Monday, February 4, 2008


In the early years of Qing (Manchu) China, the pampered teenage daughter of a wealthy southern family falls prey to that most insidious of ruiners of good women--literature. Peony is obsessed with the opera The Peony Pavilion, in which an emotional young woman falls in love with a scholar in a dream and wastes away from lovesickness. Peony longs to experience a love that intense, and the night before her 16th birthday, she meets her own poet. The saga that ensues is a story about Confucian mores, romantic idealism, the horrific changing of dynasties between the Ming and the Qing, and the implications of poetry, but mostly the book is about women writers and what they have done to be heard.

Cyn reviewed this book here a couple of months ago, and she wasn't crazy about it. I agree with her points about the plot--it was a little weak--but in my mind, Lisa See's project made up for that. The details of the plot are actually cobbled into the true stories of three published female writers--the first, second, and third wives of Wu Wushan--and as See says in her afterword, some of the details of that story seemed so fantastic that she felt silly about incorporating them into the plot. But she did.

The book is a little traditional in that it follows a Chinese opera in structure and much of the plot is fairly predictable and the characters are thin (mostly archetypes, and at times a little frustratingly under-accomplished), but for me this didn't detract too much. The book is short--270 pages--and See has dedicated the core of the story to a project: getting across a message about the history of female writers' publication, all through the lens of history. I think the stylistic choices (I mean, the traditional plot and archetypal characters) were made intentionally and that See is using them as a vehicle to get across the extraordinary true story (or, at least, pieces of it) of the Wushan women writers. There's also a lot to be learned along the way about Chinese religious ritual, holidays, and spiritual precautions (I'm trying not to say "superstitions").

I do think this book is worth reading, and since it's so quick it's no skin off your nose. You won't always like the main character--I hated her most of the way through--you will learn something about an interesting corner of Chinese history.

One of the choices of See's I found most interesting was the way she addressed the patriarchy. There were some hints at irony, but overall the characters--especially the female characters, and even the most enlightened of them--fought (and sometimes died) for the preservation of the system that had kept them so downtrodden. So many of the female characters would end up saying something like "I was ready to die for my husband, which was only proper." There is a lot of very positive language about foot binding--Peony refers to her own bound feet with constant pride as her "golden lilies" and judges other women who don't have bound feet harshly. At one point Peony changes a young girl's life for the infinite better by encouraging her mother to bind her feet. I think it's interesting that See chose a very in-tune historical voice to express these and other opinions about Peony's contemporary society, and that there is general utter credulousness about the more superstitious (although not so much the spiritual) elements of Chinese religious tradition while at the same time making such powerful points about the things women were expected to suffer. I can't decide if Peony's almost two-sided feminism makes the book stronger or weaker for me.

Thanks, cyn, for your review etc ;)


cyn said...

great review, MR! i'm glad you enjoyed your first lisa see book and recommend it. it's so funny that i think i'm too "americanized" to sympathize with the heroine often.

i asked another brushpainting friend who also read it (she is a retired italian-american) and she said the book stopped her because she was so frustrated and angry all the time with the heroine.

but as you said, peony's thinking was in style with the thinking of that period.

again, suicide or contemplation of it is difficult for me to read. i agree that it was an ambitious undertaking on see's part.

and i'm glad i did read it.
tho i was still pretty annoyed often. haha!

angelle said...

i was SO disappointed by snow flower, that i don't think i'll read this unless it happens to be lying around and i've got nothing else to be reading.