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Literature / Peony in Love

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Peony has just turned sixteen and is ready to marry the husband she has been betrothed to by birth, even though she has never once met him. On the outside, she is an obedient daughter content with being locked in her house by her family for her entire life; on the inside, Peony secretly longs for passion, adventure, and an opportunity to see the outside world, much like the heroine of The Peony Pavilion, an opera which Peony is obsessed with, does.

Then, during a performance of The Peony Pavilion, Peony sees a handsome man, and Love at First Sight ensues.

Peony In Love by Lisa See is novel that not only explores the effect of qing and poetry in Chinese society during the reign of the Manchus, but also vividly depicts the realm of the Chinese underworld and ultimately, the many forms of love.


This work provides examples of:

  • Age-Gap Romance: Wu Ren and Quin Yi. When they marry, he's in his forties and she's in her teens. During this time period this wasn't that strange, and it actually works out brilliantly.
  • Arranged Marriage: Between Peony and Wu Ren.
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: Peony, at the end of the book.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Penny moves on to the next stage of her afterlife. She has to leave her beloved Wu Ren behind, but she is confident that they will be reunited when he dies someday.
  • Bookworm: Peony, big time. Her father counts as well.
    • Wu Ren, a sensitive poet, is also this. Quin Yi also develops a love for reading. Books and writing play a huge role in this novel.
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  • Character Tics: Peony's mother is often seen fiddling with her set of house keys, especially when she's nervous or agitated.
  • Cool Old Lady: Peony's grandmother.
  • Daddy's Girl: Peony has a strong bond with her father and is hurt when she discovers that because she's a daughter, and not a son, she's not as valuable to him as she thought.
  • Death by Childbirth: Tan Ze. Because of this she's sent to the Blood-Gathering Lake in the afterlife, which is a special hell for women who fail at childbirth. Thankfully averted by Quin Yi, who nearly dies but survives, giving Wu Ren a long-awaited son.
  • Death Is a Sad Thing: Peony's death hits her family and Wu Ren hard. And the afterlife isn't easy on her, enough.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Lisa See's really shown her work. The grotesque manner of footbinding is touted throughout the book as something positive and helpful, as it allows women to make respectable marriages, and seen as a sign of defiance against the Manchus, while the talk of a woman's only duty is to bear sons and serve her husband's family very accurately replicates the attitude of most during China at the time.
    • Interestingly enough, this book also manages to convey feminist themes, with the abundance of poetry written by women and the extremely prevalent theme that all women want to be heard and have a voice.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Peony almost goes into one after her mother burns all of her books, including her beloved copy of The Peony Pavilion. Luckily, finding out the the book with all her commentary survived prevented a Heroic BSoD.
  • Driven to Suicide: Peony starves herself to death to avoid her Arranged Marriage, unknowing that her husband-to-be is actually the man she's in love with.
  • The Dutiful Son: After Peony dies and her grandmother lifts the fertility curse on the family, the intelligent and responsible young man her father adopts produces heirs/sons and takes good care of the family's lands, tenants, and surviving members.
    • Wu Ren is this to his mother as well.
  • Gentleman and a Scholar: Wu Ren.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Peony completely loses it on Tan Ze and Ren's wedding night. However, she calms down when she realizes that Tan Ze's coldness makes her beloved Wu Ren miserable. She then decides to put all her energy into making Ren's marriage successful.
  • Happily Married: Thanks to Peony, Wu Ren finds marital bliss with Quin Yi. His marriage to Tan Ze was only happy in his end, since Peony was forcing Tan Ze through most of her wifely duties (which he was unaware of).
  • Henpecked Husband: Wu Ren becomes this during his first marriage to Tan Ze. She's from a wealthy and snobbish family and complains constantly about the lack of luxury in his house, the conduct of the servants, and the quality of the food. She insults his poetry too and loudly demands money to buy expensive goods for herself. At one point she even begs her parents to buy her back from Wu Ren, but even they are disgusted with her bratty and embarrassing behaviour and they give her mother-in-law compensation instead. Wu Ren has to turn to prostitutes for comfort during this marriage before Peony intervenes.
  • Intelligence Equals Isolation: Peony is the most intellectually gifted and emotionally aware girl in her family's home, and she suffers hard for it.
  • Jerkass: Peony's grandfather, to a hideous degree. Penny's grandmother despises him for good reason.
  • Love at First Sight: Peony and Wu Ren.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: The main character is a poet/critic and so is her Love Interest.
  • The Mourning After: Wu Ren when Peony dies.
  • Nice Guy: Wu Ren is amazingly nice. Quin Yi, his third wife (despite her early death Peony counts as his first, because in their culture a betrothal was essentially as valid as a wedding ceremony) is a Nice Girl.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Chinese beliefs in the afterlife are the basis for most of the story.
  • People Puppets: Peony as a ghost does this with Tan Ze to make her a better wife and lover for Ren.
  • Plucky Girl: Peony.
  • Poor Communication Kills: A misunderstanding between Peony's parents means that Peony's ancestor tablet goes undotted, which turns her into a hungry ghost.
  • Replacement Goldfish: After Peony dies her young cousin Tan Ze is sent to marry Wu Ren.
  • Show Within a Show: The Peony Pavilion opera, staged at Peony's family home.
  • Smitten Teenage Girl: Peony when she first meets Wu Ren.
  • Spoiled Brat: Tan Ze.
  • Succession Crisis: The women in Peony's wealthy family (including the concubines) are unable to produce sons/heirs. However, there's a reason for it. Peony's dead grandmother cursed her son's family with barrenness as revenge, because he and her husband forced her to die in their place while the Manchu soldiers were hunting them down. She later lifts the curse at Peony's request.
  • The Lost Lenore: A zig-zagged example where the dead, beautiful woman is the main character. However, Peony is certainly this for Wu Ren, who continuously grieves for her after she dies.
  • The One That Got Away: Peony and Wu Ren are this for each other.
  • Thinks Like a Romance Novel: Peony gets most of her knowledge of love and sex from The Peony Pavilion.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Peony and Wu Ren never physically consummate their relationship.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Sexual intercourse is contantly referred to as "clouds and rain."
    • At one point, oral sex is referred to as "playing the flute."
  • Virginity Makes You Stupid: Averted with Peony who, despite having died a maiden is able to help Ren and Tan Ze with their troublesome sex life using excerpts from an opera.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Tan Ze does this to Peony after she controls her body, forcing her to continue her commentary on The Peony Pavilion.


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