LIANE HANSEN, host:
This coming Saturday's date is considered lucky, the seventh day of the seventh month. The fact that it is also the seventh year is a bonus. Lisa See's new novel, "Peony in Love," begins just before double seven in 17th century China.
Peony Chen celebrates her 16th birthday on the feast and gets to see an opera, which was normally forbidden to girls and women - "The Peony Pavilion." It's a story of a betrothed young girl, who falls in love with another, dies from lovesickness and is reborn as a ghost. It is also, as it turns out, Peony Chen's state. The opera of the novel is real. Was written in 1598 and officially banned by the Chinese in 1868.
Lisa See is at NPR West to tell us more. Welcome to the program.
Ms. LISA SEE (Author, "Peony in Love"): Thanks for having me.
HANSEN: "The Peony Pavilion," real opera 1598. Why was it so controversial, first of all?
Ms. SEE: Well, I think there are a couple of reasons. First, you know, anytime there's anything political in a work of art in China whether it's today or 300 years ago, really cause the authority some distress. But also this was the first piece of literature in China where the main character, a woman, chose her own destiny and that was disturbing then and it continues to be disturbing today because this opera - most of it is still banned or censored in China.
HANSEN: Why? Because it would - it feels like those TV shows with violence and they're afraid the violence is going to affect their behavior, is there fear that what is talked about, what is portrayed in this opera will actually affect how women think?
Ms. SEE: Well, it's partly that, you know, that women shouldn't necessarily go out and make their own decisions and we have their own choices. But also, this story has a young girl, who is - although she becomes a ghost in the story - is having sex with a young man before marriage. And that even today is cause for great concern.
HANSEN: And there was also criticism of the government in it.
Ms. SEE: Yes.
Ms. SEE: Yes. Quite a bit of criticism of the government.
HANSEN: How did you find out about it?
Ms. SEE: The first time I found out about it was when Lincoln Center brought over a production of the entire opera to the United States. And I wrote a very short piece about the opera for Vogue magazine. That was the first time I came across the lovesick maidens, these young girls who, in the mid-17th century, fell in love with the opera. They were never allowed to see it. They could only read it. And when they read it, they would catch these cases of lovesickness, like the main character in the opera, waste away and die.
And I just became increasingly intrigue by this idea of these lovesick maidens and came to find out that they were part of a much larger phenomenon in China in the mid-17th century, when in this one area, in the Yangzi Delta, there were more women writers who were being published than all together and the rest of the world at that time.
And by that I mean, of course, you know, if we think about the rest of the world at that time there may have been, what, five and we'd be hard pressed to think of who they were. But in the Yangzi Delta, there were over a thousand women, who were being published, who were quite successful, who were supporting their families, who are going out and traveling around the country in the 17th century equivalent of a book tour.
And yet, here we are, 300 years later, and we have no knowledge of those women and what they did. And to me, it's so remarkable because so often we hear about women in the past that there were no women writers. There were no women artists. There were no women historians. There were women but supposedly they didn't do anything. But actually, they did do things. It's just that so often what they did was either lost or forgotten or deliberately covered up.
HANSEN: Are other writings of these Chinese women preserved?
Ms. SEE: Oh, yes. Absolutely. And you could go to a bookstore and get a book, an anthology, for example, of Chinese poetry and you would find a lot of the women writers from the 17th century in those anthologies.
HANSEN: It is interesting, the lovesick young ladies that are affected by the opera, what happens to them in their lovesickness is they starved themselves. And that's so much like anorexia, where you have young women today and young men starving themselves because it is the only way that they have some control over their body.
Ms. SEE: These girls not only had no control over their bodies but they had no control over who they were going to marry. They were married out in these arranged marriages to men that they never saw before, often in two families that didn't even speak the same dialect. Once they married out, they often never saw their natal families again. And then, in the Chinese tradition, then and even somewhat, you know, today, the pressure to have a son and that a woman's only worth came from having a son. And everything that you would have to do to have that son was another form of control.
And so from the time a little girl was maybe five years old until she died, her whole life was really controlled by other people, by her husband, by her sons, by her mother-in-law and food became the one, especially for these lovesick maidens, the one thing that they could control. These young girls, again, who had no control over their lives and yet they could control what they put into their bodies.
HANSEN: Was the writing at this time, you think, this creative expression another way to have some kind of control over their lives, to be able to express what it was they were doing and why they were doing it?
Ms. SEE: I think that's part of it but I would say something a little different that they had this tremendous desire to be heard. And again, I think you're right that it comes out of this issue of control but this desire to be heard at a time, and in a culture, and in a place, where they couldn't be heard. And obviously, it's at a very different level today but still it is something that women struggle with.
HANSEN: What put you so interested in the history of women in China? I mean, your previous book, "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," it's a friendship between two women in the 19th century. Here we've got - you're using 17th century China as your - or setting. Why are you so interested of the history of women in China?
Ms. SEE: Really goes back to my own family. My great-great-grandfather came to this country to work on a building of a transcontinental railroad. He was an herbalist. I like to think of this man as one of the original dead beat dads. He was supposed to come here, work hard, save up their money and send it back home to China. Not my great-great-grandfather. He had a fondness for women and gambling. Something - I'm sorry to say - continues in our family even today.
As a result, his wife, my great-great-grandmother back in China was so poor that she carried people on her back from village to village to earn money to support her children. Finally, some people took pity on her and lent her the money so that my great-grandfather, who is only 14, could come to this country to find his father. And my great-grandfather did stay here in the U.S., ended up living to be a hundred years old and having four wives, and 12 children, the last born when he was in his 90s.
But along the way, these wives were coming over and these young women were coming over in arranged marriages to the United States to Los Angeles' Chinatown. And so I grew up hearing not only about my great-great-grandmother and how she carried people on her back, but also knowing these aunts - I guess, maybe they were great-aunts - who had come here thinking they were marrying gold mountain men, thinking they were going to have these wonderful lives in America and yet they ended up in this very, very traditional marriages where they were little more than servants and a little more than baby makers. And it was very, very hard for them, very, very, very tough lives.
And so, when I thought about these women and my own family, and then I thought about these women in the past in China, why not try to go back and find these lost women's voices and bring them out so that we can hear them today, so that we can learn from them. And in that process, somehow you come along to hear your own voice, to find your own voice and maybe to be heard yourself.
HANSEN: Lisa See is the author of "Peony in Love," published by Random House. She joined us from NPR West.
Thanks very much for your time. Good luck with this.
Ms. SEE: Thank you so much.