Peony in Love: A Novel by Lisa See

“People want to talk about the experience of love and how it changes your life, and how the nature of love itself changes over time,” Lisa See said on the phone last week.

The author was describing the mood she’s finding among her audiences at bookstores around the country as she continues a 39-city tour for her latest novel, Peony in Love (Random House, $23.95, 304 pages).

“Apart from people wanting to know more about (historical details) in 17th century China, such as foot binding and the role of women, they want to go back to their own emotional experiences, which they’re kind of reliving by reading the book,” she said.

Peony follows the travails of an independent-minded 15-year-old living in a 17th century Chinese society in which women have scant value. The story is partly a coming-of-age tale and partly a cultural history.

See, 52, is one-eighth Chinese. She grew up in Los Angeles listening to family stories told by her grandmother and great-aunt — tales that focused on her Chinese heritage.

As an adult, those stories inspired her to research her family history, interviewing many of her older family members. (“I have about 400 relatives in Los Angeles alone.”) The result was the memoir On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family, a best-seller and a New York Times Notable Book in 1995.

A three-book mystery series set in contemporary China followed — Flower Net, The Interior and Dragon Bones. Her real passion, though, lies not in thrillers but in finding bits of “hidden” Chinese history and bringing them to life. Thus she segued to the best-selling Snow Flower and the Secret Fan in 2005, set in 19th century China.

The new Peony in Love is a fictionalized version of factual events. It’s another example of how a thread of Chinese history can become a rich tapestry in the hands of a master storyteller.

An opera titled The Peony Pavilion, written by Tang Xianzu in 1598, became the object of obsession with a number of teenage girls who had read it (they were forbidden to see it). In the work — which is Shakespearean in its themes and emotional depths — the power of love literally triumphs over death. Those girls (known as “lovesick maidens”) emulated the heroine, Liniang, 16, by literally starving themselves to death and leaving behind their poems and other romanticized writings about the play.

Peony in Love focuses on the lovesick maidens Chen Tong, Tan Ze and Qian Yi, who were successively wed to the same man. Over time, each contributed to a document called “The Three Wives’ Commentary,” essentially their literary criticisms of The Peony Pavilion and their musings over romance and love as inspired by the opera. See dramatizes Chen Tong’s life.

“`The Three Wives’ Commentary’ was the first book of its kind published by women anywhere in the world,” See said. “Peony in Love is based on a true story, but I’ve written it in the form of a Chinese ghost story, in which the first wife comes back as a ghost. That’s the general plot, but thematically it’s about those emotions that are so strong they transcend borders and time and perhaps even the veil of death. It’s about the link we have from grandmother to daughter to granddaughter, this string that ties us all together. It sometimes gets tangled and a little frayed, but nevertheless continues through the generations.”

It’s incredible to imagine three teen girls actually committing a form of slow suicide over a passion play they’d never seen. But See points out that “they weren’t the only ones. Even today, you can still read the poems and stories by about 20 other lovesick maidens from that same time period.”

It helps to remember the context: Most women were virtual prisoners in their homes, the property of men in a male-dominant society. The opera’s story — written by a man — suggested that women had choices.

The Peony Pavilion was the first piece of literature in China in which the main character — a woman — chooses her own destiny,” See said. “That is what so entranced the lovesick maidens, who had no way to choose their own destinies.”

See said that typically, the young women of the era “went into arranged marriages to men they’d never seen before. Their whole lives were laid out for them. The character in the opera went out and found the person she wanted to love.

“A woman choosing her own destiny was so revolutionary that the lovesick maidens would emulate that character,” See said. “From the very beginning of the opera’s production, it was censored and banned. Even today, there are large portions of it that are still censored in China.”

While the girls in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan are impoverished and unschooled, the young women in Peony in Love reflect the wealthy, educated status of girls living in the Yangtze Delta in the mid-17th century.

“They were able to get out into the world,” See said. “They had in common an incredible desire to be heard. Putting aside the lovesick maidens, there were more women writers — over 1,000 — in the region at the time who were being published than anywhere else in the rest of the world (combined). A lot of them were commercially successful and supported their families. They even had the Chinese version of book tours.”

Given the mores of that society and the morals of the day, how was that possible?

“It was a time of great social turmoil, the end of the Ming Dynasty and the beginning of the Qing Dynasty,” See said. “From 1645 to 1675, people were uprooted, many lost their homes, many went up in the world. As a result, the men weren’t paying attention. They left the door open, and the women went out. They became professional writers, artists, historians, adventurers, archers.

“Then society calmed down, the men woke up and said, `Get back inside.’ The women went in, and there they remained for the next 300 years.”

Research for the novel was a pleasure, said See, easier than that for Snow Flower.

“The story takes place in Hangzhou, where most of the lovesick maidens lived. It’s still considered China’s most romantic city. It’s beautiful. I also went to small villages nearby, built on canals out in the fields. That whole area is filled with these small `water towns,’ basically unchanged for hundreds of years,” she said.

It could be a stretch for a story of swooning teen girls wasting away over an idealized notion of love to have resonance with much of today’s female readership, but See is such a fine artist that she manages the connection.

“There are still (situations) where women have a hard time really being heard for who they are, even at the very moment we’re doing exciting things and being successful,” See said. “The real message in Peony is, `How do we get the people who mean the most to us to hear us for who we really are? What is it we need sometimes to go through?’ I think this absolutely applies to men as well. It’s part of the human condition.”

Will See’s next novel be similar to her last two? Will she again find little corners of lost Chinese history and bring them to light in her wonderful storytelling style?

“I’m working on the next book, tentatively called Shanghai Girls. It’s about two sisters who come here (to Los Angeles) from Shanghai in 1937 in arranged marriages,” See said. “The lives of the women involved in arranged marriages were very hard. They thought they were marrying these `gold mountain’ men and thought they were going to be wealthy because they would be in America. In fact, life was much harder for them than it was in China. That’s a kind of hidden history that hasn’t been written about very much.”

See, of course, specializes in writing China-related tales. Has she noticed the growing publishing trend of books — from memoir to fiction — by authors of various ethnicities?

“Oh, yes,” she said. “It probably began with Roots by Alex Haley. It was so hugely successful that publishers thought, `We can actually make money doing this.’

“Secondly, the book and mini-series had a profound effect on Americans in particular, who wanted to know more about where they came from. That set a lot of people to looking at their own family roots, and that process led to people wanting to know more about other ethnicities.”

See then turned to her favorite theme — the shared experiences and emotions that link us as human beings.

“That’s what readers connect with, especially in immigrant stories, which are unique to the United States,” she said. “Everyone in this country had someone who was scared enough, brave enough or dumb enough to leave their home countries and come here. We all share in that. It’s just the particulars that change and how they play out.”