Book Review: Peony in Love, by Lisa See

It is odd to encounter pride in subservience, but it should not be surprising. In China, the standard was set centuries ago by a woman named Ban Zhao, who argued that women were too important not to be taught to serve their men. The forcefulness of her advocacy for female education has led some modern scholars to call her a feminist, but the object of her advocacy – the inculcation of complaisance – has led the rest of us to balk at the term. There are few things more mind-blowingly paradoxical than the pride Ban Zhao took in the woman’s role as upholder.

Lisa See’s Peony in Love showcases this sort of pride in a seventeenth-century elite family. In the words of its protagonist (named Peony), “As women, we have to think about how to make our husbands happy by being good wives, bearing sons, running our households well, and being pretty so they don’t become distracted from their daily activities or loiter with concubines. We are not born with these abilities. They must be instilled in us by other women. Through lessons, aphorisms, and acquired skills we are molded…” (p. 73)

Chief among the instillers is Peony’s mother, whose molding of little girls starts with their feet. Footbinding, that most grotesque symbol of subjugation, is exactly what elicits the most pride from Peony’s mom:

‘More girls are having their feet bound than ever before in the history of our country,’ Mama explained. ‘The Manchu barbarians believe our women’s practice to be backward…but the Manchus can’t see us in our women’s chambers. We wrap our daughter’s feet as an act of rebellion against those foreigners….We have our women’s ways. This is what makes us valuable. It’s what makes us marriageable. And they cannot make us stop….They cannot compete with us or stop us from cherishing our culture. More importantly, our bound feet continue to be an enticement to our husbands.’ (p. 46)

So sayeth the mother, but does the daughter (Peony) take such pride in her condition? Indeed, her enthusiasm for the life that is planned for her is shaken by the opera The Peony Pavilion, which introduces the disruptive force of love. It is love that suggests to Peony a chance at a kind of escape:

I wanted to bury myself in thoughts of love. I had no way to get out of my [arranged] marriage, but maybe I could escape from it in the same way I had here in my natal home, by reading, writing, and imagining….I did have a certain kind of knowledge…and I would use it to save myself. I wouldn’t write poetry about butterflies and flowers. I had to find something that would not only be meaningful to me but would sustain me for the rest of my life.

A thousand years ago, the poet Han Yun wrote, ‘All things not at peace will cry out.’ He compared the human need to express feelings in writing to the natural force that impelled plants to rustle in the wind or metal to ring when struck. With that I realized what I would do….I would find all those places in The Peony Pavilion that illustrated [my thoughts about the Seven Emotions]. I would look inside myself and write not what the critics had observed or what my aunts discussed about these emotions but how I felt them myself. I would finish my project in time for my marriage….My project would be my salvation in the coming dark years. I might be locked up in my husband’s home, but my mind would travel… (p. 76-77)

The rest of this review is a spoiler.

Peony, therefore, pins her wishes on an inward escape; she has no hope of launching any kind of rebellion. Readers holding out for the latter will be disappointed, especially since Peony will, following the examples of Ban Zhao and of her own mother, reconcile herself to, and even express pride in, female subservience. Encountering a young woman whose feet she had helped to bind, Peony feels “a momentary flash of pride that her bound feet had turned out so well.” (p. 202) She resolves to bind another girl’s feet in order to give her a chance at an upward marriage. (pp. 223-224) She counsels yet another woman, “Your husband is Heaven. How could you not serve him?” (p. 173) It is very hard for the modern reader, myself included, to avoid feeling revolted at Peony’s failure to grow out of – nay, her success at growing into – this most ironic form of chauvinism.

However, in exact proportion as I sympathize with Peony in Love’s frustrated readers, I am compelled to respect its accomplished writer. Lisa See has done what I could not: She has created a convincing protagonist at peace with a world we could never accept. While writing Southern Rain, I found it impossible to imagine a female lead who was well-adjusted to repression. There was no way I could write sympathetically about a footbound heroine contentedly serving a pre-selected husband. Such a woman could only be a victim, in my view. So I dodged the challenge by making my heroine a social outsider, educated by nuns and with unbound feet. Lisa See, in rising to the challenge, has given us perhaps more insight into seventeenth-century China by taking us inside the mind of someone who is more fully representative of it: a teenage girl with absolutely no control over her life, warped in body, limited in mobility, fixed in destiny, and constrained in every conceivable way. What could Peony do besides make the best of her situation – even to the point of being proud of it, which most women apparently were – as well as read, write, and dream?

In its realistic delineation of its heroine’s limited options, Peony in Love must count as a great success. It is historically well-grounded and finely researched, right down to conceptions of the afterlife. The jury may still be out on the question of realism versus reader satisfaction, but See’s realistic book, like Peony’s life, is probably as satisfying as could be expected. 

Author: Harry Miller

I have traveled and lived in Taiwan, China, and Japan and am now a professor of Asian history and author of Southern Rain, a novel of seventeenth-century China.

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