Foot-binding, opera and anorexia are feminist statements in See’s (Snowflower and the Secret Fan, 2005, etc.) ghost story set in 17th-century China.
The monumental (55-scene) opera Peony Pavilion, written in the twilight of the Ming Dynasty, tells the tale of Liniang, who defies convention by seeking to choose her own mate, then wastes away of lovesickness. Peony, coddled teenage daughter of the Chen clan, is not the only aristocratic maiden to be love-struck by the opera (still considered outré in China today). Although promised in an arranged marriage, Peony observes a “man-beautiful” poet from behind a screen at a performance of Pavilion, and she falls in love. Risking ruin, she meets him for chaste garden trysts to discuss poetry and qinq (emotion-ruled life). As her marriage approaches, Peony emulates Liniang’s self-starvation, devoting her time to annotating the pages of various editions of Pavilion. Through a tragedy of errors, Peony learns, on her deathbed, that her betrothed Wu Ren is her poet. After death, someone hides Peony’s ancestor tablet, condemning her to wander the earth as a “hungry ghost.” She visits Ren in dreams and pens more Pavilion marginalia. On a limbo-like “Viewing Terrace” she meets her grandmother, killed during the “Cataclysm,” the carnage marking the advent of the Manchu Dynasty. Horrified, Peony witnesses Ren’s marriage to her spoiled rival, Tan Ze. She molds Ze into an ideal wife, daughter-in-law and fellow Pavilion annotator. But Ze dies while pregnant, and is consigned to the Blood-Gathering Lake, special hell of women who fail at childbirth. In a world where women are punished in life and afterlife, the Manchus threaten more oppression, toward female literati who organize writing groups and publish their poetry. Peony atones for Ze’s fate by helping peasant girl Yi advance socially and buck the Manchu regime—by binding her feet. As Ren’s third wife, Yi joins Ze and Peony in coauthoring the groundbreaking Three Wives Commentary, which examines Peony Pavilion.
See’s gossamer weave of cultural detail and Chinese afterlife mythology forms an improbably inspiring tapestry of love and letters.