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. 

Book Review: The Baron’s Sons, by Mór Jókai

This is the second book by Mór (a.k.a. Maurus) Jókai that I’ve read, after Poor Plutocrats. I enjoyed The Baron’s Sons at least as much, simply because it is well written, with incisive words and a general strategy of understatement; and it is well translated (by P.F. Bicknell). The story of three sons’ fates in the Hungarian revolution of 1848 is absorbing and politically exciting.

In my continuing attempt to understand why I enjoy Hungarian literature as much as I do (and as I continue to enjoy it), I am beginning to detect, in addition to its appealing wistfulness, a certain focus on honor. It is by no means as obsessive (and pathological) as something one would expect in ancient Greek tales, and it may actually be a little tongue in cheek. In Miklos Banffy’s The Transylvania Trilogy (I forget which volume, though it could have been the first), the protagonist, Balint, is compelled to fight a silly and ultimately harmless duel with someone. In The Baron’s Sons, brothers Richard and Ödön have a contest of honor of sorts, which ends with a hug and with Richard telling Ödön, “I’m very angry with you.”

I hope I never run out of books by Jókai, and I’ll keep reading Hungarian novels, even if I never figure out why I like them.

Excerpt from Southern Rain: The Alluring Bodhisattva

The next scene foreshadows the meeting of the hero and heroine. The image is by Satomi Kamei.

Watching Nanjing fume from the sky or from the ground, neither Peng bird nor human would have noticed the elderly nun on a donkey cart making her way through the smog from Cock-Crow Temple on the north side of town to outside Treasure Gate, the southernmost portal of the city wall. Though missiles whizzed by her, she maintained her dignity, as did her cart driver, who seemed to have absorbed a bit of her gravitas. The nun was called One-Eyed Jingang, for partially blinding herself while studying the Diamond (Jingang) Sutra, and she was Cock-Crow Temple’s abbess. While unaccompanied women raised eyebrows if they ventured abroad on most days, the Spring Festival provided One-Eyed Jingang not only with the cover of smoke but also with an excuse to be out, for clergy were often called upon to offer prayers for the New Year. In fact, One-Eyed Jingang was expected at another place of worship, a monastery named the Temple at the Edge of Heaven, where a prayer meeting was planned for that morning. Before the chanting began, however, she wished to consult with the abbot on a matter of some delicacy.

Arriving at the Temple, One-Eyed Jingang alighted from the cart, paid its driver a little extra for the New Year, walked through the main gate, and ascended the stairway to the Mahayana Pavilion, where the abbot, whose dharma name was Baichi Shi’ai, or “Idiot in the Service of Love,” greeted her with ebullient good cheer. Fearless of gossip, he invited the nun into his office.

“Wisdom to you,” he saluted her, offering some tea. “Big Sister is a bit early. Have you come to help me choose today’s reading?”

“No, Big Brother,” the abbess returned, as she sat down on a stool. “I’m sure you’ve already found something appropriate. As it turns out, I’ve come to discuss something…inappropriate.”

She placed on Baichi Shi’ai’s desk the bulging sack she’d been carrying, which the abbot had assumed to be filled with boxed or string-bound folios of sutras. She untied the twine at its neck, just as somebody in the neighborhood set off another string of firecrackers like a drumroll.

The sack fell away, revealing a statuette of the Guanyin Bodhisattva, sculpted from rosewood. The carving stood about a foot tall, but its subject did not stand, nor did she sit cross-legged in stolid meditation. Rather, she lolled in a sultry position with one leg arched upward at a right angle, her arm draped over her knee. Although she was Guanyin, the Goddess of Compassion, she posed in the style of Tara, Mother of Liberation; but whatever compassion or liberation she offered her worshippers, it was of a primal, physical sort. Her sexuality was total, not of parts. It sprang not from flaring hips or curvaceous breasts but from her unworldly air of assurance and utter lack of inhibition. Against all convention, this Guanyin held her eyes open, inviting her faithful to advance and be saved. A mandorla of fire radiated from her body, a manifestation of the power of her love.

Baichi Shi’ai knew better than to resist the goddess’s charms. Instead, he gave rein to his native enthusiasm. “Oooh! Hail, Guanyin Bodhisattva!” he crowed.

“Yes, she does rather demand devotion,” observed One-Eyed Jingang. “I’m surprised you haven’t fallen to your knees.”

“Whose hands crafted such a powerful image?” asked the abbot. “Or was it a bolt of lightning striking a grateful tree that did the work?”

“Actually, it was created by one of my novices, a brilliant girl. Always reading, trying her hand at something new. I noticed her chiseling away at a hunk of wood from that old column we had replaced and decided to give her a bit of rosewood to see what she could do with better material. This is the result.”

Baichi Shi’ai nodded, still absorbed in Guanyin’s smoldering expression. “Where will you display it?” he asked, after a while.

“Display it?” the abbess exclaimed. “Good brother! It’s hard enough to protect the reputation of my convent without having something like that on a pedestal. Why give the next scandalmonger a chance to start yapping about the ‘lewd nuns of Cock-Crow Temple’?”

Baichi Shi’ai rounded his mouth. “Oh? You think this Guanyin is lewd?”

“No, I do not, but a lewd man would, and I’m tired of hearing lewd men talk nonsense about decent nuns.” One-Eyed Jingang cleared her throat. “So I was hoping that you, Teacher, would take this Guanyin off my hands.”

“And keep her here?” the abbot giggled. “My monks would explode! Even if I hid her away, they would sniff her out like tom cats.”

“You have that little faith in your brothers?”

“I have that much faith in my brothers.”

One-Eyed Jingang slumped. “Yes, I suppose we face the same difficulty. Since our calling is to free people from desire, it’s bad policy to introduce an object of desire into either of our sanctuaries. So what should we do with it?”

Baichi Shi’ai grinned. “You talk as though she were a problem to be gotten rid of, but Guanyin Bodhisattva cannot be a problem. Yes, neither of our temples is the proper place for her, but remember: Guanyin embodies compassion for the world.” He raised both his arms, in an encompassing gesture. “Let’s put her out into the world, then, where her compassion can do its work. If some starry-eyed lad falls in love with her, so much the better. Everyone in the world needs to be receptive to compassion, after all.”

One-Eyed Jingang thought for a bit and then nodded. “Yes, Brother, you are right. We should allow this Guanyin to play her part. I will consign her to the marketplace, to await the first receptive soul that comes along.”

She put the Guanyin back in its sack and tied it closed.

“So what will be today’s reading?” she asked, but her host didn’t answer, and both devotees of dharma continued to stare at the enshrouded idol for a long time.

Excerpt from Southern Rain: Chinese New Year’s Day

An earlier posting describes my first Chinese New Year’s celebration in Taiwan, in which I saw the streets of Taipei transformed into a veritable shooting gallery of bottle rockets. That memorable experience was one of the many inspirations for my novel, Southern Rain, which opens with this pyrotechnic description of the first day of the year. The time corresponds to February 1644 on the Western calendar. 

It is the seventeenth year of the Chongzhen Emperor’s reign, the first day of the first month – Spring Festival – and smoke is rising over Nanjing, as its people celebrate the New Year by lighting things on fire.

Half the city’s population are setting off firecrackers, to the delight of the other half. In groups of young and old, they hang clusters of the paper-wrapped cylinders like bunches of red bananas from the eaves of temples and taverns. With the touch of an incense stick, the fuse commences to hiss and everybody scatters. If someone chances to round the corner unawares, on his way to visit relatives, he comes abreast of the little bombs the moment they begin to explode and finds himself engulfed in a thundering maelstrom. His chest thumps like a kettle drum hammered by madmen. He flails his arms about his head and staggers away as the crescendo continues, a blur of incandescence hanging in the air near which he passed, casting billows of smoke heavenward. Then, as the last charge on the string gives up its ghost and the echo rolls over the city and disappears into the hills, the celebrants clap and jump for joy, and even the rattled pedestrian grins and waves, signifying no hard feelings. He too is enjoying himself.

In addition to the hanging clusters, some firecrackers can be thrown, and some are miniature rockets. Explosives of these sorts transform Nanjing’s streets and alleys into gauntlets of spark-trailing missiles, air bursts, and ground bursts. Young boys in particular are fond of launching pocket rockets from their hands, to watch them ricochet off buildings and passersby. Their favorite targets are peddlers on donkey carts, because they pretend nothing is happening. They go right on hawking their snacks – “Steamed buns! Dumplings!” – while projectiles bounce off their bellies or lodge in the folds of their robes, sending sparks cascading from their torsos. The pinnacle of fun is to toss a cherry-bomb into the street, timed to explode when a cart passes over it. There it lies, its fuse sizzling, while, say, the noodle-man approaches, crooning “Thick noodles! Thin noodles! Sesame paste! Black bean paste!” and just as his cart reaches it, Bang! off it goes in a cloud of sulfur. Both man and beast jolt from the concussion but emerge unfazed, the peddler resuming his hawking, the donkey his hauling, showing no sign of distress. Onlookers beam and the young pyrotechnicians make ready the next barrage.

Not all that is set alight that day contains gunpowder. Nanjing’s denizens also burn joss paper – play money – as offerings to the gods or to their deceased ancestors. Clan after clan of them, Chens, Wangs, and Zhangs, gather in their kitchens or courtyards to burn wad after wad of the heavenly currency, which takes to the air in particulate form. The offering of joss paper is less likely than fireworks to involve the occasional victim, unless it takes place on the ground floor of a storied building and some poor soul is caught upstairs. In such a case, the unfortunate one, as soon as he realizes he is suffocating, makes a desperate dash to the nearest window and thrusts his head outside. Gasping for oxygen, not even this man complains but rejoices in the good cheer and bonhomie of festival time.

Thus does Nanjing exude mirth and merriment, acrid, dark, and thick. Smoke rises over Cock-Crow Temple, a nunnery on a hill. Smoke curls about the Drum Tower, whose beating of the time that day is drowned out in the din. Smoke mushrooms over Three Mountain Street, Nanjing’s always-bustling bazaar. Smoke hangs above the Qinhuai River, its famous pleasure quarter. Every tiled roof, every bridge and pagoda, every curvy street and winding canal is enveloped in haze. To the gigantic Peng bird of legend, soaring far above town on this New Year’s Day, Nanjing might appear as an exquisite incense censer made to resemble a fairyland. To Nanjing’s human residents, the column of smoke dwarfing their city is yet another of its many superlatives; Nanjing wears it like a plumed crown. The vast metropolis, ringed by a wall of eighteen gates, is the pearl of the Yangtze River valley and original capital of the Current Dynasty. It is opulent and lively and crammed with attractions, the subject of rhapsodies by songsters and poets who call it a paradise. If Nanjing’s celebrated “kingly air” is now tinged with ash, its people breathe it in even more deeply and feel all the more regal for it. They are as proud and prosperous as any people have dared to be. In a consuming exuberance, they revel and roister, until their city is choking with smoke.