Peach Blossom Pavilion is graced with a lovely cover, complete with the intriguing promise that “Behind its doors, a world of sensuality and intrigue awaits…..” Seemingly, the author intends to provide a Chinese companion of sorts to Memoirs of a Geisha — the story of an impoverished Chinese girl forced into prostitution, who after learning the “fine arts of womanhood” becomes a valuable courtesan. Oops.
Precious Orchid is thirteen when she is sold to a house of prostitution; her father has been executed for a crime he did not commit, and her mother leaves her to become a Buddhist nun. At the Peach Blossom Pavilion, the young girl is slowly but surely educated in both the fine arts and in her new life as sex worker. The young prostitutes are highly competitive, striving to become the most popular and sought after, but Precious Orchid rises to become a ming ji, one of the most accomplished and revered courtesans. After years at the Pavilion, Precious Orchid runs away with a female lover; over the rest of the novel she encounters bandits, a Taoist monk, the all-female Golden Phoenix opera troupe, a Buddhist temple where she reunites with her mother, and finally to America with one of her former clients.
Perhaps meant to be operatic in scope, the story is pure soap opera instead. Precious Orchid is our narrator, and seems to view herself as a constant victim striving to rise above her tragic circumstances. However, when the novel begins she is naive and foolish; later she becomes self-serving and more than once abandons a person who truly cares for her-and is caring for her-with no backward glance. I came to view her as something of a Chinese Blanche duBois, always depending on the kindness of others. The author intended her as a strong character, but at no time during the novel did she take control of her own life; or even take responsibility for it.
Another issue I had was the “poetic” language the novel is written in. I cannot claim any knowledge of Chinese culture or language; perhaps the book reads as if it were a literal translation, but what is surely intended as poetic reads as purple as Barney the Dinosaur. For instance, when the madame is questioning Precious Orchid about a sexual encounter she believes PO may have had:
“When you slept with him, did he touch your golden gate? Did he insert his jade stalk into your cinnabar crevice?”
I wanted to have a personal drinking game; every time the words “jade stalk” appeared, I got to do another shot. I would have died of alcohol poisoning within chapters had I followed through.
Lest the cover or blurb give anyone the idea that there is eroticism to be found within, think again. Physical abuse, rape, suicide; these aren’t my idea of sensuality.
Mingmei Yip has written 5 books in Chinese; Peach Blossom Pavilion is both her first English work and her first fictional novel. No doubt intended to be a sweeping epic, I found it to be overwritten, and simply too much story of a heroine that I never managed to like. I admit though that there is a bit of campy pleasure to be found in Precious Orchid’s tale, and that’s why it’s getting a D instead of an F.
In a sunny California apartment, a young woman and her finance arrive to record her great-grandmother’s reminiscences. The story that unfolds of Precious Orchid’s life in China, where she rises from a childhood of shame to become one of the most successful courtesans in the land, is unlike any they’ve heard before….
When Precious Orchid’s father is falsely accused of a crime and found guilty, he is executed, leaving his family a legacy of dishonor. Her mother is banished to a Buddhist nunnery and she is abandoned to the “care” of a relative in Shanghai.
At first, life at Peach Blossom Pavilion feels like a dream. Surrounded by exotic flowers, murmuring fountains, colorful fishponds, and jade-green bamboo groves, Precious Orchid sees herself thriving. She is schooled in music, literature, paining, calligraphy, and to her innocent surprise, the art of pleasuring men. For the beautiful Pavilion hides its darker purpose as an elite house of prostitution. And even as she commands the devotion of China’s most powerful man, Precious Orchid never gives up her determination to escape the Pavilion, be reunited with her long-lost mother, avenge her father’s death, and find true love. As the richest, most beautiful and celebrated Ming Ji or “prestigious courtesan” in all of China, she just might have her way even if it comes with a devastating price…”
Read an excerpt.