Author: Pearl S. Buck
Peony is a novel set in Kaifeng, China, in the 1850s. It is my favorite among Pearl S Buck novels because it propounds tolerance and looks beyond the borders of religion, culture and nationality. It gives a clear portrayal of how creating walls in the name of culture and communities can only bring them tumbling down.
The other thing that I liked was how Peony, the protagonist, develops into a wise and respected woman, an advisor to her former employers, revered by the people who she served as a child.
Peony, named after a flower that has mythological significance in both Greek and Chinese lore, starts her life at eight years of age as a bond maid in a rich foreigner’s family that had emigrated from Palestine a few generations earlier to avoid harassment. She was bought as a companion to the only son of the house. She learnt writing and reading while her young master studied. Peony, as expected, fell in love with her young master, David. However, knowing that she would never be accepted as a daughter-in-law by the family, she overcame her desires and helped her young master marry a bride who would bring him happiness in the long run.
Her mistress, an upholder of the Judaism in China, was keen that her son marries a Rabbi’s daughter. Both the Jewish women (David’s mother and future fiancée) loved what they believed to be Judaism as it was interpreted by their Rabbi. They believed that they were the chosen ones and superior to the ‘ heathens‘. Their religion drew borders and created only rifts with the local population. In the middle of the book, there is an interesting dialogue between the Rabbi and a liberal Chinese trader, Kung Chen.
“There is only one true God, and Jehovah is His name,” the Rabbi declared, trembling all over as he spoke.
“So the followers of Mohammed in our city declare,” Kung Chen said gravely, “but they call his name as Allah. Is he the same as your Jehovah?”
“There is no god beside our God,” the Rabbi said in a loud high voice. “He is the One True God!”
Kung Chen, a buddhist and an open thinker, is appalled by the Rabbi’s intolerance and tells David, Peony’s young master, “None can love those who declare that they alone are the sons of God.”
Perhaps, with this one statement Pearl S Buck has summed up the issue faced by many in the current day world, intolerance towards others’ beliefs.
I have not looked into the authenticity of the historical fact or the religious belief of those times. But what struck me was that this is an age-old truth. Intolerance only breeds hatred and violence, as it does in the book.
Earlier the Jews who came for refuge to Kaifeng were not intolerant. Over a period of time, the group grew smaller and became more rigid.
In the past, a liberal minded follower of the same Judaism had engraved on a plaque in the same temple where the Rabbi propounded his intolerance: “Worship is to honor Heaven, and righteousness is to follow the ancestors. But the human mind has always existed before worship and righteousness.”
It is the human mind, which helps us make choices. When we stop thinking, we lose touch with reality and become fanciful, as had the Rabbi and his daughter. After all, the human mind has been made by God who, probably, wanted us to think and take responsibility for our thoughts and action.
Peony by her actions generates the positive feelings of calmness, peace, harmony and tolerance whereas the Rabbi’s daughter generates passion, violence, intolerance and fear. She is so passionate and intolerant in her outlook that she comes to a sad end.
Peony, on the other hand, gains in social and spiritual stature.
I also love what the book does with Peony, a woman who might have become a concubine in the royal court of China. She defines her own position by her selflessness and opts for a more meaningful existence. She rejects power and glory for love and kindness, values that would make for a happier world.
Her role in the latter part of the book reminds me of a few lines that are often quoted and were written by Julia Abigail Fletcher Carney in Illinois around the same period as when this story was set…
Little deeds of kindness,
Little words of love,
Help to make earth happy
Like the Heaven above.