About the Book

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Women, who were pretty low on the totem pole to begin with, suffered greater hardship.  Some were traded and sold “by weight, like fish,” and pound for pound had less value than salt. Many—like the real Xiaoqing or like Willow in the novel—became “thin horses” and were sold as concubines. But some women had very different and much better destinies. With so much else to worry about, men left the front gate open and women, who had long lived in seclusion, went out.  They became professional writers, artists, archers, historians, and adventurers. Other women—in what might be considered an early form of the book group—gathered together to write poetry, read books, and discuss ideas. The members of the Banana Garden Five (and later Seven), for example, went on excursions, wrote what they saw and experienced, and were still considered fine, noble, proud, and upstanding women. Their success couldn’t have happened without the growth in female literacy, a healthy economy, mass printing facilities, and a male populace that was, for the most part, distracted.

But not all this writing was happy or celebratory. Some women, like Peony’s mother, left poems on walls that then became popular among the literati for their sadness and for the voyeuristic curiosity of reading someone’s thoughts near the moment of death. These, along with the writings of the lovesick maidens, carried with them a kind of romanticism that combined the ideals of qing with the allure of a woman wasting away from disease or childbed fever, being martyred, or dying alone in an empty room longing for her lover. 

Chen Tong, Tan Ze, and Qian Yi were real women.  (Chen Tong’s name was changed because it matched that of her future mother-in-law; their given name has not survived.) I have tried to remain as true to their story as possible—so true that often I was constrained by facts that seemed too fabulous and coincidental to be real. For example, Qian Yi used an ancestor tablet from the household to conduct a ceremony under a plum tree to honor the fictional character of Du Liniang, who then visited her and Wu Ren in a dream. But as far as I know, Chen Tong never met her husband-to-be, nor did she come back to earth as a hungry ghost.

Wu Ren wanted all three of his wives to be acknowledged, but he was also mindful of protecting them, so the cover of the book read Wu Wushan’s Three Wives’ Collaborative Commentary of The Peony Pavilion. Wushan was one of the style names he used when writing. The names Tan Ze, Qian Yi, and Chen Tong did not appear except on the title page and in the supplementary material.

The book was published to great acclaim and was widely read. In time, however, the tide turned and praise was replaced by bitter and often biting criticism. Wu Ren was accused of being a simpleton so eager to promote his wives that he lost sight of propriety. Moralists, who’d been against The Peony Pavilion for years, advocated for censorship of the opera through familial admonishment, religious tenets, and official bans. They proposed burning all copies of The Peony Pavilion—along with all complementary works such as The Commentary—as the most efficacious way of eliminating the offending words once and for all. Reading such books, they reasoned, could cause women—who were silly and unsophisticated by nature—to become dissolute and heart dead. Mostly, though, they remembered that only an ignorant woman could be considered a good woman. The moralists told men to remind their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters that there was no “writing” or “self” in the Four Virtues. The very things that had inspired women to write, paint, and go on excursions were turned against them. The return to ritual meant only one thing: a return to silence.

Qian Yi's dream portrait of Liniang. From The Three Wives' Commentary

Then the arguments shifted again, zeroing back in on The Three Wives’ Commentary.  How could three women—wives, no less—have had such insights about love? How could they have endeavored to write something so learned? How was it that they’d gathered together all the editions of the opera for comparison? Why had the original manuscripts written by Chen Tong and Tan Ze been lost to fires? This seemed awfully convenient, since the three wives’ calligraphic styles could not be compared. In the supplementary materials, Qian Yi wrote that she had made an offering to her two predecessors under a plum tree. She and her husband also described a dream where they’d encountered Du Liniang. Could these two not separate fact from fiction, the living from the dead, or waking from dreaming? People could only come to one conclusion: Wu Ren wrote the commentary himself.  His response: “Let those who believe, believe. Let those who doubt, doubt.”

In the meantime, order had to be restored across the realm. The emperor made several proclamations, all aimed at bringing society back under control.  Clouds and rain, it was announced, should occur only between man and wife and the basis for it could come only from li and not qing. No more confidential women’s books would be produced, so that when a girl went to her husband’s home at marriage she would have no knowledge about what would happen on her wedding night. The emperor also awarded fathers complete control over their female offspring: If a daughter brought shame on her ancestors, he had the right to hack her to pieces. Very quickly, women were pushed back inside behind closed doors, and there they more or less remained until the Qing dynasty fell and the Republic of China was formed in 1912.

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In May 2005, ten days before I went to Hangzhou to research the three wives, I got a call from More magazine, asking if I would write a piece for them about China. The timing was perfect.  In addition to going to Hangzhou, I visited small water towns in the Yangzi delta (many of which seem to have been frozen in time a hundred or more years ago), sites that are referred to in the novel (Longjin’s tea farms and various temples), and to Suzhou (to be inspired by the great garden estates).

Garden Villa in Hangzhou

The thrust of that article had to do with finding my inner lovesick maiden.  I have to admit it wasn’t very hard, because I’m obsessed most of the time, but the assignment forced me to look inward and examine what I felt about writing and the desire women have to be heard—by their husbands, their children, their employers.  At the same time, I thought a lot about love. All women on earth—and men too, for that matter—hope for the kind of love that transforms us, raises us up out of the everyday, and gives us the courage to survive our little deaths: the heartache of unfulfilled dreams, of career and personal disappointments, of broken love affairs.