Sunday, August 16, 2015

"Peony in Love: A Novel" by Lisa See

It's the month of the Hungry Ghost Festival again and in Hokkien, this is known as "the middle of the seventh month" (chit guok pua).

Last year, I'd written about the commonly held superstitions but this year, I noticed that a lot of families were still outdoors having dinner way past 8 pm. I guess some of the old superstitions are slowly fading away.

If you visit the Chinese communities in Malaysia now, you'll notice little bonfires and plates of food by the kerb.

What are they for?
They are burnt offerings of money (the yellow and gold paper known as "joss paper") and food to the dearly departed.

Since food is the #1 priority for a Chinese, food and drink are equally important for the dead Chinese, especially for those whose funeral rites had not been conducted to its completion.

Growing up in a Chinese/Taoist household, I had many questions about the Hungry Ghost Festival and my late grandmother would patiently answer them as best as she could, which was challenging since I asked a lot of taboo questions!


Peony in Love
Anyway, I have found that Lisa See, famous for  explains the Hungry Ghost Festival extremely well in her novel, "Peony in Love".

This beautiful novel, which takes place in the 17th century (?), follows the journey of young Peony, who falls in love with a young scholar she meets at a Chinese opera but like many women of her age and time, she's betrothed in an arranged marriage.


"Peony in Love" is a tragedy and like most tragedies, she, the heroine pines away at the young scholar while the preparations for her arranged marriage take place.

As the countdown towards the arranged marriage comes closer, Peony becomes weaker and weaker that she dies. Her family is distraught and unfortunately for her, one important step is overlooked during her funeral rites and poor Peony becomes a "hungry ghost", doomed to wander the earth FOREVER.

Lisa See - photo and biography from Wikipedia.

I learned so much about Chinese funeral rites, especially the belief of the "hungry ghost" because Lisa See's novel follows Peony's journey through the Underworld and I found some similarities between the Chinese Hell and Hades in Greek mythology. In fact, the "joss paper" burnt during such the Hungry Ghost Festival and the Qing Ming Festival (a misnomer) are called "Hades banknotes".

Lovesick
While Peony seems like a weak protagonist, similar to Ophelia in Shakespeare's "Hamlet", I find that the book gains its strength from her experiences, her journey and her realization.

You see, Peony, was lucky to have an open-minded father who set up the staging of a famous Chinese opera, which incidentally is about a lovesick maiden, in his home and she was allowed to view it together with the audience.

In 17th century China, this was short of a scandal since girls were not allowed to be educated, to go to school nor allowed to sit for the national university entrance examinations known as gaokao (高考, "Higher Education Exam"). Remember the story of Mulan?

Under her father's tutelage and mother's protests, Peony learns to read and write and to appreciate the fine arts e.g. art, poetry and opera.

As she pines away at her secret lover, she pens down her thoughts and wishes in little poems and notes to him that she she stashes away with the hope that he will find them and know of her love for him.

Reading the novel, I personally find that like many "foolish" young girls, Peony is so caught up with her infatuation with the boy that she does not think of anything else.

Her father? Her mother? Her siblings? Nope, not a thought.

Then again, others may argue: "What's the point when you're trapped in an arranged marriage?"

Yes, some arranged marriages are terrible but then again, some arranged marriages are good.

If young girls like Peony would think of the 50-50 possibility that their parents actually have their best interests at heart and talk to them, we may not have tragedies like "Peony in Love". What do you think?

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