‘Peony’ offers rare glimpse into world of Chinese Jews
(Editor’s note: In “Retro Reviews,” Chronicle Correspondent Hilary Daninhirsch begins a yearlong series in which she will review Jewish-themed books that have been out of print for decades, or perhaps remain in print but are difficult to find [except in your public library]. Some titles may be recognizable; others may be obscure. But if they appear here, then you can bet they still have something to offer the Jewish reader.)
Nobel Laureate Pearl Buck (born Pearl Sydenstricker) is best known for her novel of China, “The Good Earth,” but this Hillsboro, W.Va., native who spent her early years in China (and her later years in Bucks County, Pa.), wrote more than 70 other books.
A lesser-known but equally compelling novel is “Peony,” written in 1948, which focuses on the almost forgotten Chinese Jewish community that rose to prominence in Kaifeng in the 12th century. The community peaked in the early- to mid-17th century, which is when the story takes place.
Peony is a Chinese bondmaid who was sold at the age of 8 to the house of Ezra, a Jewish family whose forefathers settled in China many generations earlier.
David is the son of Ezra and Naomi. Ezra identifies as Jewish, even though he had a Chinese mother and Jewish father, while Naomi, also known as Madame Ezra, is the daughter of a prominent Jewish family.
The book opens at a seder at the house of Ezra, reflecting Madame Ezra’s faithful honoring of Jewish traditions. Madame Ezra is determined to see to it that the Jewish lineage continues, but young David rebels against both his mother and his heritage.
The last remaining rabbi in Kaifeng, who is blind, is engaged by Madame Ezra to tutor her son in Jewish learning, hoping to draw him into Judaism. At the same time, she schemes to make David fall in love with the rabbi’s beautiful daughter, Leah, an action that will result in tragic consequences.
David is torn by his desire for Peony, Leah and Kueilan (the beautiful daughter of his father’s business partner).
In the meantime, Peony suffers with her unrequited love for David. She orchestrates much of what happens in the household, some of which leads to disastrous results, both for herself personally and for other members of the family.
David learns from his father’s business partner that in other parts of the world, Jews are the object of hatred and are being killed for reasons far beyond his comprehension. He cannot understand why, because the Chinese are so kind and tolerant of “foreigners.” That knowledge is a turning point for David and causes him much inner turmoil throughout the novel.
A conversation between David and his father reflects the prominent themes in the novel: the desire for societal acceptance coupled with the obligation to cling to tradition, and the inherent danger of Jewish assimilation:
“We cannot live here among these people and remain separate, Father,” David argued. “In the countries of Europe, yes, for there the peoples force us to be separate from them by persecution. We cling to our own people there because none other will accept us, and we are martyred and glorified by our martyrdom. We have no other country than sorrow. But here, where all are friends to us and receive us eagerly into their blood, what is the reward for remaining apart?”
“And your sons, my grandsons, will proceed still further into the mingling,” Ezra went on.
“It will be so,” David said.
Ezra pondered. “Shall we then disappear?”
Reading this book was like discovering a long-buried treasure. While Buck’s writing at times can be somewhat florid, her pen flows with exceptional authenticity. Despite the 60-plus years since its publication, this novel contains many of the elements of a modern day novel: a love triangle, the struggle between individual choice and parental wishes, guilt, and religion and faith.
The copy I reviewed includes a detailed background of Chinese Jews written by Dr. Wendy R. Abraham as well as a discussion of recent attempts to preserve this fascinating sliver of Jewish history.
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at email@example.com.)