A tragic tale of love and longing from 17th century China has inspired the latest book from American author Lisa See. Mike O'Sullivan reports, the writer's novel Peony in Love is based on a true story, which was itself inspired by a work of Chinese fiction.
The story behind Peony in Love begins with the publication in 1598 of a famous Chinese opera, The Peony Pavilion. The opera focused on a girl who takes a walk in her family's garden, falls asleep and dreams of a young man. She falls deeply in love with him. Awakened and filled with longing, she wastes away and dies.
She returns as a ghost and learns that the young man is indeed real. She haunts his dreams, the two fall in love, and through their love, she is resurrected.
Lisa See says the story was popular through the 17th century, a time of change in China. In 1644, the country was jolted as the foreign Manchu peoples swept in from Manchuria and took power.
"Society was in tremendous turmoil for about 30 years, with the result that the men forgot to pay attention to what the women were doing," she noted. "They left the door open, and these women went out. And they become professional writers, artists, historians, archers."
Still, most Chinese women led circumscribed lives. They were subject to forced marriages, overbearing mothers-in-law, and the painful process of foot-binding, which kept their feet tiny and attractive to their husbands.
For some, escape was found only through fiction and fantasy. See says her book tells the tale of three of these teenaged girls who were afflicted with love sickness, brought on by the opera The Peony Pavilion.
"Peony in Love is based on the true story of three of these lovesick maidens, who were all married to the same man, one right after the other," she said. "Not one of them reached age 20."
The first betrothed girl had a copy of the opera and wrote her thoughts in the margins. Later, consumed by longing for a love she would never know, she starved herself to death. The second, absorbed in reading the annotated book, added her own thoughts, and also lovesick, met the same fate.
The third girl added her final thoughts and the composite story was published in 1694 as the Three Wives Commentary. See's novel is a fictional retelling of the story.
Lisa See has written both fiction and nonfiction. Her 1995 memoir On Gold Mountain told the story of her own mostly Chinese family. Although she is red-haired and freckled, See is part of a large, mixed Chinese-American clan, and spent much of her youth at family events in Los Angeles Chinatown.
Her previous novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, told a story of friendship between two women confined by the social strictures of 19th century China. She chose to write her newest work, set two centuries earlier, from the vantage of a girl who is now a ghost. See says the fictional format allows her to focus on emotions.
"You can explore other aspects of friendship, of mother-daughter relationships, of the meaning and value of words and literature, the desire that these women had to be heard - you can get all of that in a fictional way, in a much more moving way, it seems to me," she explained.
The writer says some of her readers have an interest in Chinese culture and history, while others want to experience an emotional journey. She says many, especially women, respond to the desire of her heroines to make their voices heard.
"Particularly women, it's so hard even today for women to really be heard for who they are," she added. " So I'm hoping that as readers follow Peony in her journey and discover what she had to say and how she was heard, a voice that has really been lost for 300 years and really never heard of in this country, that along the way, readers will think about finding their own voices and finding their own ways to be heard."
Lisa See has already started work on her next novel, which opens in Shanghai in 1937, and follows the journey of two sisters who are sent to Los Angeles in arranged marriages. See says the story is partly based on the experiences of her own Chinese-American family.