themselves. But the idea that their families went along with it was preposterous. I wanted to throw the book against the wall.I can't say I will read anything by See again.
Kiri on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A truly wonderful story. I wasn't certain where this was headed in the first part (there are three) but then it took off and turned into an incredible tale. One might also view this as a parable. Definitely one of the best reads for pure pleasure this year.
LynnB on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I didn't like this book very much. The plot revolves around a 16 year-old girl who dies of "lovesickness" because she isn't aware that her arranged marriage is actually to the man she loves. A bit too much like a soap opera plot for my taste. To make matters worse, she then continues to narrate the book as a ghost watching over her beloved and his subsequent wives.I also didn't enjoy the emphasis on poetry and literary criticism rather than on the characters themselves. (Although we do gain insights into their motives towards the end of the book.)So, why did I finish it? My book club is reading this, and I believe there is something to be learned or appreciated in almost every book. And this one was no exception. There is a scene on foot binding that made me feel ill. The women, though, saw foot binding as power, an act of rebellion against the current dynasty. And the theme of feminism -- women's power, their voices and need to be heard -- was woven throughout the story. In the end, I think the story reclaimed femininity as part of feminism, and that's a good thing.
eenerd on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was weird. Whenever I wasn't reading it, I didn't care for it...then I would pick it back up and enjoy it. The poetry part was boring, and alot of the analysis dialogue was really REALLY boring. But the fantasy aspects of it were really cool and fun to read. If you can get over the annoying wannabe academic aspects of this book, it is a good read.
ashley_schmidt on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was pretty good. I thought the premise of the book was very interesting a creative as Lisa See played with the narrator. However, there were points in the novel where it got a little slow. The cultural elements of the novel were very insightful. I would recommend this book.
picardyrose on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Fascinating story of a girl who dies for love. Beautiful writing.
InsatiableB on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I wasn't sure how to rate Peony In Love. Part of me feels like I should start to employ a different rating system (more systematic) than my current "pick a number" method. Any suggestions?The reason I had a hard time was that the writing style of Lisa See really was lovely - as always. And the book was so well done. The story ebbed and flowed in such a fluid way; which really is an accomplishment for such an abstract idea. But I just didn't like reading about poor Peony in the afterlife. Haunting her relatives and her finance's new wives... The concepts were all a bit strange to me.This is a little blurb I took from lisasee.com:So begins Peony's unforgettable journey of love and destiny, desire and sorrow -- as Lisa See's haunting new novel takes readers back to 17th 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 are worshiped, misdeeds are punished, and hungry ghosts wander the earth. Based on a true story, Peony in Love uses the richness and magic of the Chinese afterlife to transcend death and explore the many manifestations of love. Ultimately, it¿s about universal themes: the bonds of female friendship, the power of words, the desire all women have to be heard, and finally those emotions that are so strong that they transcend time, place, and perhaps even death.It really was fascinating to read about the ancient Chinese beliefs about the afterlife and, as in Snowflower and the Secret Fan, the reader was immersed in the mysterious customs of foot-binding, the women's secret world and the mother love phenomenon. But I enjoyed Snowflower more, maybe because I could understand the human realm that she lived in better than the ghostly world of Peony.
punxsygal on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read about 125 pages and just lost interest.
PghDragonMan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I think this is the first book I¿ve read where the ending could be summed up as ¿And she died happily ever after¿. While not exactly Tim Burton¿s Corpse Bride, some scenes did remind me of both this movie and Beetle Juice. Confused? Let me try and explain . . .The book is set at the beginning of the Manchu Dynasty, roughly the latter part of the 17th Century. Lisa See does an excellent job of capturing the feel of the formal stylized daily rituals that made up life for the wealthier classes. Peony, of the title Peony In Love, is the daughter of an aspiring courtier. In an effort to improve his chances of an appointment, he stages scenes from a lavish operatic cycle, the Peony Pavilion. Peony, the daughter, thinks the event is being staged for the benefit of her birthday and upcoming marriage to a young man from another family. This is one of many mistaken assumptions on Peony¿s part.Many elements of history are woven into the story. The bloody takeover by the Manchus, integral to understanding some of the characters motivations, did occur, but the author has condensed the time period considerably. The Peony Pavilion was a real opera of the time as were many of the women poets mentioned throughout the book. While still repressive in many aspects, I was surprised to find the seeds of feminism existing in this time period.I was also fascinated with the Chinese beliefs about death, spirits and the afterworld as described in the book. The author¿s notes indicate these are traditional beliefs of the time. These beliefs play an integral part in the plot and as the basis for my likening this to the movies referenced in my opening paragraph. This belief system is what empowers Peony¿s ghost to act on the living from beyond the grave.Overall, I found this work to be sadly joyful. While this sounds contradictory, consider that some of the main characters die an early death, but they die for love and in the end, love does indeed conquer all and provide a happy ending to the story. If you are reluctant to entertain the beliefs presented here, treat this as a wonderful fantasy and let yourself be immersed in this vision of long ago and far away. If you enjoy historical fiction, there is a lot to enjoy here. While not a conventional romance, love abounds in this tale and proves that true love does indeed overcome all odds.
karen_o on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"There are several elements here - Tang Xianzu's opera, the lovesick maidens, the history of The Three Wives' Commentary, and the societal changes that allowed it to be written. I know they're rather complicated and overlap a bit, so please bear with me." So says Lisa See, the author of Peony in Love in her notes at the end of the novel. Fortunately, I also found the text of the notes on the author's web site under the heading `On Writing Peony in Love' while I was reading the book. If I hadn't, I'm sure I would have given up on this novel at about page 110. The notes provided much needed insight into the author's purpose and an invaluable historical context for what I was reading. I did find the historical aspects and the vivid descriptions of the Chinese afterlife fascinating. Having already read Snowflower and the Secret Fan I didn't feel I needed another description of footbinding so I confess that I skipped that brief passage. The author's ultimate point is clearly the issue of women's voices and `a woman's need to be heard.' She makes this point strongly - and repeatedly. For all of that, there was still much to enjoy in the novel. In my opinion, this book doesn't live up to her earlier novel, Snowflower and the Secret Fan. I really feel the publisher should change the Author's Notes to a Foreword and I urge anyone who chooses to read this to read the Author's Notes first.