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Peony in Love

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 didn’t 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 out 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. We’d 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

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 husband’s touch.  I
wouldn’t 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 fleeting.

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

I left my room in the Unmarried Girls’ Hall and headed in the
direction of our ancestral hall to make offerings to my
grandmother.  I’d spent so much time getting ready that
I made a quick obeisance.  I didn’t want to be late for
breakfast. My feet couldn’t 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. “I’m even concerned for my
sisters-in-law. You know I don’t encourage private
excursions. Now to bring outsiders in for this

 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 behind

“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

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.”

Peony in Love
by by Lisa See

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 140006466X
  • ISBN-13: 9781400064663