About Peony

About the Book

In 2000, I wrote a short piece for Vogue magazine about Lincoln Center’s full-length production of The Peony Pavilion. While doing research for that article, I came across the lovesick maidens.  They intrigued me, and long after I wrote the article I kept thinking about them.  We usually hear that in the past there were no women writers, no women artists, no women historians, no women chefs, but of course women did these things. It’s just that too often what they did was lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up.  So when I had a moment here or there, I looked up whatever I could find about the lovesick maidens and came to learn that they were part of a much larger phenomenon.

In the mid-17th century, more women writers were being published in China’s Yangzi delta than in all the rest of the world at that time.  By that I mean there were thousands of women—bound-footed, often living in seclusion, from wealthy families—who were being published. Some families published a single poem written by a mother or daughter whom they wanted to commemorate or honor, but there were other women—professional women writers—who not only wrote for large public audiences but also supported their families with their written words. How could so many women have done something so extraordinary and I didn’t know about it?  Why didn’t we all know?  Then I came across The Three Wives’ Commentary—the first book of its kind to have been published anywhere in the world to have been written by women—three wives, no less.  With that, my interest turned into an obsession.

There are several elements here—Tang Xianzu’s opera, the lovesick maidens, the history of The Three Wives’ Commentary, and the societal changes that allowed it to be written. I know they’re rather complicated and overlap a bit, so please bear with me.

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Tang Xianzu set The Peony Pavilion in the Song dynasty (960-1127), but he was writing about the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), a time of artistic ferment as well as political turmoil and corruption.

The Garden Villa

In 1598, with the completion of the opera,Tang became one of the most important promoters of qing—deep emotions and sentimental love.  Like all good writers, Tang wrote what he knew, but that didn’t mean the government necessarily wanted to hear it.  Almost immediately, different groups advocated for the opera’s censorship, because it was considered too political and too lascivious.  New versions appeared in quick succession, until eventually only a paltry eight out of the original fifty-five scenes were performed.  The text suffered even worse treatment. Some versions were abridged, while others were revised or totally rewritten to fit society’s changing mores.

In 1780, during the Qianlong reign, opposition to the opera escalated and it was blacklisted as “profane.” But it wasn’t until 1868 that the Tongzhi emperor issued the first official ban, labeling The Peony Pavilion debauched and ordering all copies burned and all productions forbidden.

Censorship of the opera has continued right up to today. The Lincoln Center production was temporarily delayed when the Chinese government discovered the content of the restored scenes and barred the actors, costumes, and sets from leaving the country, showing once again that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

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.

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.

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.