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Female voices from China's past, silenced no more

Peony in Love
By Lisa See
Random House, 284 pp., $23.95

Anorexia is a contemporary and American problem, but not exclusively: In 17th-century China, young women starved themselves to death because of their obsession with a famous opera called "The Peony Pavilion," which celebrates the transcendence of love over mortality.

Lisa See's new novel, "Peony in Love," traces the experience of one such lovesick maiden, Chen Tong, as well as the fascinating story of how women in the wake of the fall of the Ming dynasty began gathering to write poetry, read books, and discuss ideas. Weaving historical fact with fictional license, See creates a suspenseful and poignant tale featuring the internal journey of Chen Tong -- both before and after her death.

Chen, called Peony by her family, is betrothed by the age of 16 but has never met her future husband. During a staging of "The Peony Pavilion" at her ancestral home (beyond which she is not allowed to venture until she "marries out"), she falls in love with a stranger. So besotted is she by him that -- grieving over her father's arrangement of her marriage to someone else -- she stops eating and dies, never having realized that her husband-to-be and the object of her obsessive love are one and the same man, Wu Ren. In accordance with Chinese legend, she returns to earth as "a hungry ghost" in an effort to be reunited with her former fiancé, as well as from a desire to have her voice, in the form of her written meditations on the opera, be heard.

See, who describes the novel as "a ghost story within a ghost story," has visited this territory before. Her best-selling 2005 novel, "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," highlights the secret phonetic code known as nu shu , or letters painted on fans and handkerchiefs by poor, uneducated Chinese women of the 19th century, reaching out to one another to bridge their isolation. "Peony in Love" tells of an even earlier incarnation of this literary tradition, in which thousands of women in the Yangtze delta -- usually wealthy and living in seclusion -- published their writing, even supporting their families with the proceeds.

See's novel is the story of how three historical women -- Chen Tong, Tan Ze, and Qian Yi -- collaborated, in succession, to write "The Three Wives' Commentary," a collection of their insights about love inspired by "The Peony Pavilion." The opera's author, Tang Xianzu , was known as a promoter of qing, or deep emotions. Presenting sexual liaisons between unmarried lovers, and criticizing the government, the opera remains blacklisted to this day.

Aside from its erotic enticements, the opera offered young women of the 17th century a heroine whose experience they had not witnessed before: a girl of 16 who chooses her own destiny. The only problem was that Liniang, the heroine, had to die to achieve this victory. In a society that kept them cloistered, with their feet bound, even finding it acceptable for a husband to beat his wife to death if she did not fulfill her duties, many girls on the brink of adulthood and marriage let themselves waste away to death, believing that they could imitate Liniang's success in the afterlife.

See does an admirable job of depicting Peony's internal landscape as a ghost, incorporating details of ancient Chinese ritual and belief along with her description of inhabiting the souls of the two women who became wives to Wu Ren. As their "sister-wife," Peony guides their minds and hands in completing the annotations she started in the margins of "The Peony Pavilion." Eventually, "The Three Wives' Commentary" was published and received great acclaim, although moralists urged the burning of all copies because "only an ignorant woman could be considered a good woman." After the furor it caused, the emperor issued proclamations curtailing the behavior and creative freedom of women, and thus things remained even until the Republic of China was formed, in 1912 .

See is adept at rendering the psychology of her characters, primarily that of Peony, who addresses us in a colloquial, accessible, first-person voice. ("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.") She writes not only of romantic love but of the love between mother and daughter. When Peony and her mother are reunited in the afterworld, her mother says to her, "I wrote out of sorrow, fear, and hate. You wrote out of desire, joy, and love. We each paid a heavy price for speaking our minds, for revealing our hearts, for trying to create, but it was worth it, wasn't it, daughter?"

The author of several previous suspense novels set in China or with Chinese characters -- "The Interior," "Flower Net," and "Dragon Bones" -- as well as a memoir, "On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family," See is a master storyteller, calling on her knowledge of history, myth, and current international events to craft intricate narratives that are at once edifying and evocative. In "Peony in Love," she leads us on a literary adventure into the past that will have relevance to today's readers who value drama, accuracy, and the lure of the written word.

Jessica Treadway is the author of a collection of short stories, "Absent Without Leave," and a novel, "And Give You Peace."