Readers Guide Questions
1. One thousand years ago, the poet Han Yun 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. Early in the novel, Peony reads the following phrase, printed on a couplet in her father’s library: “Do not care about fame. Be modest. In this way you will be found by others to be special.” In what ways does Peony – in life and in her afterlife – reflect (or not reflect) the virtues extolled by this phrase?
4. 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.” Is Peony’s statement true?
5. 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?
6. In the nights of watching “The Peony Pavilion,” Peony has many visions of married life, 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 did she overlook and why?
7. Peony thinks she’s being dressed and taken to her wedding. In fact, she’s taken to the courtyard to die. Peony is certainly surprised by this turn of events. Were you? How does this moment effect Peony’s future actions and her feelings about her family? How do you feel about this practice?
8. Many men have told Lisa that they don’t like the idea of the Chinese afterworld, where your relatives are still your relatives and your place in life 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 concepts of heaven and hell? Which seem better? Which would you prefer – for yourself and for your loved ones?
9. We see a difference in Peony’s actions after Ze marries Ren and again after Ze dies. Do you see redemption here for Peony?
10. In what ways is mother love explored? How does it change from a mother’s or daughter’s perspective? 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?
11. How does what happened during the Cataclysm change depending on who’s telling the story?
12. Peony in Love shows the strength of women and women’s companionship, 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?
13. Peony in Love is very much a tale of secrets and the power secrets can exercise over others. Who wields the power of secrets in this story? Who succumbs to that power? Which characters experience the greatest shifts in powerful moments and abject powerlessness?
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 in the afterlife. In what ways are they alike, and how are they dissimilar? 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 death?
15. How do Peony’s experiences as a living girl and then as a hungry ghost parallel Liniang’s experiences in “The Peony Pavilion”?