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.