The appeal of Peony is two-fold. First, it reveals a history of the Jewish diaspora in China–a population I was entirely ignorant of–and second, it was published in 1948, suggesting that Buck wrote at the very time when the atrocities of Nazi Germany’s were revealed to the world. The latter context embeds the book in a conversation about about Jewish identity, a question that was surely uppermost in many people’s minds of the time as they struggled to process such an overwhelming and final expression of hatred towards a religious group.
Peony is a young bondmaid in a wealthy Jewish household in China of the 1800s. She has served David, the only child of the Ezra family, since she was procured as a child, attending to his every need. Now young adults, it was probably inevitable, in such a cloistered environment, that Peony has come to love David as a woman.
If David were more culturally Chinese, this mutual attraction would, perhaps, have easily been admitted; David’s conscience would have allowed him to marry his mother’s choice of a Jewish woman, while taking Peony as a concubine. But David is Jewish, despite his efforts to free himself from the strictures of his heritage that his mother continues to practise.
David’s efforts to reject his religious heritage are complicated, not only by his mother’s religious obeisance, but by news of the slaughter of Jews brought by his merchant father’s partner, along with a caravan of goods from the west. The parallels here to mid-20th century atrocities are clear. David recommits to his religion and so unwittingly introduces a threat in Peony’s mind to her continued service in the household.
The drama of Peony and the Ezra family explores the question of religious identity as it is lived in the face of threats to its integrity: through the dilution of diaspora and assimilation, as well as outright persecution. It explores the personal costs of maintaining that identity in the face of a dwindling community in a largely indifferent culture, particularly in the figures of Madame Ezra and the elderly Rabbi.
Further, and this is what I liked most about the novel, Peony, explores the positions that different religions and cultures afford women. While Peony perceives a threat from David’s proposed marriage to Leah, the daughter of the Rabbi, for Leah, the prospect of her arranged marriage to David comes to be a lifeline out of poverty and servitude to her father and brother. In this light, Peony’s actions seem unkind, perhaps, but then her fears for herself, at this stage, are not unfounded.
I would say there are no winners in these circumstances, but ultimately, Peony does win, to an extent that is better than continued servitude to an entitled, if caring, master. She finds a way to move beyond her indenture to the Ezra household and, indeed, her culture at large, to bloom, as her namesake, for the rest of her years.