By Luciana Leitão
I read it already eight years ago when I arrived in Macau, but I remember it as if it were today. Peony in Love, by Lisa See, is, until this day, one of the best testimonies of Chinese culture that I’ve read.
“I finally understand what the poets have written. In spring, moved to passion; in autumn only regret,” so goes the lyrics from The Peony Pavilion and so quotes Lisa See to describe the main character. The story features young 15-year-old Peony, but uses Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu’s masterpiece The Peony Pavilion to recreate her feelings.
Promised to a suitor she has never met, young Peony is “the cloistered daughter of a wealthy family, trapped like a good-luck cricket in a bamboo-and-lacquer cage”, as the author describes. But the almost 16-year-old girl has dreams of her own, which she never manages to pursue. Watching from a distance to a representation of the opera The Peony Pavilion, the young lady meets true love. And that’s when her journey of sadness begins.
North-American writer Lisa See takes readers back to the seventeenth century China, after the Ming dynasty is crushed by the Manchus. Like the original Tang Xianzu’s play The Peony Pavilion, this is a story about love — about a young girl in love and without the freedom to pursue it.
Ultimately, this is a story that conveys the Chinese culture in all its force, showing the power of traditions, ancestors and fulfilling traditions. Peony’s soul navigates throughout the world, because traditions have not been fulfilled. She is a hungry ghost wandering the earth, looking for something in her afterlife that transcends even death.
Lisa See has written many times about China. For instance, prior to Peony in Love, the author had already published Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a story that also emphasised the difficulties for Chinese women in the 17th and 19th century China, crushed by rigid protocol and male domination.
The author was born in Paris, but grew up in Los Angeles. According to the description in her website, she spent time with her father’s family in Chinatown. That, ultimately, revealed throughout her career. Maybe, Chinese readers will say that Peony in Love is a westernised view as, supposedly, she had less contact with her father’s culture. But for me, this is a powerful story that first introduced me to China and its traditions.