This month I’m reviewing Pearl S. Buck’s 1948 novel Peony: A Novel of China for Barry Summie’s Book Review Club.
Peony: A Novel of China
by Pearl Buck
e-book, Open Road Media, 2012
This is a fascinating look at an unknown piece of Chinese history: the Jews of Kaifeng. Jews first settled in China in the Middle Ages. By the 1850s when the book takes place, the Jewish community in Kaifeng was on the wane. It had started with only 70 families, and by this time many had begun to intermarry with the native Chinese.
We see the decline of the community through the eyes of Peony, a Chinese bond servant in the House of Ezra. Ezra ben Israel is half-Chinese himself, but his wife Naormi, known as Madame Ezra, is of pure blood and great piety. She makes sure the rituals are observed, and she and the Rabbi’s wife had arranged for their children to wed. But her only son David is not enthused about marrying Leah, the Rabbi’s daughter. She is beautiful, but he has his heart set on a Chinese girl, Kualin, the daughter of Kung Chen his father’s business associate. Peony, who has been David’s bondmaid since the age of eight, is in love with him, but knows she could never aspire to be his wife. In a Chinese household, he could take her as a concubine, but Jewish men do not follow the practice. But she knows a Chinese mistress would be more tolerant of her close relationship with him than a Jewish mistress would, esp. the strong-minded Leah.
The first part of the book is a struggle for the heart, mind and soul of David ben Ezra. On one side are his mother, Leah and the rabbi, who would like to train David as his replacement. His own son, Aaron, is a neer do well who is already stealing from the temple. On the other side are Kualin, Peony, and to a lesser extent, Ezra, who sees the benefit of aligning his house with that of the wealthy Chen Kung. David is caught in the middle, torn between his sorrowful Jewish heritage and the more joyous Chinese way of life. The second half of the book posits a similar dilemma for Peony. What is her place in this household and can she remain indefinitely?
There are many philosophical moments in the book, as when Peony asks an older servant, “Is life happy or sad?” David and Ezra realize that it is easier for the Jews to remain separate and maintain their traditions in countries where they are not accepted than in a nation like China where foreigners are able to assimilate easily. Pearl Buck does a great job of showing this dilemma and how it affects the community.
I really enjoyed the book a lot, and found a great deal to ponder. I also enjoyed the depiction of the two very different cultures. There is an extensive essay at the back of the e-book by Dr. Wendy Abraham detailing the history of the Jews of Kaifeng. She praises Pearl Buck’s depiction of the culture, though notes that Buck took some liberties with the actual history in order to write a more sweeping story that basically encompasses the entire 19th century. The Wikipedia page on Peony notes that more is known today about the Jews of Kaifeng than was available in the time the book was written.
I really loved this book and can’t recommend it to highly. It had been years since I’d read Pearl S. Buck. She was a favorite author when I was in college, but I’d somehow missed this one.
The title and protagonists name reminded me of the peony bushes in our backyard when I was a kid. They bloomed in the summer and were absolutely beautiful.
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