Lisa See has done this in spades, blending historical facts with the spiritual life of 17th Century China. Her "Author's Note" places the novel into historical perspective. Tang Xianzu wrote an opera, The Peony Pavilion, in 1598. Some 9 hours long, it is still produced today, although often over the protests of the Chinese government. The opera, which provides the frame for this story, gave rise to the "lovesick maidens," young women who fell in love, quit eating, and literally wasted away. The three maidens of the novel (and in real life) were Chen Tong (Peony of the title), born about 1649; Tan Ze, born 1656; and Qian Yi, born 1671. In 1694, The Three Wives' Commentary was published, the first book of literary criticism written and published by women. It was a time of political and social upheaval. The Manchus overthrew the Qing Dynasty in 1644 and chaos reigned for some 40 years. Thousands of women were "liberated" (a relative term), enabling them to become published writers. There were more female writers in China at this time than in the rest of the world combined. Forty-four of these writers remain known today.
"Love is of source unknown, yet it grows ever deeper. The living may die of it,
by its power the dead live again Only for those whose love must be fulfilled
on the pillow, and for whom affection deepens only after retirement from
office, is it an entirely corporeal matter."
See mixes the corporeal and spiritual worlds in a riveting story of love unrequited in the real world. The soon-to-be child bride Peony sees a handsome young poet at a performance of the opera, falls in love, and manages to meet him. Wishing to marry him but betrothed to another (she believes), she quits eating. On her deathbed, she learns that her betrothed was her young poet. Ironically, her father had introduced him to the guests at the opera, but she had chosen to look away at that moment. Her story, and its subsequent results, mirrors The Peony Pavilion.
See has an unerring eye for detail. Peony walks on her bound feet: "I swayed with a flawless lily gait, moving gently across the floor, careful with my steps, my body shivering from side to side like a flower in the breeze." Or, speaking of her cloistered life, Peony says, "I didn't understand that my cousin and I were trapped like good-luck crickets in bamboo-and-lacquer cages." Later, "I tried as hard as possible to make my face as unfathomable as a pond on a humid summer night." Her description of foot binding is frightening!
Lisa See's books have explored the hidden and forgotten elements of Chinese life. A murder mystery series, set in modern China, explores the exploits of Liu Hulan in The Interior and Dragon Bones. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, set in 19th Century China, revealed the practice of women's secret writing, which had prevailed for a thousand years. Peony continues a tradition of strong female protagonists. Her first book, a biography of her grandfather, known as the godfather of San Francisco's Chinatown, was a New York Times Notable Book in 1995. She has also written an opera based on that first work.