Peach Blossom Paradise
NYRB Classics | December 8, 2020
Peach Blossom Paradise, the first book in a trilogy by Ge Fei, is a coming-of-age story, a captivating blend of history and mythology, and a lyrical study of society and politics during the turn of 20th century China. In the original myth of the Peach Blossom Spring, written during the Jin dynasty, a fisherman accidentally wanders into a pristine and peaceful utopia, unaware of the political unrest outside, and never finds his way out again. It’s an apt allegory for Fei’s book: those in the village of Puji are mostly oblivious to the tumult in the Empire. The novel builds on the Peach Blossom myth, suggesting that the quest for utopias can lead to horrific subjugation, insanity, and more often than not, premature death.
The book begins when fifteen-year-old Xiumi meets Zhang Jiyuan, an intellectual and revolutionary sympathizer, whose alliances and activities plant seeds that will ultimately shift Xiumi’s worldview, even after his abrupt death at the end of the first section. Indeed, much of Xiumi’s journey to womanhood is shaped by external forces: her father goes missing. Her mother is more concerned with her wealth and status than her child. She survives a kidnapping and horrific rapes. All the while, she reads Zhang Jiyuan’s diary, the man wooing her from beyond the grave. Despite her hardships, Xiumi becomes a young woman of strength, courage, and a certain cool ruthlessness, but she still has a kind of naïveté in her idealism and single-mindedness. She continually underestimates the forces around her—including disloyalties in her own household and from purported allies. In Xiumi’s world, true intimacy and trust are less experienced than mourned. Expressed, tangible love between people is as delicate and fleeting as the lotus, chrysanthemums, and impatiens that Xiumi gardens.
By the end, Xiumi is a ghost of the person we met almost 300 pages earlier, now secluded and almost ethereal. Her recollection of the past is beautifully rendered in sorrowful and poetic language by translator Canaan Morse: “She saw how poignant and incontrovertible even the most mundane details could be as constituents of her memory. Each one summoned another in an endless and unpredictable sequence . . . . she could never tell which memory particle would sting the soft places in her heart, make her cheeks scald and her eyes brim with tears.”
Xiumi’s powerful will allows her to survive horrific sexual abuse, her enigmatic beauty makes her inscrutable to family and others, and her fearlessness, for a time, grants her power. But this does not last. Indeed, none of the women in this book have long-term autonomy. As Han Liu, the former Buddhist nun and Xiumi’s confidant and caretaker tells her: “No matter how hectic things get, there will always be winners and losers, and no matter who ends up where, nothing good will ever come of it for us women.” Xiumi is used as both a sexual and political pawn, dragged into the ultimately deadly political infighting of a ruling family. There’s a repetition to this pattern: Xiumi is often used by others as a mirror for their own wants and needs, more of a symbol—of beauty, youth, idealism, purity—rather than a living woman with any agency. In all the battles we witness or hear about, from Puji to Huajiashe and elsewhere, Fei shows us that those in power, especially women, are often tricked and that one’s time wielding the sword is short-lived.
Through Xiumi’s tragic story, Fei also explores larger philosophical issues and the changing political landscape in China at the turn of the century. Idealism, in the guise of the revolutionaries, versus the established ruling class is foiled at the end. But through our knowledge of what transpired later in the country, readers know that it will succeed in later years, only to become another oppressive authoritarian rule. Such repetition—of seasons, of mistakes and misunderstandings, of economic and social hierarchies and power structures—underscores much of the book. Reflecting upon the instabilities of this valley between revolutions, and the eternal battle between idealists and establishment, it is clear that regardless of the cause, each side performs heinous actions, and each can, and will, be overthrown, often by those they most trust.
Peach Blossom Paradise contains shadows of this cyclic toppling, as footnotes reveal the outcomes of several of the real-life individuals depicted in this book. Interweaving history within the narrative, these annotations offer insight into “significant places and people with information about their life and fate within the whirlwind of twentieth-century Chinese history,” as well as blur what we consider fact or fiction. For Fei, the mythological and the historical are fluid, and the expanse of time can be as languid as honey or as fast as a sudden hailstorm. These cities and individuals existed and many of the events occurred, but there’s a constant shifting of ground in determining what is rooted in fact and what is pure imagination. Yet isn’t all history suspect, depending upon who writes it?
As Xiumi’s childhood teacher says, “Good writing leaves people confused.” For those who are willing to submerge in an intricate and linguistically sumptuous story, Peach Blossom Paradise offers a rewarding world to explore.