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“I finally understand what the poets have written. In spring, moved to passion; in autumn only regret.”
For young Peony, betrothed to a suitor she has never met, these lyrics from The Peony Pavilion mirror her own longings. In the garden of the Chen Family Villa, amid the scent of ginger, green tea, and jasmine, a small theatrical troupe is performing scenes from this epic opera, a live spectacle few females have ever seen. Like the heroine in the drama, Peony is the cloistered daughter of a wealthy family, trapped like a good-luck cricket in a bamboo-and-lacquer cage. Though raised to be obedient, Peony has dreams of her own.
Peony’s mother is against her daughter’s attending the production: “Unmarried girls should not be seen in public.” But Peony’s father assures his wife that proprieties will be maintained, and that the women will watch the opera from behind a screen. Yet through its cracks, Peony catches sight of an elegant, handsome man with hair as black as a cave–and is immediately overcome with emotion.
So begins Peony’s unforgettable journey of love and destiny, desire and sorrow–as Lisa See’s haunting new novel, based on actual historical events, takes readers back to seventeenth-century China, after the Manchus seize power and the Ming dynasty is crushed.
Steeped in traditions and ritual, this story brings to life another time and place–even the intricate realm of the afterworld, with its protocols, pathways, and stages of existence, a vividly imagined place where one’s soul is divided into three, ancestors offer guidance, misdeeds are punished, and hungry ghosts wander the earth. Immersed in the richness and magic of the Chinese vision of the afterlife, transcending even death, Peony in Love explores, beautifully, the many manifestations of love. Ultimately, Lisa See’s new novel addresses universal themes: the bonds of friendship, the power of words, and the age-old desire of women to be heard.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Peony in Love
Riding the Wind
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 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.”
My mother could get very emotional about these things because she was governed by qing: sentiment, passion, and love. These forces tie together the universe and stem from the heart, the seat of consciousness. My father, on the other hand, was ruled by li–cold reason and mastered emotions–and he snorted indifferently at her concern that strangers were coming.
“You don’t complain when the members of my poetry club visit.”
“But my daughter and my nieces aren’t in the garden when they’re here! There’s no opportunity for impropriety. And what about the other families you’ve invited?”
“You know why I invited them,” he spat out sharply, his patience gone. “Commissioner Tan is important to me right now. Do not argue further with me on this!”
I couldn’t see their faces, but I imagined Mama paling under his sudden severity; she didn’t speak.
Mama managed the inner realm, and she always kept fish-shaped locks of beaten metal hidden in the folds of her skirts in case she needed to secure a door to punish a concubine, preserve bolts of silk that had arrived from one of our factories for home use, or protect the pantry, the curtain-weaving quarters, or the room set aside for our servants to pawn their belongings when they needed extra money. That she never used a lock unjustly had earned her added respect and gratitude from those who resided in the women’s chambers, but when she was upset, as she was at this moment, she fingered the locks nervously.
Baba’s flash of anger was replaced by a conciliatory tone he often took with my mother. “No one will see our daughter or our nieces. All the proprieties will be maintained. This is a special occasion. I must be gracious in my dealings. If we open our doors this one time, other doors may soon open.”
“You must do what you think best for the family,” Mama conceded.
I took that moment to scurry past the pavilion. I hadn’t understood all that had been said, but I really didn’t care. What mattered was that the opera would still be performed in our garden, and my cousins and I would be the first girls in all Hangzhou to see it. Of course we would not be out among the men. We would sit behind screens so no one could see us, as my father said.
By the time Mama entered the Spring Pavilion for breakfast, she had regained her usual composure.
“It doesn’t show good breeding for girls to eat too quickly,” she cautioned my cousins and me as she passed our table. “Your mothers-in-law will not want to see you eat like hungry carp in a pond–mouths open with yearning–when you move to your husbands’ homes. That said, we should be ready when our guests arrive.”
So we ate as hurriedly as we could and still appear to be proper young ladies.
As soon as the servants cleared the dishes, I approached my mother. “May I go to the front gate?” I asked, hoping to greet our guests.
“Yes, on your wedding day,” she responded, smiling fondly as she always did when I asked a stupid question.
I waited patiently, knowing that palanquins were now being brought over our main threshold and into the Sitting-Down Hall, where our visitors would get out and drink tea before entering the main part of the compound. From there, the men would go to the Hall of Abundant Elegance, where my father would receive them. The women would come to our quarters, which lay at the back of the compound, protected from the eyes of all men.
Eventually, I heard the lilting voices of women as they neared. When my mother’s two sisters and their daughters arrived, I reminded myself to be modest in appearance, behavior, and movement. A couple of my aunts’ sisters came next, followed by several of my father’s friends’ wives. The most important of these was Madame Tan, the wife of the man my father had mentioned in his argument with my mother. (The Manchus had recently given her husband a high appointment as Commissioner of Imperial Rites.) She was tall and very thin. Her young daughter, Tan Ze, looked around eagerly. A wave of jealousy washed over me. I had never been outside the Chen Family Villa. Did Commissioner Tan let his daughter pass through their family’s front gate very often?
Kisses. Hugs. The exchange of gifts of fresh figs, jars of Shaoxing rice wine, and tea made from jasmine flowers. Showing the women and their daughters to their rooms. Unpacking. Changing from traveling costumes to fresh gowns. More kisses. More hugs. A few tears and lots of laughter. Then we moved to the Lotus-Blooming Hall, our main women’s gathering place, where the ceiling was high, shaped like a fish tail, and supported by round posts painted black. Windows and carved doors looked out into a private garden on one side and a pond filled with lotus on the other. On an altar table in the center of the room stood a small screen and a vase. When spoken together, the words for screen and vase sounded like safe, and we women and girls all felt safe here in the hall as we took chairs.
Once settled, my bound feet just barely floating on the surface of the cool stone floor, I looked around the room. I was glad I’d taken such care with my appearance, because the other women and girls were dressed in their finest gauze silk, embroidered with patterns of seasonal flowers. As I compared myself to the others, I had to admit that my cousin Lotus looked exceptionally beautiful, but then she always did. Truthfully, we all sparkled in anticipation of the festivities that were about to descend on our home. Even my chubby cousin Broom looked more pleasing than usual.
The servants set out little dishes of sweetmeats, and then my mother announced an embroidery contest, the first of several activities she’d planned for these three days. We laid our embroidery projects on a table and my mother examined them, looking for the most intricate designs and skillful stitches. When she came to the piece I’d made, she spoke with the honesty of her position.
“My daughter’s needlework improves. See how she tried to embroider chrysanthemums?” She paused. “They are chrysanthemums, aren’t they?” When I nodded, she said, “You’ve done well.” She kissed me lightly on the forehead, but anyone could see I would not win the embroidery contest, on this day or ever.
By late afternoon–between the tea, the contests, and our anticipation about tonight–we were all fidgety. Mama’s eyes swept through the room, taking in the wiggling little girls, the darting eyes of their mothers, Fourth Aunt’s swinging foot, and pudgy Broom pulling repeatedly at her tight collar. I clasped my hands together in my lap and sat as still as possible when Mama’s eyes found me, but inside I wanted to jump up, wave my arms, and scream my exhilaration.
Mama cleared her throat. A few women looked in her direction, but otherwise the tittering agitation continued. She cleared her throat again, tapped her fingernail on a table, and began to speak in a melodious voice. “One day the Kitchen God’s seven daughters were bathing in a pond when a Cowherd and his water buffalo came upon them.”
At the recognition of the opening lines to every girl and woman’s favorite story, quiet fell over the room. I nodded at my mother, acknowledging how clever she was to use this story to relax us, and we listened to her recount how the impudent Cowherd stole the clothes of the loveliest daughter, the Weaving Maid, leaving her to languish naked in the pond.
“As the chill of night settled in the forest,” Mama explained, “she had no choice but to go in nature’s full embarrassment to the Cowherd’s home to retrieve her clothes. The Weaving Maid knew she could save her reputation only one way. She decided to marry the Cowherd. What do you suppose happened next?”
“They fell in love,” Tan Ze, Madame Tan’s daughter, piped up in a shrill voice.
This was the unforeseen part of the story, since no one expected an immortal to love an ordinary man when even here in the mortal world husbands and wives in arranged marriages often did not find love.
“They had many children,” Ze went on. “Everyone was happy.”
“Until?” my mother asked, this time looking for a response from another girl.
“Until the gods and goddesses grew weary,” Ze answered again, ignoring my mother’s obvious wishes. “They missed the girl who spun cloud silk into cloth for their clothes and they wanted her back.”
My mother frowned. This Tan Ze had forgotten herself entirely! I guessed her to be about nine years old. I glanced at her feet, remembering that she’d walked in unassisted today. Her two-year footbinding was behind her. Maybe her enthusiasm had to do with being able to walk again. But her manners!
“Go on,” Ze said. “Tell us more!”
Mama winced and then continued as though yet another breach of the Four Virtues had not occurred. “The Queen of Heaven brought the Weaving Maid and the Cowherd back to the celestial skies, and then she took a hairpin and drew the Milky Way to separate them. In this way, the Weaving Maid would not be diverted from her work, and the Queen of Heaven would be beautifully robed. On Double Seven, the goddess allows all the magpies on earth to form a celestial bridge with their wings so the two lovers can meet. Three nights from now, if you girls are still awake between the hours of midnight and dawn and find yourselves sitting beneath a grape arbor under the quarter moon, you will hear the lovers weep at their parting.”
It was a romantic thought–and it coated us in warm feelings–but none of us would be alone under a grape arbor at that time of night, even if we were within the safety of this compound. And at least for me, it did little to still my quivering excitement about The Peony Pavilion. How much longer would I have to wait?
When it came time for dinner back in the Spring Pavilion, the women gathered in little groups–sisters with sisters, cousins with cousins–but Madame Tan and her daughter were strangers here. Ze plopped down beside me at the unmarried girls’ table as though she were soon to be married and not still a little girl. I knew it would make Mama happy if I gave my attention to our guest, but I was sorry I did.
“My father can buy me anything I want,” Ze crowed, telling me and everyone else who could hear that her family had more wealth than the Chen clan. we had barely finished our meal when from outside came the sound of a drum and cymbals, calling us to the garden. I wanted to show my refinement and leave the room slowly, but I was first out the door. Lanterns flickered as I followed the corridor from the Spring Pavilion, along the edge of the central pond, to just past our Always-Pleasant Pavilion. I stepped through moon gates, which borrowed views of stands of bamboo, potted cymbidiums, and artfully trimmed branches on the other side. As the music grew louder, I forced myself to slow down. I needed to proceed cautiously, fully aware that men who were not family members stood within our walls tonight. If one of them should chance to see me, I would be blamed and a bad mark set against my character. But being careful and not rushing took more self-control than I thought possible. The opera would begin shortly, and I wanted to experience every second of it.
I reached the area that had been set aside for women and sat down on a cushion positioned near one of the screen’s folds so I could peek through the crack. I wouldn’t be able to see much of the opera, but it was more than I’d hoped for. The other women and girls came in behind me and took places on other cushions. I was so excited I didn’t even mind when Tan Ze sat beside me.
For weeks, my father–as director of the performance–had been tucked away in a side hall with the cast. He had hired a traveling all-male theatrical troupe of eight members, which had upset my mother terribly, because these were people of the lowest and basest class. He’d also coerced others from our household staff–including Willow and several other servants–into taking various roles.
“Your opera has fifty-five scenes and four hundred and three arias!” Willow had said to me in awe one day, as if I didn’t already know that. It would have taken more than twenty hours to perform the whole opera, but no matter how many times I asked, she wouldn’t tell me which scenes Baba had cut. “Your father wants it to be a surprise,” Willow said, enjoying the opportunity to disobey me. As the rehearsals became more demanding, consternation had rippled throughout the household when an uncle had called for a pipe and found no one to fill it, or an aunt had asked for hot water for her bath and no one had brought it. Even I had been inconvenienced, since Willow was busy now, having been given the important role of Spring Fragrance, the main character’s servant.
The music began. The narrator stepped out and gave a quick synopsis of the play, emphasizing how longing had lasted through three incarnations before Liu Mengmei and Du Liniang realized their love. Then we met the young hero, an impoverished scholar who had to leave his ancestral home to take the imperial exams. His family name was Liu, which means willow. He recalled how he dreamed of a beautiful maiden standing under a plum tree. When he woke up, he took the given name Mengmei, Dream of Plum. The plum tree, with its lush foliage and ripening fruit, brought to mind the forces of nature, so this name was suggestive even to me of Mengmei’s passionate nature. I listened attentively, but my heart had always been with Liniang and I could hardly wait to see her.
She arrived onstage for the scene called Admonishing the Daughter. She wore a robe of golden silk with red embroidery. From her headdress rose fluffy balls of spun silk, beaded butterflies, and flowers that quivered when she moved.
“We treasure our daughter like a pearl,” Madame Du sang to her husband, but she chastised her daughter. “You don’t want to be ignorant, do you?”
And Prefect Du, Liniang’s father, added, “No virtuous and eligible young lady should fail to be educated. Take time from your embroidery and read the books on the shelves.”
But admonitions alone couldn’t change Liniang’s behavior, so soon enough she and Spring Fragrance were being tutored by a strict teacher. The lessons were tedious, full of the kind of memorization of rules that I knew only too well. “It is proper for a daughter at first cockcrow to wash her hands, to rinse her mouth, to dress her hair, to pin the same, and to pay respects to her mother and father.”
I heard things like this every day, along with Don’t show your teeth when you smile, Walk steadily and slowly, Look pure and pretty, Be respectful to your aunties, and Use scissors to trim any frayed or loose threads on your gowns.
Poor Spring Fragrance couldn’t stand the lessons and begged to be dismissed so she could pee. The men on the other side of the screen chortled when Willow bent over at the waist, squirmed, and held in her pee with both hands. It embarrassed me to see her behaving so, but she was only doing what my father had instructed (which shocked me, because how could he know about such things?).
In my discomfort, I let my eyes drift from the stage, and I saw men. Most of them had their backs to me, but some were angled so I could see their profiles. I was a maiden, but I looked. It was naughty, but I had lived fifteen years without having committed a single act that anyone in my family could call unfilial.
My eyes caught sight of a man as he turned his head to look at the gentleman sitting in the chair next to him. His cheekbones were high, his eyes wide and kind, and his hair black as a cave. He wore a long dark-blue gown of simple design. His forehead was shaved in deference to the Manchu emperor, and his long queue draped languidly over a shoulder. He brought his hand up to his mouth to make an aside, and I imagined in that simple gesture so much: gentleness, refinement, and a love of poetry. He smiled, revealing perfect white teeth and eyes that shone with merriment. His elegance and somnolence reminded me of a cat: long, slim, perfectly groomed, knowledgeable, and very contained. He was man-beautiful. When he turned his face back to the stage to watch the opera, I realized I’d been holding my breath. I let it out slowly and tried to concentrate as Spring Fragrance returned–relieved–with news of a garden she’d found.
When I read this part of the story, I felt great sympathy for Liniang, who was so cloistered she didn’t even know her family owned a garden. She had spent her entire life indoors. Now Spring Fragrance tempted her mistress to go outside to see the flowers, willows, and pavilions. Liniang was curious, but she artfully hid her interest from her maid.
The quiet and subtlety was broken by a great fanfare announcing the Speed the Plough scene. Prefect Du arrived in the countryside to exhort the farmers, herders, mulberry girls, and tea pickers to work hard in the coming season. Acrobats tumbled, clowns drank from flasks of wine, men in gaily decorated costumes tottered about the garden on stilts, and our maids and other servants performed country harvest songs and dances. It was such a li scene, filled with what I imagined the outside world of men to be: wild gestures, exaggerated facial expressions, and the dissonance of gongs, clackers, and drums. I closed my eyes against the cacophony and tried to draw more deeply into myself to find my interior reading quiet. My heart calmed. When I opened my eyes, I again saw through the slit in the screen the man I’d spotted earlier. His eyes were closed. Could he be feeling what I was feeling? Someone pulled my sleeve. I glanced to my right and saw Tan Ze’s pinched little face looking up at me intently. “Are you staring at that boy out there?” she whispered.
I blinked a few times and tried to regain my composure by taking several shallow breaths.
“I was looking at him too,” she confided, acting much too bold for her years. “You must be betrothed already. But my father”–she brought her chin down while looking up at me with clever eyes–“has not yet arranged my marriage. He says that with so much turmoil still in the land, no one should agree to these things too early. You don’t know which family will go up and which will go down. My father says it’s terrible to marry a daughter to a mediocre man.”
Was there a way to make this girl close her mouth? I wondered, and not in a nice way.
Ze turned back to face the screen and squinted through the crack. “I will ask my father to make inquiries about that boy’s family.”
As though she would actually have a choice in her marriage! I don’t know how it could have happened so quickly, but I was jealous and angry that she would try to steal him for herself. Of course, there was no hope for the young man and me. As Ze said, I was already betrothed. But for these three nights of the opera I wanted to dream romantic thoughts and imagine that my life too might have a happy love-filled ending like Liniang’s.
I blocked Ze from my mind and let myself be transported back to the opera for The Interrupted Dream. At last Liniang ventured out into her– our–garden. Such a lovely moment when she sees it all for the first time. Liniang lamented that the beauty of the flowers was hidden in a place no one visited, but she also saw the garden as a version of herself: in full bloom but neglected. I understood how she felt. The emotions that stirred in her were stirred in me every time I read the lines. Liniang returned to her room, changed into a robe embroidered with peony blossoms, and sat before a mirror, wondering at the fleeting nature of her beauty much as I had this morning. “Pity one whose beauty is a bright flower, when life endures no longer than a leaf on a tree,” she sang, expressing how disturbing spring’s splendor can be, and how temporary. “I finally understand what the poets have written. In spring, moved to passion; in autumn, only regret. Oh, will I ever see a man? How will love find me? Where can I reveal my true desires?”
Overcome by all she’d experienced, she fell asleep. In her dreams, she traveled to the Peony Pavilion, where the spirit of Liu Mengmei appeared, wearing a robe with a willow pattern and carrying a willow sprig. He touched Liniang gently with the leaves. They exchanged soft words, and he asked her to compose a poem about the willow. Then they danced together. Liniang was so delicate and touching in her movements that it was like watching a silkworm’s death–tender and subtle.
Mengmei led her into our garden’s rocky grotto. With the two of them gone from view, all I heard was Mengmei’s seductive voice. “Open the fastening at your neck, untie the sash around your waist, and cover your eyes with your sleeve. You may need to bite the fabric. . . .”
Alone in my bed I had tried in vain to imagine what might be going on in the rockery of the Peony Pavilion. I still couldn’t see what was happening and had to rely on the appearance of the Flower Spirit to explain their actions. “Ah, how the male force surges and leaps. . . .” But this didn’t help me either. As an unmarried girl, I’d been told about clouds and rain, but no one had yet explained what it really was.
At consummation, a shower of peony petals came floating over the top of the rockery. Liniang sang of the joys she and her scholar had found.
When Liniang woke from her dream, she realized she’d found true love. Spring Fragrance, on orders from Madame Du, instructed Liniang to eat. But how could she? Three meals a day held no promise, no love. Liniang sneaked away from her servant and went back to the garden to pursue her dream. She saw the ground carpeted in petals. Hawthorn branches caught her skirt, pulling at her, keeping her in the garden. Memories of her dream came back to her: “Against the withered rock he leaned my wilting body.” She remembered how he laid her down and how she spread the folds of her skirt as “a covering for earth for the fear of the eyes of Heaven,” until eventually she’d experienced her sweet melting.
She lingered under a plum tree thick with clusters of fruit. But this was no ordinary plum tree. It represented Liniang’s mysterious dream lover, vital and procreative. “I should count it a great good fortune to be buried here beside it when I die,” Liniang sang.
My mother had trained me never to show my feelings, but when I read The Peony Pavilion, I felt certain things: love, sadness, happiness. Now, watching the story played out before me, imagining what happened in our rockery between the scholar and Liniang, and seeing a young man not of my own family for the first time brought out too many emotions in me. I had to get away for a few moments; Liniang’s restlessness was my own.
I slowly rose and gingerly stepped between the cushions. I walked along one of our garden paths, Liniang’s words filling my heart with longing. I tried to rest my mind by letting my eyes find quiet in the greenery. There were no flowers in our main garden. Everything was green to create a feeling of tranquility like a cup of tea–the taste light but remaining a long time. I crossed the zigzag bridge that spanned one of our lesser lily ponds and stepped into the Riding-the-Wind Pavilion, which had been designed so that gentle breezes on a sultry summer evening would cool a hot face or burning heart. I sat down and tried to calm myself in the way the pavilion intended. I had so wanted to experience every second of the opera, but I’d been unprepared for how overwhelmed I would feel.
Arias and music wafted to me through the night, carrying with them Madame Du’s concern over her daughter’s listlessness. Madame Du didn’t recognize it yet, but her daughter was lovesick. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and let that knowledge seep into me.
Then I heard a disquieting echo of my breath near me. I opened my eyes and saw standing before me the young man I’d seen through the slit in the screen.
A tiny yip of surprise escaped from my lips before I could even begin to compose myself. I was alone with a man who was not a relative. Worse, he was a total stranger.
“I’m sorry.” He folded his hands together and bowed several times in apology.
My heart pounded–from fear, from excitement, from the sheer extraordinariness of the situation. This man had to be one of my father’s friends. I had to be gracious, yet maintain decorum. “I shouldn’t have left the performance,” I said hesitantly. “It’s my fault.”
“I shouldn’t have left either.” He took a step forward, and my body leaned away in automatic response. “But the love of those two . . .” He shook his head. “Imagine finding true love.”
“I’ve imagined it many times.”
I was sorry as soon as the words left my mouth. This was not the way to speak to a man, whether a stranger or a husband. I knew that, and yet the words had flown from my tongue. I put three fingers to my lips, hoping they would keep more thoughts from escaping.
“So have I,” he said. He took another step forward. “But Liniang and Mengmei find each other in the dream, and then they fall in love.”
“Perhaps you don’t know the opera,” I said. “They meet, true, but Liniang pursues Mengmei only after she becomes a ghost.”
“I know the story, but I disagree. The scholar must overcome his fear of her ghost–”
“A fear that arises only after she seduces him.”
How could that sentence have come out of my mouth?
“You must forgive me,” I said. “I’m just an ignorant girl, and I should get back to the performance.”
“No, wait. Please don’t go.”
I looked through the darkness back toward the stage. I’d waited my entire life to see this opera. I could hear Liniang sing, “In my thin gown I tremble, wrapped against the morning chill only by regrets to see red tears of petals shake from the bough.” In her lovesickness, she’d become so thin and frail–haggard, really–that she decided to paint her self-portrait on silk. If she left the world, she would be remembered as she’d been in her dream, ripe with beauty and unfulfilled desire. This act–as it was, even for a living girl–was a tangible symptom of Liniang’s lovesickness, since it acknowledged and anticipated her death. With the fine lines of her brush, she painted a plum sprig in the figure’s hand to recall her dream lover, hoping that if he ever chanced upon the portrait he would recognize her. Finally, she added a poem expressing her wish to marry someone named Liu.
How could I be tempted to stay away from the opera so easily? And by a man? If I had been thinking at all, I would have realized right then why some people believed The Peony Pavilion lured young women into behaving improperly.
He must have sensed my indecision–how could he not?–for he said, “I won’t speak of this to anyone so please stay. I’ve never had a chance to hear what a woman thinks of the opera.”
A woman? The situation was getting worse. I stepped around him, making sure that no part of my clothes brushed against him. As I walked past, he spoke again.
“The author meant to stir female feelings of qing–of love and emotion–in us. I feel this story, but I don’t know if what I experience is true.”
We were just inches apart. I turned and looked up into his face. His features were even more refined than I’d thought. In the dim light of the soon-to-be quarter moon, I saw the high planes of his cheekbones, the gentleness in his eyes, and the fullness of his mouth.
“I . . .” My voice closed in on itself as he gazed down at me. I cleared my throat and began again. “How could a girl–cloistered and from an elite family–”
“A girl like you.”
“–choose her own husband? This is not possible for me, and it would have been impossible for her too.”
“Do you think you understand Liniang better than her creator?”
“I’m a girl. I’m the same age. I believe in filial duty,” I said, “and I will follow the course my father has set for me, but all girls have dreams, even if our destinies are set.”
“So you have the same kinds of dreams as Liniang?” he asked.
“I’m not a pleasure girl on one of the painted boats on the lake, if that’s what you’re asking!”
Suddenly I burned with embarrassment. I had said too much. I stared at the ground. My bound-foot shoes looked tiny and delicate next to his embroidered slippers. I felt his eyes on me and longed to look up, but I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. I tipped my head and, without another word, left the pavilion.
He called softly after me. “Meet me tomorrow?” A question, followed a heartbeat later by a stronger statement: “Meet me tomorrow night. Meet me here.”
I didn’t answer. I didn’t look back. Instead I walked straight to our main garden and once again threaded my way through the seated women to the pillow positioned in front of the screen’s fold. I glanced around, hoping no one had noticed my absence. I sat down and forced myself to look through the crack out to the performance, but I found it hard to pay attention. When I saw the young man return to his seat, I closed my eyes. I would not allow myself to look at him. Sitting there, my eyes shut tight, the music and the words penetrated me.
Lisa See is the New York Times bestselling author of China Dolls, Dreams of Joy, Shanghai Girls, Peony in Love, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Flower Net (an Edgar Award nominee), The Interior, and Dragon Bones, as well as the critically acclaimed memoir On Gold Mountain. The Organization of Chinese American Women named her the 2001 National Woman of the Year. She lives in Los Angeles.