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Peony by Pearl S. Buck

Peony (1948)

by Pearl S. Buck

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In a little blurb at the beginning of the novel, Buck explains that periodically throughout history, groups of Jews have immigrated to China, where they were eventually integrated into society to the point where they became more Chinese than Jewish. This is the story of one of these families, seen through the eyes of one of their servants, Peony. The mother is dead-set on preserving all of the Jewish traditions and on returning to the Holy Land some day. The father has adapted to more Chinese customs that she has. Their son, David, is caught between the two, and must decide which path he will follow. The novel is also about a love story, as David must decide whether he loves Leah, the daughter of the Rabbi who his mother wants him to marry, Kueilan, the daughter of his father’s Chinese business partner, or Peony, who has been his companion since childhood, but who is far below his station.

Buck does a magnificent job of portraying Asian culture, as usual. Most of the stories I’ve read about immigration and the immigrants’ struggles to integrate into their new culture are about people who immigrate to America, so I found it really interesting to see an example from another culture. I also love Buck’s subtle (or maybe not so subtle) commentaries on religion and society. When the Chinese see the Jewish temple and all the sayings that are carved in it, they realize that the Jews believe a lot of the same things that they do. They see no difference, and thus, accept the Jews into their culture. The strictly observant Jews, like the Rabbi and David’s mother, insist on arguing that they are better than the Chinese because their god is the one true god and that they are his chosen people. David comes to realize that these feelings of superiority are the reason why the Jews have been persecuted throughout history and that the Buddhist and Confucian teachings really are pretty similar to those of Judaism. I think Buck makes a very good argument for the idea that despite all the different races, religions, and cultures of humans, we really have more similarities to each other than differences. If we could just realize this and get along, the world would be a better place for everyone. ( )
  AmandaL. | Jan 16, 2016 |
A gentle, slow, rich story about a Jewish household that lives in China during the mid-nineteenth century. It is told from the viewpoint of a chinese bondmaid in the house, who was bought as a child to be companion to the merchant's only son, David. She grows up on very close terms with David, but when they become adults the dynamics change. Peony the bondmaid loves David, but it is beyond her status to ever marry him. His religion forbids him to keep her as a concubine, which the Chinese people would easily accept. Instead she remains in his house faithfully serving him, subtly manipulating events and insinuating herself into schemes on whom David will marry- the pretty daughter of another merchant who would solidify a business partnership? or the beautiful strong Jewish daughter of the rabbi, whom his mother desires for him? I have never read anything about the assimilation of Jewish people into China before, so the full breadth of this story was very interesting. It's about much more than just the love story and the self-sacrifice that is Peony's life. It's about the meeting of two cultures, each with their pride and faithfulness, their laws and structure, their tolerance or prejudiced ideas. Older generations sought to hold onto their religious identity and keep their children from intermarriage, but slowly this dissolves through the years. David in particular has an awakening when he realizes he will not follow his mother's ideal path for him, nor exactly his father's, but must choose his own way.

All in all a very engaging read. It definitely encourages me to read more Pearl S. Buck- especially as this book is said to be not quite her best!

from the Dogear Diary ( )
  jeane | Jul 11, 2015 |
An insightful look at the tension between assimilation and maintaining one's heritage in a Jewish family that has lived for 4 generations in China. Ironically, told with compassion and understanding by the daughter of Christian missionaries. Pearl Buck tells this story through the eyes of Peony, a slave purchased for the family's son, David, at a young age so that he would have a playmate. They have grown up as good friends but it is now time for David to be married. Should he marry someone Jewish to keep the family line "pure"? Or should he marry whomever he likes? David himself does not know. Peony for the first time finds herself unable to help him but she must act for her own self-interest. The result is a beautiful narrative based on the true history of the Chinese welcoming the Jews into their cities. Despite finding refuge in China, the families are torn between intermarriage and cultural purity. Should we all just get along as one human race and each risk the loss of our special heritage? Are the 2 ideals compatible? A lovely, lovely novel. ( )
  krazy4katz | Nov 19, 2014 |
Not as engaging as some of the Buck novels I've read. It was interesting to read about the assimilation of Jews into Chinese culture, but it was far too depressing and I never felt that David was worthy of Peony's love. He was weak and wishy-washy. She was strong and deserved better. ( )
  AliceAnna | Oct 22, 2014 |
Six-word review: Love and duty bind Chinese slave.

Extended review:

In a large city in mid-nineteenth-century China, a woman named Peony is bound in service to an old, established Jewish family. Her pivotal role in the life of the family bridges two ancient traditions, each with its observances and taboos. Peony's devoted service to the old master, Ezra, and his controlling wife masks a consuming but forbidden love for their son David, once her childhood companion, now destined for a place in the religious community.

This richly atmospheric novel delivers fascinating details of life in the China of about 1850 and especially in a Jewish household within that setting. The synagogue in the city was by then already some 800 or 900 years old. As depicted, Jews who had migrated to China by way of the Silk Road centuries earlier remained aloof in the wider community but were cheerfully tolerated by their liberal-minded Chinese hosts, who knew nothing of European antisemitism. A comfortable symbiosis prevailed between the merchant classes of both cultures, and intermarriage among their offspring increasingly blurred the differences.

For Peony, however, the barrier is insurmountable: it is not because she's Chinese but because she is a bondswoman, inescapably restrained by her inferior social status and her utter dependence on her owners, that there is no hope of a union between her and David. So her love must find other expressions. To serve him, she becomes a schemer and manipulator of events and circumstances. In Peony we see a complex characterization fraught with secrets, conflicts, and hidden motivations, at once rigid and yielding, resourceful, clever, loyal, and yet hopelessly yearning. Among all the principals we see above all else a depiction of love in its many forms, bringer of pain and grief as much as of joy.

From the Pulitzer- and Nobel-winning author of The Good Earth, Peony the novel, deep, moving, satisfying, poignant, wise, and culturally rich, is certain to be one of my highest-rated reading experiences of the year.

(Kindle edition) ( )
2 vote Meredy | Aug 30, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Pearl S. Buckprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Lennart, ClareTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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At various times in history colonies of Jews have gone to China and lived there. The city of K'aifeng, in the province of Honan, was a center for them. In China they have never been persecuted, and if they have suffered hardships, these were only the hardships of life in the community where they were.

In its basis, therefore, this novel may be said to be historically true, although the characters, with unimportant exceptions, are the creatures of my imagination. The story takes place at the period, about a century ago, when the Chinese had accepted the Jews, and when, indeed, most Jews had come to think of themselves as Chinese. Today even the memory of their origin is gone. They are Chinese.
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It was spring in the city of K'aifeng, a late spring in the northern Chinese province of Honan.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0819705926, Hardcover)

Young Peony is sold into a rich Chinese household as a bondmaid -- an awkward role in which she is more a servant, but less a daughter. As she grows into a lovely, provocative young woman, Peony falls in love with the family's only son. However, tradition forbids them to wed. How she resolves her love for him and her devotion to her adoptive family unfolds in this profound tale, based on true events in China over a century ago.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:07 -0400)

Young Peony is sold into a rich Chinese household as a bondmaid -- an awkward role in which she is more a servant, but less a daughter. As she grows into a lovely, provocative young woman, Peony falls in love with the family's only son. However, tradition forbids them to wed. How she resolves her love for him and her devotion to her adoptive family unfolds in this profound tale, based on true events in China over a century ago.… (more)

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