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Peony in Loveby Lisa See
Excerpt from Chapter 1- 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 didnt 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. Wed 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 husbands
touch. I wouldnt 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
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. Id spent
so much time getting ready that I made a quick obeisance. I didnt want to
be late for breakfast. My feet couldnt 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.
“Im even concerned for my sisters-in-law. You know I dont 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
“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
“You dont complain when the members of my poetry club visit.”
“But my daughter and my nieces arent in the garden when theyre
here! Theres no opportunity for impropriety. And what about the other
families youve 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 couldnt see their faces, but I imagined Mama paling under his sudden
severity; she didnt 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 curtainweaving
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 womens chambers, but when she was upset, as she was at
this moment, she fingered the locks nervously.
Babas 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
“You must do what you think best for the family,” Mama conceded.
I took that moment to scurry past the pavilion. I hadnt understood all
that had been said, but I really didnt 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 doesnt 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
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 mothers 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 fathers 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 familys 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 womens 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 Id 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 shed
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 Id made, she spoke with the
honesty of her position.
“My daughters needlework improves. See how she tried to embroider
chrysanthemums?” She paused. “They are chrysanthemums, arent they?”
When I nodded, she said, “Youve 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. Mamas eyes swept through the room,
taking in the wiggling little girls, the darting eyes of their mothers, Fourth
Aunts 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 Mamas 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 Gods 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 womans 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 natures full embarrassment to the Cowherds
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 Tans daughter, piped up in a
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
“Until the gods and goddesses grew weary,” Ze answered again, ignoring
my mothers 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 shed 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
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