Friday, May 18, 2018
Peony by Pearl S. Buck
Family saga of the Jewish diaspora in China
Though Pearl S. Buck wrote historical novels about a variety of peoples and places, she is best known for her books set in China, the country in which she was raised. In the case of her 1948 book entitled Peony, however, the subtitle “A Novel of China” really doesn’t let you know what you’re in for, as this is quite an unconventional book by Buck. Here she bases her story on the history of Jews in China, particularly the centuries-old Jewish community of Kaifeng, Henan Province, where the story of Peony takes place.
Ezra ben Israel’s Jewish ancestors arrived in Kaifeng four generations prior to the start of the novel. His family has managed to maintain their Jewish identity despite the progressively shrinking membership of their synagogue. Ezra, a successful merchant, is the son of a Jewish father and Chinese mother and displays a healthy respect for Chinese customs. His wife, however, is more of a hardliner in her devotion to the Jewish faith and believes in preserving the racial purity of her community. She envisions her son David as the future rabbi of the Kaifeng synagogue and wants to marry him to Leah, the daughter of the current rabbi. Peony, a young Chinese woman, is a bondmaid in the family household and has been raised almost as a daughter to Ezra and a sister to David. She is secretly in love with David, but realizes that as a bondmaid (a nicer word for slave) she has no chance of being his wife. Instead, hoping to please him, she schemes to encourage his marriage to a wealthy Chinese girl to whom she learns he is attracted.
Because the Jews were welcomed by the Chinese and allowed to live according to their Jewish faith and customs, this is not a tale of religious persecution. The primary threats facing the Jews of Kaifeng are assimilation and attrition. The Chinese were so welcoming that cross-cultural exchange and interracial marriage became common, resulting in cultural dilution. David is faced with the dilemma of to what degree he owes allegiance to his ancestral culture (and his mother) and how free he is to follow his heart and live his own life as he sees fit. As is often the case with Buck’s books, the story sometimes ventures into soap-opera melodrama, but she is such a good transcriber of human emotion, and the characters feel so genuine, that the reader usually doesn’t care. Even when the plot of Peony becomes romantically overwrought, it is anything but formulaic. The narrative takes unexpected turns and neither succumbs to mawkishness nor settles for an easy ending.
For much of the book, the time period of the story is indeterminate. Buck goes out of her way to make the story timeless by eliminating historical detail. For example, neither horses nor automobiles are mentioned as a means of transportation, and the Jewish family acts as if they could be straight out of Ben-Hur. Towards the end of the book, however, the Empress Dowager Cixi makes an appearance, which places the story roughly in the 1890s. The ebook edition from Open Road Media includes a substantial afterword, written sometime after 1990, by Wendy R. Abraham, an expert on the Jewish diaspora in China. She gives a detailed historical overview on the subject, from the arrival of the first Jews in China as early as the 8th century to a summary of the research on the Kaifeng Jews up through the late 20th century. The nonfiction account of this surprising episode in world history is truly fascinating, and the fictional narrative that Buck crafts from it is moving and thought-provoking. Though not as outstanding as The Good Earth trilogy, Peony is one of Buck’s better books.
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