Saturday, July 14, 2007

Poetry, erm... Saturday

So, I was going to post this yesterday, on Friday. But I was sick, so it didn't happen, as I spent all yesterday afternoon sleeping...

So, first, a history lesson:

In 1644, the Ming Dynasty fell to the conquesting Manchu Dynasty. Ming means bright, and the character is made up of the characters for the sun and the moon. The new dynasty took the name Qing, which means clear and has the water radical, thereby dousing the Ming. (The Qing would last until the Nationalist Revolution of 1911.) The final decades of the Ming and the first of the Qing were a time of changing social mores. During this time, there were many female poets who started gaining slight fame, even if many were anonymous. One place such poems were found were written on walls. More information and more poems can be found The Red Brush: Writing Women of Imperial China (which is a great anthology, btw).

Now, a poem, written on a wall in the late Ming in Xinjia by someone only known as the "girl from Guji":

My silvery-red singlet is partly covered by dust,
Only a single dying lamp to keep my company.
I am just like the pear blossom after a rain storm:
Strewn all about and never making it to spring.

Now, more history:

Some of the greatest Chinese operas were written during the Ming dynasty. One such opera is The Peony Pavilion. In this opera, Du Liniang is a young maiden who dreams of the lover she hasn't yet met. She paints her portrait and then wastes away. Meanwhile, Liu Mengmei comes to the garden where Du Liniang has hidden her portrait. He falls in love with her ghost and his love brings her back to life. There's a lot more to the opera than just that, but that's the relevant part for the point I'm meandering towards.

So, the opera had a great effect on the upper class women on China. Many women responded Du's character and, like Du, wasted away and died.

In 1694, a poet named Wu Ren published The Three Wives Commentary, an edition of The Peony Pavilion with literary commentary written by his three wives.

Now, a book review:

In Peony in Love by Lisa See, See takes this commentary and imagines the lives of these three wives and how the commentary came to be written.

Peony lives a proper life and has never left her family compound on Hangzhou's West Lake. She is to be married to her father's friend's son. But on her birthday, her father stages a production of The Peony Pavilion and, when taking a break, she accidentally meets a man and falls in love. Unable to marry the man she loves, and faced with marrying a man she has never met, she becomes so wrapped up in writing her thoughts on The Peony Pavilion that she forgets to eat. Days before her wedding, she dies.

Through a series of misunderstandings, her ancestor tablet remains undotted, and she becomes a hungry ghost. She haunts her husband's family and influences his subsequent wives to continue working on her project...

This is a story that needs background information--you might want to read the ending Author's Notes before you read the book. See's imagining is tender and well-written and pays close attention to historical detail. Her portrait of Hangzhou in the years following the Cataclysm (the name given to the overthrow of the Ming) and the changing role of women during this time of extreme political upheaval. I was excited to see a tale narrated by a hungry ghost, and a sympathetic one at that.

I loved it. I know a lot of people have said that it's not as good as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but I haven't read it yet, so I can't compare. Also, I want to thank Lotus Reads for the recommendation!


Lotus Reads said...

Jennie,you're so welcome and you've done an outstanding job on the review...hope you won't mind but I'd love to link to your review on my write up for Peony. You have distilled the essential details of the book perfectly...much better than what I did (my review was all over the place, lol)jitcmmu

Jennie said...

Of course you can link up!