17 August 2010

Tragic Tales: The Lovesick Maidens of Hangzhou

By Jeannie Lin

I first learned of the lovesick maidens of Hangzhou when reading Lisa See's Peony in Love, a hauntingly imaginative ghost story in which three women find their voice through the interpretation of the famous Ming Dynasty opera, The Peony Pavilion.

Written by poet Tang Xianzu(1550-1616) in the late 16th century, The Peony Pavilion is known for its nuanced lyrics and use of symbolism and metaphor. It is often compared to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in terms of the shared theme of dying for love and also in terms of its literary and social influence. Young women were known to become obsessed with The Peony Pavilion, so much so that they wasted away and died of lovesickness, captivated by the mere idea of romantic love so strong that it transcended life and death.

The most amazing part of Lisa See's tale was the historical basis. A subset of these afflicted ladies, termed the lovesick maidens of Hangzhou, composed beautiful poetry influenced by the ideals of romantic love in the opera. Such a phenomenon is significant when we consider that this was a small literary movement that budded during a time known for footbinding and the subordination of women.

The heroines of Peony in Love were based on three women who together wrote The Three Wives Commentary, published 1694, about The Peony Pavilion. The commentary was one of the first works of literary criticism written and published by women as it was funded by the last of the wives.

Hangzhou is known for its romantic tradition of which these lovesick maidens were a part. The history of the maidens can be found in discussions regarding the literary significance of the Three Wives Commentary. In Teachers of the Inner Chambers: Women and Culture in 17th Century China, Dorothy Ko remarks on how the popularity of The Peony Pavilion among women reached "legendary proportions." But these women were more than swooning fans. The play provided a "common vocabulary" and discourse among women.

Many of these poets died before their words became known--this was definitely the case of two of the three wives--the idea of romantic love captivating young women so completely that they wasted away in contemplation of it, is poetically tragic.

These women wrote. They wrote and discussed romance in a literary and social context and wasted away because their ideas of love consumed them. Perhaps some connection could be made to Virginia Woolf's parable of Shakespeare's exceptionally gifted sister in A Room of One's Own. A woman, with the fire of poetry in her, living in a time and place with no possible outlet to exercise her creativity; would meet only frustration and ruin, would wither away, would die with her genius unsung.

Footnote: Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu were contemporaries, both writing plays on opposite sides of the world. Romeo and Juliet was first published in 1597. The Peony Pavilion was first performed in 1598.


Dara said...

I simply love that book. I'd never known about the lovesick maidens either and I was completely fascinated by the history of them. It's amazing how many things in history are relatively unknown yet so captivating. We just need dedicated authors and historians to find them. :)

Jeannie Lin said...

In a haunting way, Lisa See added her own voice to the voice of the three wives by bringing the story of their commentary to life. I really want to grab a copy of Dorothy Ko's book to read the historical account of the three wives.

Just a note - The three wives were all married to the same poet, but not at the same time!!! He was a widower. One died when they were betrothed, but they completed a ghost marriage. One died later in childbirth. The third wife published all three commentaries.

librarypat said...

Thank you for an interesting post. I picked up PEONY IN LOVE a few years ago at a library sale. It has been sitting on my TBR shelf ever since. I looked and sounded interesting, but I knew nothing about it. I will definitely be dusting it off to read.
Jeannie, thank you for the added information on the wives.

godheartsme said...

I love this post on Peony in Love... Love how the unusual fact of Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu is pointed out here. Great blog!

Bulakya said...

Very captivating & engaging too, I so much loved See's book from which I gt 2 learn abt these love sick maidens. Bambi

amparo said...

i learned a great deal about chinese history , nabchu dynasty but most of all about the lovesick maidens. I propose a tribute to them to lessen their pain in the afterworld.

Mals Elittos said...

Hi Jeannie Lin!
I'm an Italian girl who read Lisa See's book "Peony In Love". I'm writing a thesis about the lovesick maidens. I was searching for some useful material and texts about this topic and I found your article. It's really really interesting. I love this post!
I'd like to ask ypu something. I can't find any material or texts about the lovesick maidens and the Peony Pavillion. In particular I'm looking for this important text:
"The dream world of love-sick maidens : a study of women's responses to the "The Peony Pavilion", 1598-1795" a dissertation by Jingmei Chen.
Could you help me to find it or other materials?
Thank you!!!!!
Martina Sottile

Mals Elittos said...
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