In the Garden
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 and anticipation. Beginning tonight, I would attend a production of The Peony Pavilion mounted in our garden. I loved this opera and had collected eleven 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 excitement, 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 perfectly.
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 minute.
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 performance . . .”
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 screens.”
“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 hear!”
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.”
My mother could get very emotional about these things because she was governed by qing: sentiment, passion, and love. These forces tie together the universe and stem from the heart, the seat of consciousness. My father, on the other hand, was ruled by li—cold reason and mastered emotions—and he snorted indifferently at her concern that strangers were coming.
“You don’t complain when the members of my poetry club visit.”
“But my daughter and my nieces aren’t in the garden when they’re here! There’s no opportunity for impropriety. And what about the other families you’ve invited?”
“You know why I invited them,” he spat out sharply, his patience gone. “Commissioner Tan is important to me right now. Do not argue further with me on this!”
I couldn’t see their faces, but I imagined Mama paling under his sudden severity; she didn’t speak.
Mama managed the inner realm, and she always kept fish-shaped locks of beaten metal hidden in the folds of her skirts in case she needed to secure a door to punish a concubine, preserve bolts of silk that had arrived from one of our factories for home use, or protect the pantry, the curtain-weaving quarters, or the room set aside for our servants to pawn their belongings when they needed extra money. That she never used a lock unjustly had earned her added respect and gratitude from those who resided in the women’s chambers, but when she was upset, as she was at this moment, she fingered the locks nervously.
Baba’s flash of anger was replaced by a conciliatory tone he often took with my mother. “No one will see our daughter or our nieces. All the proprieties will be maintained. This is a special occasion. I must be gracious in my dealings. If we open our doors this one time, other doors may soon open.”
“You must do what you think best for the family,” Mama conceded.
I took that moment to scurry past the pavilion. I hadn’t understood all that had been said, but I really didn’t care. What mattered was that the opera would still be performed in our garden, and my cousins and I would be the first girls in all Hangzhou to see it. Of course we would not be out among the men. We would sit behind screens so no one could see us, as my father said.
By the time Mama entered the Spring Pavilion for breakfast, she had regained her usual composure.
“It doesn’t show good breeding for girls to eat too quickly,” she cautioned my cousins and me as she passed our table. “Your mothers-in- law will not want to see you eat like hungry carp in a pond—mouths open with yearning—when you move to your husbands’ homes. That said, we should be ready when our guests arrive.”
So we ate as hurriedly as we could and still appear to be proper young ladies.
As soon as the servants cleared the dishes, I approached my mother. “May I go to the front gate?” I asked, hoping to greet our guests.
“Yes, on your wedding day,” she responded, smiling fondly as she always did when I asked a stupid question.
I waited as patiently as I could, knowing that palanquins were now being brought over our main threshold and into the Sitting-Down Hall, where our visitors would get out and drink tea before entering the main part of the compound. From there, the men would go to the Hall of Abundant Elegance, where my father would receive them. The women would come to our quarters, which lay at the back of the compound, protected from the eyes of all men.
Eventually, I heard the lilting voices of women as they neared. When my mother’s two sisters and their daughters arrived, I reminded myself to be modest in appearance, behavior, and movement. A couple of my aunts’ sisters came next, followed by several of my father’s friends’ wives. The most important of these was Madame Tan, the wife of the man my father had mentioned in his argument with my mother. (The Manchus had recently given her husband a high appointment as Commissioner of Imperial Rites.) She was tall and very thin. Her young daughter, Tan Ze, looked around eagerly. A wave of jealousy washed over me. I had never been outside the Chen Family Villa. Did Commissioner Tan let his daughter pass through their family’s front gate very often?
Kisses. Hugs. The exchange of gifts of fresh figs, jars of Shaoxing rice wine, and tea made from jasmine flowers. Showing the women and their daughters to their rooms. Unpacking. Changing from traveling costumes to fresh gowns. More kisses. More hugs. A few tears and lots of laughter. Then we moved to the Lotus-Blooming Hall, our main women’s gathering place, where the ceiling was high, shaped like a fish tail, and supported by round posts painted black. Windows and carved doors looked out into a private garden on one side and a pond filled with lotus on the other. On an altar table in the center of the room stood a small screen and a vase. When spoken together, the words for screen and vase sounded like safe, and we women and girls all felt safe here in the hall as we took chairs.
Once settled, my bound feet just barely floating on the surface of the cool stone floor, I looked around the room. I was glad I’d taken such care with my appearance, because the other women and girls were dressed in their finest gauze silk, embroidered with patterns of seasonal flowers. As I compared myself to the others, I had to admit that my cousin Lotus looked exceptionally beautiful, but then she always did. Truthfully, we all sparkled in anticipation of the festivities that were about to descend on our home. Even my chubby cousin Broom looked more pleasing than usual.
The servants set out little dishes of sweetmeats, and then my mother announced an embroidery contest, the first of several activities she’d planned for these three days. We laid our embroidery projects on a table and my mother examined them, looking for the most intricate designs and skillful stitches. When she came to the piece I’d made, she spoke with the honesty of her position.
“My daughter’s needlework improves. See how she tried to embroider chrysanthemums?” She paused. “They are chrysanthemums, aren’t they?” When I nodded, she said, “You’ve done well.” She kissed me lightly on the forehead, but anyone could see I would not win the embroidery contest, on this day or ever.
By late afternoon—between the tea, the contests, and our anticipation about tonight—we were all fidgety. Mama’s eyes swept through the room, taking in the wiggling little girls, the darting eyes of their mothers, Fourth Aunt’s swinging foot, and pudgy Broom pulling repeatedly at her tight collar. I clasped my hands together in my lap and sat as still as possible when Mama’s eyes found me, but inside I wanted to jump up, wave my arms, and scream my exhilaration.
Mama cleared her throat. A few women looked in her direction, but otherwise the tittering agitation continued. She cleared her throat again, tapped her fingernail on a table, and began to speak in a melodious voice. “One day the Kitchen God’s seven daughters were bathing in a pond when a Cowherd and his water buffalo came upon them.”
At the recognition of the opening lines to every girl and woman’s favorite story, quiet fell over the room. I nodded at my mother, acknowledging how clever she was to use this story to relax us, and we listened to her recount how the impudent Cowherd stole the clothes of the loveliest daughter, the Weaving Maid, leaving her to languish naked in the pond.
“As the chill of night settled in the forest,” Mama explained, “she had no choice but to go in nature’s full embarrassment to the Cowherd’s home to retrieve her clothes. The Weaving Maid knew she could save her reputation only one way. She decided to marry the Cowherd. What do you suppose happened next?”
“They fell in love,” Tan Ze, Madame Tan’s daughter, piped up in a shrill voice.
This was the unforeseen part of the story, since no one expected an immortal to love an ordinary man when even here in the mortal world husbands and wives in arranged marriages often did not find love.
“They had many children,” Ze went on. “Everyone was happy.”
“Until?” my mother asked, this time looking for a response from another girl.
“Until the gods and goddesses grew weary,” Ze answered again, ignoring my mother’s obvious wishes. “They missed the girl who spun cloud silk into cloth for their clothes and wanted her back.”
My mother frowned. This Tan Ze had forgotten herself entirely! I guessed her to be about nine years old. I glanced at her feet, remembering that she’d walked in unassisted today. Her two-year footbinding was behind her. Maybe her enthusiasm had to do with being able to walk again. But her manners!
“Go on,” Ze said. “Tell us more!”
Mama winced and then continued as though yet another breach of
the Four Virtues had not occurred. “The Queen of Heaven brought the Weaving Maid and the Cowherd back to the celestial skies, and then she took a hairpin and drew the Milky Way to separate them. In this way,
the Weaving Maid would not be diverted from her work, and the Queen of Heaven would be beautifully robed. On Double Seven, the goddess allows all the magpies on earth to form a celestial bridge with their wings so the two lovers can meet. Three nights from now, if you girls are still awake between the hours of midnight and dawn and find yourselves sitting beneath a grape arbor under the quarter moon, you will hear the lovers weep at their parting.”
It was a romantic thought—and it coated us in warm feelings—but none of us would be alone under a grape arbor at that time of night, even if we were within the safety of this compound. And at least for me, it did little to still my quivering excitement about The Peony Pavilion. How much longer would I have to wait?