Peach Blossom Pavilion
By Mingmei Yip
Kensington; pages; $
Novelist Mingmei Yip knew her professional gambler father and artist mother an artist dreamed she would become a scholar. Yip rose to the challenge, graduating from the Sorbonne, studying Chinese arts and the ancient qin musical instrument, and after her first foray into writing—journaling during her mother’s eight-year absence while imprisoned in a Vietnamese camp—became a writer, too. All of these life experiences are channeled into her engrossing debut novel “Peach Blossom Pavilion,” which brings to life the time of China’s mingji—artist-prostitutes who were geisha predecessors.
Yip’s novel is grounded in the present, opening with an elderly woman narrator about to tell her great-granddaughter about her scandalous past as China’s most famous mingji. The great-granddaughter is as anxious as the reader for the real story to begin, and somehow this and later present-day interruptions never seem necessary for clarity or depth, merely providing confidence that everything works out in the end—and in America. From the start, “Peach Blossom Pavilion” bears many similarities to Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha,” making its plot somewhat predictable; though due to Yip’s capable writing, distinctive voice and the thoughtful design of the life of Yip’s spirited protagonist, it’s never less enjoyable for it.
The story begins when a 13-year-old Xiang Xiang sees her father executed for a crime he didn’t commit, her mother escape to a Buddhist nunnery, and instead of living with her aunt to work for a rich family as promised, is sold to a prostitution house called Peach Blossom Pavilion. At first she happily studies poetry, music (including the qin), calligraphy and other arts until realizing these activities are simply predecessors to her true fate. Soon this “pretty girl with two enchanting dimples” becomes known as Precious Orchid the mingji.
Most enchanting in the novel’s earliest parts is not Precious Orchid but her mentor and fellow mingji Pearl. Indeed Yip seems to devote many significant scenes and important dialogue to Pearl that the novel actually seems to be about her.
Pearl takes Precious Orchid under her wing, teaches her the tricks of the trade, and reveals the benefits of their position—free to learn as they please and never to be suppressed by a controlling husband.
“Maybe we’re despised,” Pearl tells her, “but we don’t need to play stupid like those wives they leave at home.”
But as the novel’s plot finally comes into its own, Precious Orchid realizes that she can’t be resigned to this life but manipulate her passive power to avenge her parents and lost childhood. Her resulting journeys and adventures—whether experimenting with monastic asceticism, discovering the comfort of a lesbian relationship or searching for her mother and the life she once had—entertain as they cement the novel’s exploration of Precious Orchid’s desire to create a real, independent life.
Though often over-dramatic and buoyed by the intriguing romance of the era, Yip’s atmospheric tale is elevated above fantastical escape through its cunning, empowered narrator, a woman who refuses to be “but a captive, whose limbs could be twisted to adopt the most obsequious posture in life as well as in bed,” and instead fights to improve her fate.