Two days before my sixteenth birthday, I woke up so early that my maid was still asleep on the floor at the foot of my bed. I should have scolded Willow, but I didn’t because I wanted a few moments alone to savor my excitement. Beginning tonight, I would attend a production of The Peony Pavilion mounted in our garden. I loved this opera and had collected eleven out of the thirteen printed versions available. I liked to lie in bed and read of the maiden Liniang and her dream lover, their adventures, and their ultimate triumph. But for three nights, culminating on Double Seven—the seventh day of the seventh month, the day of the lovers’ festival, and my birthday—I would actually see the opera, which was normally forbidden to girls and women. My father had invited other families for the festivities. We’d have contests and banquets. It was going to be amazing.
Willow sat up and rubbed her eyes. When she saw me staring at her, she scrambled to her feet and offered good wishes. I felt another flutter of anticipation, so I was particular when Willow bathed me, helped me into a gown of lavender silk, and brushed my hair. I wanted to look perfect; I wanted to act perfectly.
A girl on the edge of sixteen knows how pretty she is, and as I looked in the mirror I burned with the knowledge. My hair was black and silky. When Willow brushed it, I felt the strokes from the top of my head all the way down my back. My eyes were shaped like bamboo leaves; my brows were like gentle brushstrokes limned by a calligrapher. My cheeks glowed the pale pink of a peony petal. My father and mother liked to comment on how appropriate this was, because my name was Peony. I tried, as only a young girl can, to live up to the delicateness of my name. My lips were full and soft. My waist was small and my breasts were ready for a husband’s touch. I wouldn’t say I was vain. I was just a typical fifteen-year-old girl. I was secure in my beauty but had enough wisdom to know it was only fleeting.
My parents adored me and made sure I was educated—highly educated. I lived a rarefied and precious existence, in which I arranged flowers, looked pretty, and sang for my parents’ entertainment. I was so privileged that even my maid had bound feet. As a small girl, I believed that all the gatherings we held and all the treats we ate during Double Seven were a celebration for me. No one corrected my mistake, because I was loved and very, very spoiled. I took a breath and let it out slowly—happy. This would be my last birthday at home before I married out, and I was going to enjoy every minute.
I left my room in the Unmarried Girls’ Hall and headed in the direction of our ancestral hall to make offerings to my grandmother. I’d spent so much time getting ready that I made a quick obeisance. I didn’t want to be late for breakfast. My feet couldn’t take me as fast as I wanted to go, but when I saw my parents sitting together in a pavilion overlooking the garden, I slowed. If Mama was late, I could be late too.
“Unmarried girls should not be seen in public,” I heard my mother say. “I’m even concerned for my sisters-in-law. You know I don’t encourage private excursions. Now to bring outsiders in for this performance.…”
She let her voice trail off. I should have hurried on, but the opera meant so much to me that I stayed, lingering out of sight behind the twisted trunks of a wisteria vine.
“There is no public here,” Baba said. “This will not be some open affair where women disgrace themselves by sitting among men. You will be hidden behind screens.”
“But outside men will be within our walls. They may see our stockings and shoes beneath the screen. They may smell our hair and powder. And of all the operas, you have chosen one about a love affair that no unmarried girl should hear!”
My mother was old-fashioned in her beliefs and her behavior. In the social disorder that followed the Cataclysm, when the Ming dynasty fell and the Manchu invaders took power, many elite women enjoyed leaving their villas to travel the waterways in pleasure boats, write about what they saw, and publish their observations. Mama was completely against things like that. She was a loyalist—still dedicated to the overthrown Ming emperor—but she was excessively traditional in other ways. When many women in the Yangzi delta were reinterpreting the Four Virtues—virtue, demeanor, speech, and work—my mother constantly chided me to remember their original meaning and intent. “Hold your tongue at all times,” she liked to say. “But if you must speak, wait until there is a good moment. Do not offend anyone.”