Read Peony in Love Online

Authors: Lisa See

Tags: #Historical, #Women - China, #Opera, #General, #Romance, #Love Stories, #China, #Historical Fiction, #Fiction, #China - History - Ming Dynasty; 1368-1644, #Women

Peony in Love (4 page)

BOOK: Peony in Love
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I stepped into my father’s library. A servant stood by the door, ready to attend to Baba’s needs. On the walls to my left and right were marble “paintings”—slices of marble that revealed hidden landscapes of cloud-covered mountains against a murky sky. The room, even with the windows open, was redolent of the four jewels of the scholar’s study: paper, ink, brushes, and the earthiness of the inkstone. Nine generations of scholars had built this library, and printed books were everywhere—on the desk, the floor, the shelves. My father had added his mark to the collection by amassing hundreds of works written by women during the Ming dynasty and well over a thousand books written by women since the Cataclysm. He said that these days men had to find talent in unusual places.

This morning Baba was not at his desk. Instead, he lounged on a wooden bed with a rattan bottom, watching mist rise off the lake. Beneath the bed I saw twin trays, each with large blocks of ice on them. He indulged his sensitivity to heat by having our servants dig up preserved ice from underground and use it to cool his daybed. On the wall above him hung a couplet, which read:

Do not care about fame. Be modest.

In this way you will be found by others to be special.

“Peony,” he said, and waved me over to him. “Come and sit.”

I crossed the room, swinging close to the windows so I could look out over the lake to Solitary Island and beyond. I wasn’t supposed to see outside our walls, but today my father wordlessly permitted me this treat. I sat down in one of the chairs that had been placed before his desk for those who came to ask favors.

“Have you come to escape your teacher again today?” he asked.

Over the years, my family had provided me with wonderful teachers—all women—but from the time I was four, my father had let me sit in his lap so he could personally teach me to read, understand, and criticize. He taught me that life imitates art. Through reading, he told me, I could enter worlds different from my own. In picking up the brush to write, I could exercise my intellect and imagination. I considered him my best teacher.

“I have no lessons today,” I reminded him shyly.

Had he forgotten my birthday was tomorrow? Usually birthdays were not celebrated until someone reached the age of fifty, but hadn’t he mounted the opera for me because he loved me and I was precious to him?

He smiled indulgently. “Of course, of course.” Then he turned serious. “Too much female gossip in the women’s chambers?”

I shook my head.

“Then you have come to tell me that you won one of those contests your mother has organized.”

“Oh, Ba.” I sighed in resignation. He knew I didn’t excel at those things.

“You are so old now I can’t even tease you anymore.” He slapped his thigh and laughed. “Sixteen tomorrow. Have you failed to remember this special day?”

I smiled back at him. “You’ve given me the best present.”

He cocked his head in question. He had to be teasing me again and I played along.

“I suppose you staged the opera for someone else,” I suggested.

Baba had encouraged my impertinence over the years, but today he didn’t respond with something swift and clever. Instead, he said, “Yes, yes,
yes,
” as if with each word he considered his answer anew. “Of course. That was it.”

He pulled himself up and threw his legs over the side of the bed. After he stood, he took a moment to adjust his clothes, which were modeled on Manchu riding gear—trousers and a fitted tunic that buttoned at the neck. “But I have another present for you. One I think you’ll like even more.”

He went to a camphor-wood chest, opened it, and pulled out something wrapped in purple silk woven in a pattern of willows. When he handed it to me, I knew it was a book. I hoped it was the volume of
The Peony Pavilion
that the great author Tang Xianzu had published himself. I slowly untied and then unfolded the silk. It was an edition of
The Peony Pavilion
I did not yet have, but not the one I wished for. Still, I clutched it to my chest, relishing how special it was. Without my father’s help, I would not have been able to pursue my passion, no matter how resourceful I was.

“Ba, you’re too good to me.”

“Open it,” he urged.

I loved books. I loved the weight of them in my hands. I loved the smell of the ink and the feel of the rice paper.

“Don’t fold over the edges of the page to mark your place,” my father reminded me. “Don’t scratch at the written characters with your fingernails. Don’t wet your finger with your tongue before turning the pages. And never use a book as a pillow.”

How many times had he warned me of these things?

“I won’t, Baba,” I promised.

My eyes rested on the narrator’s opening lines. Last night I had heard the actor who played him speak of how three incarnations had led Liniang and Mengmei to the Peony Pavilion.

I took the volume to my father, pointed to the passage, and asked, “Baba, where does this come from? Was it something Tang Xianzu invented or is it one of the things he borrowed from another poem or story?”

My father smiled, pleased as usual with my curiosity. “Look on the third shelf on that wall. Find the oldest book and you’ll get your answer.”

I put my new copy of
The Peony Pavilion
on the daybed and did as my father suggested. I took the book back to the bed and leafed through the pages until I found the original source for the three incarnations. It seemed that in the Tang dynasty a girl loved a monk. It took three separate lifetimes for them to attain perfect circumstances and perfect love. I pondered that. Could love be strong enough to outlast death not once but three times?

I picked up
The Peony Pavilion
again and slowly turned the pages. I wanted to find Mengmei and relive meeting my stranger last night. I came to Mengmei’s entrance:

I have inherited fragrance of classic books. Drilling the wall for light, hair tied to a beam in fear of drowsing, I wrest from nature excellence in letters….

“What are you reading now?” Baba asked.

Caught! Blood rushed to my cheeks.

“I…I…”

“There are things in the story a girl like you might not understand. You could discuss them with your mother—”

I blushed an even deeper red. “It’s nothing like that,” I stammered, and then I read him the lines, which on their own seemed perfectly innocent.

“Ah, so you want to know the source for this too.” When I nodded, he got up, went to one of the shelves, pulled down a book, and brought it to the bed. “This records the deeds of famous scholars. Do you want me to help you?”

“I can do it, Baba.”

“I know you can,” he said, and handed me the volume.

Aware of my father’s eyes watching me, I leafed through the book until I came to an entry about Kuang Heng, a scholar so poor he couldn’t afford oil for his lamp. He drilled a hole in the wall so he might borrow his neighbor’s light.

“In a few more pages”—Baba urged me on—“you’ll find the reference to Sun Jing, who tied his hair to a beam, so fearful was he of falling asleep at his studies.”

I nodded soberly, wondering if the young man I’d met was as diligent as those men of antiquity.

“If you’d been a son,” Baba went on, “you would have made an excellent imperial scholar, perhaps the best our family has ever seen.”

He meant it as a compliment and I took it that way, but I heard regret in his voice too. I was not a son and never would be.

“If you’re going to be here,” he added hurriedly, perhaps aware of his lapse, “then you should help me.”

We went back to his desk and sat down. He carefully arranged his clothes around him and then adjusted his queue so that it hung straight down his back. He ran his fingers over his shaved forehead—a habit, like wearing Manchu styles, that reminded him of his choice to protect our family—and then he opened a drawer and pulled out several strings of silver
cash
pieces.

He pushed a string across the desk and said, “I need to send funds to the countryside. Help me count them out.”

We owned thousands of
mou
planted with mulberry trees. In the Gudang area, not far from here, whole villages relied on our family for their livelihood. Baba cared for the people who raised the trees, harvested the leaves, fed and nurtured the silkworms, pulled the floss from the cocoons, spun thread, and, of course, made cloth. He told me what was required for each enterprise, and I began putting together the proper amounts.

“You don’t seem like yourself today,” my father said. “What troubles you?”

I couldn’t tell him about the young man I’d met or that I was worrying about whether or not I should meet him again in the Riding-the-Wind Pavilion, but if Baba could help me understand my grandmother and the choices she’d made, then maybe I’d know what to do tonight.

“I’ve been thinking about Grandmother Chen. Was she so very brave? Did she have any moments when she was unsure?”

“We’ve studied this history—”

“The history, yes, but not about Grandmother. What was she like?”

My father knew me very well, and unlike most daughters I knew him very well too. Over the years I’d learned to recognize certain expressions: the way he raised his eyebrows in surprise when I asked about this or that woman poet, the grimace he made when he quizzed me on history and I answered incorrectly, the thoughtful way he pulled on his chin when I asked him a question about
The Peony Pavilion
for which he didn’t know the answer. Now he looked at me as though he were weighing my worth.

“The Manchus had seen city after city fall,” he said at last, “but they knew that when they got to the Yangzi delta they’d find strong loyalist resistance. They could have chosen Hangzhou, where we live, but instead they decided to make Yangzhou, where my father served as a minister, a lesson to other cities in the region.”

I’d heard this many times and wondered if he’d tell me anything I didn’t already know.

“The generals, who until then had kept the soldiers under strict control, gave the order for their men to let loose their desires and take whatever riches they wanted—in the form of women, silver, silk, antiques, and animals—as reward for their service.” My father paused and regarded me in that same appraising way. “Do you understand what I’m saying…about the women?”

In all honesty I didn’t, but I nodded.

“For five days, the city ran with blood,” he continued wearily. “Fires destroyed homes, halls, temples. Thousands and thousands of people died.”

“Weren’t you afraid?”

“Everyone was scared, but my mother taught us how to be brave. And we had to be brave in so many ways.” Again he scrutinized me as though considering whether or not to continue. He must have found me lacking, because he picked up a string of
cash
and went back to his counting. Without taking his eyes from the pieces of silver, he concluded, “Now you know why I prefer to look only at beauty—to read poetry, do my calligraphy, read, and listen to opera.”

But he hadn’t told me anything about Grandmother! And he hadn’t said anything that would help me decide what to do tonight or help me understand what I was feeling.

“Baba…” I said shyly.

“Yes,” he answered, without looking up.

“I’ve been thinking about the opera and Liniang’s lovesickness,” I blurted in a rushed tumble. “Do you think that could happen in real life?”

“Absolutely. You’ve heard of Xiaoqing, haven’t you?”

Of course I had. She was the greatest lovesick maiden ever.

“She died very young,” I prompted. “Was it because she was beautiful?”

“In many ways she was a lot like you,” Baba answered. “She was graceful and elegant by nature. But her parents, members of the gentry, lost their fortune. Her mother became a teacher, so Xiaoqing was well educated. Perhaps too well educated.”

“But how can anyone be too well educated?” I asked, thinking of how happy I had just made my father by showing interest in his books.

“When Xiaoqing was a little girl, she visited a nun,” Baba answered. “In one sitting, Xiaoqing learned to recite the
Heart Sutra
without missing a single character. But as she was doing this, the nun saw that Xiaoqing did not have good fortune. If the girl could keep from reading, then she’d live to thirty. If not…”

“But how could she die of lovesickness?”

“When she turned sixteen, a man in Hangzhou acquired her to be a concubine and secreted her away just out there”—he gestured to the window—“on Solitary Island to keep her safe from his jealous wife. Xiaoqing was all alone and very lonely. Her only comfort came from reading
The Peony Pavilion.
Like you, she read the opera constantly. She became obsessed, caught a case of lovesickness, and wasted away. As she weakened, she wrote poems likening herself to Liniang.” His voice softened and color came to his cheeks. “She was only seventeen when she died.”

My cousins and I sometimes talked about Xiaoqing. We made up explanations for what we thought “being put on earth for the delights of men” might mean. But as Baba spoke, I saw that somehow Xiaoqing’s frailty and dissipation excited and fascinated him. He wasn’t the only man who’d been captivated by her life and death. Lots of men had written poems to her, and more than twenty had written plays about her. There was, I realized now, something about Xiaoqing and how she died that was deeply attractive and enthralling to men. Did my stranger feel the same way too?

“I often think of Xiaoqing as she reached the end of her days,” Baba added, his voice dreamy. “She drank only one small cup of pear juice a day. Can you imagine?”

I was beginning to feel uncomfortable. He was my father, and I didn’t like thinking he might have feelings and sensations similar to the ones I’d had since last night when I had always told myself that he and my mother were distant with each other and that he received no real joy from his concubines.

“Just like Liniang, Xiaoqing wanted to leave behind a portrait of herself,” Baba went on, oblivious to my unease. “It took the artist three attempts to get it right. Xiaoqing grew more pathetic with each passing day, but she never forgot her duty to be beautiful. Each morning she dressed her hair and clothed herself in her finest silks. She died sitting up, looking so perfect that those who came to see her believed her still to be alive. Then her owner’s terrible wife burned Xiaoqing’s poems and all but one of the portraits.”

BOOK: Peony in Love
13.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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