Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 7, 2020

Peony, by Pearl S Buck, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1938

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from Read the Nobels.

To see my progress with completing the Read the Nobels Challenge, see here.

Pearl S Buck (1892-1973) was not the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, (that honour went to Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf in 1909) but she was the first woman to win it for literature written in English.  However, as the daughter of American missionaries who spent most of her life in Zhenjiang, China  before returning to the US in 1935, she is best known for her writing about China.  The Nobel citation was “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces”.  Of these I have read The Good Earth (1931) in the days before I kept a blog or a reading journal, and I’ve have previously reviewed her Letter from Peking, (1957).  However, in the process of *sigh* reconstructing my Excel reading record lost somewhere in cyberspace, I came across my review of Peony, (1948) in Reading Journal #11, just in time to add it (tweaked a little bit) to Reviews from the Archive.


19th of August, 2006

First edition cover

Peony, is a deceptively simple story of star-crossed lovers divided by race, religion and class.  Written in 1948, it’s an historical novel which explores the role of women in mid 19th century China.

Peony is a bondmaid in a Jewish family who lived in Kaifeng in China in the 1850s.  In the edition I read there was an Afterword*  which confirmed that there had been Jews in Kaifeng for a very long time, and that they were well-accepted by the Chinese as they never were elsewhere.  However, according to Buck, it was this assimilation which led to marrying ‘out’ and the gradual loss of their culture and religion.

*Probably by Wendy R. Abraham, but the book was from the library so I can’t now be sure.

Although the novel is dominated by the story of Peony’s doomed love for David, the son of the house of ben Ezra, it also explores Jewish beliefs and is critical of some aspects of their religion.

There is extensive dialogue about the incompatibility of the 19th century Chinese view of the world and the fundamentals of the Jewish religion.  Through the character of Kao Lien, a Chinese Jew, Buck is quite explicit about the separateness of Jews making them vulnerable to hatreds, and he tells his daughter Kueilin that she will not be happy if she marries into that family because they are a sorrowful people and they worship a cruel god.  Kung Chen, seeking to learn more about Judaism, rejects the concept of a Chosen People and tells the Rabbi that if there is a god, he would not select only The Chosen for salvation because under Heaven we are all one family. 


#Digression, my thoughts today:

Wikipedia tells me that Buck was, in the US, a prominent advocate of the rights of women and minority groups, but I am uneasy about anything that suggests any kind of justification for anti-Semitism, or which implies that minorities are in any way responsible for the irrational hatreds of other people.  However, though it is now well-established that the German genocide targeted all Jews, whether secular or orthodox, or assimilated for generations or not, I am inclined to think that Buck was, in the immediate aftermath of WW2, searching for some kind of explanation for the Holocaust and the comparative tolerance of the Chinese.  To put it another way, her response to the horror of the Holocaust may have been to explore within the society that she knew so well, the costs and benefits of assimilation as protection against it ever happening again.

I think now that Buck in this novel was exploring the vexed question of Jewish assimilation and identity.  Hatreds that fuelled pogroms elsewhere did not occur in China because the Jews were absorbed into Chinese society, but this was at the cost of their traditions and identity.  David’s mother Madame Ezra represents orthodox separatists who feared the loss of a distinctive Jewish identity, and her intransigent refusal to modify her principles even at the cost of her son’s happiness, shows the strength of her determination to protect her family’s faith.

Buck’s interest in this issue may also have been influenced by her own experience of being in a minority faith.  She was the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, so she may also have been critiquing the contrasting worlds of restrictive religions in general, in terms of how they are incompatible with a more light-hearted, humanistic approach to life:

Pearl recalled in her memoir that she lived in “several worlds”, one a “small, white, clean Presbyterian world of my parents”, and the other the “big, loving merry not-too-clean Chinese world”, and there was no communication between them. (Pearl Buck’s page at Wikipedia, viewed 4/11/20)

I’d be interested to hear the interpretations of others who have read this book more recently…


BEWARE: SPOILERS

Anyway…

Peony, despite her lowly status, has agency in this tale.  Ever much more than a bondmaid, she had been soothing, cajoling, and manipulating things in the household for a long time, and since she knows that David will never marry her, she schemes instead for him to marry Kuelin (who is Chinese-Jewish, representing assimilation rather than separateness).  David is torn by his duty to his strongly religious mother and her belief that he should marry Leah, the Rabbi’s daughter.  After the quarrel in which Leah loses her temper and slashes him with his sword and then kills herself, he wants to make a redemptive pilgrimage to the Promised Land.

In the event, however, the only pilgrimage made is to the Imperial Palace at Peking.  Peony goes to Kuelin’s father, (David’s father-in-law) to tell them of David’s plans, and he sets up the journey to the palace instead, unwittingly sending Peony to her doom. It is there that she attracts the attention of the Chief Steward, a eunuch, and she has good reason to fear his insinuating behaviour towards her.

His power is such that the only way she can evade him is to enter a nunnery, where she ends her days as abbess, still visiting David’s household, but now as an equal and part of the family.

As a bondmaid, Peony had few choices.  She loved David with all her heart, and spent most of her life meeting his needs and subjecting herself to a loveless life—no husband, and no children.  When he finally realised what she meant to him and offered her concubinage as a way to escape the Chief Steward, again she acts selflessly.  She did not accept because she knew his religion forbade it and he would come to feel guilty about it even if the rest of China did not.

On the other hand, she hated Leah for her beauty but also for the sorrowfulness of her religion that she brought with her.  She schemes to make David marry Kuelin instead but only because she knew Leah could never make him happy.  Again this is an observation on Judaism that may not please everyone, and the contrast between the light-hearted pleasure-loving Chinese sits oddly in the light of Mao Zedong’s revolution and the terrors of the Cultural Revolution.  Buck, writing in 1948, was not to know how nasty, brutish and dull China was to become.

Peony, by Pearl S Buck, first published in 1948, borrowed from Kingston Library.

I finished reading it and journalled it on the 19th of August, 2006


Responses

  1. I’ve only spottily read your post to avoid spoilers, but I do find it interesting to think about given the current international response to the religious intolerance in present-day China (the concentration camps and how other governments are/aren’t holding China responsible). It sounds like Buck was trying to navigate similar questions in her own time, and of course we all know how often these patterns repeat but it’s still sobering to have it there in black-and-white on the page. As for Buck, I’ve done a fine job of collecting her; a dismal job of reading her (I’m not sure I’ve read even one, maybe one for children).

    Like

    • Ah, yes, I think I’ve read one for children too… nothing in the list of children’s books listed at WP rings a bell … was it something about a duck?

      Like


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