About the Book

Page 2

Island in West Lake

Apart from sexual liaisons between two unmarried people and criticism of the government—both serious in their own ways, I suppose—why has the opera been so upsetting? The Peony Pavilion was the first piece of fiction in the history of China in which the heroine—a girl of sixteen—chose her own destiny, and that was both shocking and thrilling. It entranced and fascinated women, who, with rare exceptions, were allowed to read the opera but never see or hear it.  The passion this work aroused has been compared to the fanaticism for Goethe’s Werther in 18th-century Europe or more recently, in the United States, for Gone with the Wind. In China, young educated women from wealthy families—typically between the ages of thirteen and sixteen, and with their marriages already arranged—were particularly susceptible to the story.  Believing that life imitates art, they copied Liniang: They gave up food, wasted away, and died, all in hopes that somehow in death they might be able to choose their destinies, just as the ghost of Liniang had. 

No one knows for sure what killed the lovesick maidens, but it may have been self-starvation. We tend to think of anorexia as a modern problem, but it isn’t.  Whether it was female saints in the Middle Ages, lovesick maidens in 17th-century China, or adolescent girls today, women have had a need for some small measure of autonomy.  As scholar Rudolph Bell has explained, by starving themselves young women are able to shift the contest from the outer world—in which they have no control over their fates and face seemingly sure defeat—to an inner struggle to achieve mastery over themselves and their bodily urges. As the lovesick maidens were dying, many of them—including Xiaoqing and Yu Niang, who appear in this story—wrote poems that were published after their deaths. 

But these writing women—whether lovesick maidens or members of the Banana Garden Five—didn’t just appear, and later disappear, in a vacuum. China underwent a dynastic change in the mid-17th century, when the Ming dynasty fell and Manchu invaders from the north established the Qing dynasty.  For about thirty years, the country was in chaos. The old regime had been corrupt. The war had been brutal.  (In Yangzhou, where Peony’s grandmother died, 80,000 people were reputed to have been killed.)  Many people lost their homes. Men were humiliated and forced to shave their foreheads as a symbol of subservience to the new emperor. Under the new regime, the imperial scholar system faltered, so that the way men had traditionally gained prestige, riches, and power suddenly had no value.  Men from the highest levels of society retreated from the government and from scholarly life to take up rock collecting, poetry writing, tea tasting, and incense burning.