Today I am taking part in the BLOG TOUR for Peach Blossom Pavilion, published on 27 March 2014 by Avon.
When Precious Orchid's father is falsely accused of a crime and found guilty, he is executed, leaving his family a legacy of dishonour.
Her mother's only option is to enter a Buddhist nunnery, so she gives her daughter over to the care of her sister in Shanghai.
At first, life at Peach Blossom Pavilion feels like a dream. Surrounded by exotic flowers, murmuring fountains, colourful fishponds, and bamboo groves, Precious Orchid sees herself thriving. She is schooled in music, literature, painting, calligraphy, and to her innocent surprise, the art of pleasuring men.
For the beautiful Pavilion hides its darker purpose as an elite house of prostitution. And even as she commands the devotion of China's most powerful men, Precious Orchid never gives up on her dream to escape the Pavilion, be reunited with her mother, avenge her father's death, and find true love.
And as the richest, most celebrated Ming Ji or "prestigious courtesan" in all of China, she just might have her way even if it comes with a devastating price...
Sweeping in scope and stunning in its evocation of China, "Peach Blossom Pavilion" is a remarkable novel with an unforgettable heroine at the heart of its powerful story...Overall, I found Peach Blossom Pavilion an interesting read. I've read very little fiction that deals with the lives of the courtesans of China, so this insight into the traditions and the treatment of the girls was fascinating.
Precious Orchid does at times come across as just that; 'precious'. She often makes decisions, especially after fleeing the Pavilion that are difficult for the reader to understand, but do add to the action and adventure of the story.
Mingmei Yip is a great storyteller, and it is obvious that she really knows her subject - her passion shines through in her writing. Her descriptions are evocative, whilst at times her attention to detail can make for uncomfortable reading, especially around Precious Orchid's introduction to life as a sex worker. However, this really did happen, and to gloss over and romanticise these events would do them no justice whatsover.
Read an excerpt from Peach Blossom Pavilion
A novel of the last China Geisha by Mingmei Yip
When there is action above and compliance below, this is called the natural order of things.
When the man thrusts from above and the woman receives from below, this is called the balance between heaven and earth.
Dong Xuanzi (Tang dynasty A.D. 618-907)
Prologue Precious Orchid
The California sun slowly streams in through my apartment window, then gropes its way past a bamboo plant, a Chinese vase spilling with plum blossoms, a small incense burner, then finally lands on Bao Lan -- Precious Orchid -- the woman lying opposite me without a stitch on.
Envy stabs my heart. I stare at her body as it curves in and out like a snake ready for mischief. She lies on a crimson silk sheet embroidered with flowers in gold thread. "Flower of the evil sea" -- this was what people in old Shanghai would whisper through cupped mouths. While now, in San Francisco, I murmur her name, "Bao Lan," sweetly as if savoring a candy in my mouth. I imagine inhaling the decadent fragrance from her sun-warmed nudity.
Bao Lan's eyes shine big and her lips -- full, sensuous and painted a dark crimson -- evoke in my mind the color of rose petals in a fading dream. Petals, that, when curled into a seductive smile, also whisper words of flattery. These, together with her smooth arm, raised and bent behind her head in a graceful curve, remind me of the Chinese saying "A pair of jade arms used as pillows to sleep on by a thousand guests; two slices of crimson lips tasted by ten thousand men."
Now the rosy lips seem to say, "Please come to me."
I nod, reaching my hand to touch the nimbus of black hair tumbling down her small, round breasts. Breasts the texture of silk and the color of white jade. Breasts that were touched by many -- soldiers, merchants, officials, scholars, artists, policemen, gangsters, a Catholic priest, a Taoist monk.
Feeling guilty of sacrilege, I withdraw my ninety-eight-year old spotty and wrinkled hand. I keep rocking on my chair and watching Bao Lan as she continues to eye me silently. "Hai, how time flies like an arrow, and the sun and moon move back and forth like a shuttle!" I recite the old saying, then carefully sip my ginseng tea.
"Ah-po, it's best quality ginseng to keep your longevity and health," my great-granddaughter told me the other day when she brought the herb.
Last week, I celebrated my ninety-eighth birthday, and, although they never say it out loud, I know they want my memoir to be finished before I board the immortal's journey. When I say "they," I mean my great-granddaughter Jade Treasure and her American fiancé Leo Stanley. In a while, they will be coming to see me and begin recording my oral history.
Oral history! Do they forget that I can read and write? They treat me as if I were a dusty museum piece. They act like they're doing me a great favor by digging me out from deep underground and bringing me to light. How can they forget that I am not only literate, but also well versed in all the arts --literature, music, painting, calligraphy, and poetry, and that's exactly the reason they want to write about me?
Now Bao Lan seems to say, "Old woman, please go away! Why do you always have to remind me how old you are and how accomplished you were?! Can't you leave me alone to enjoy myself at the height of my youth and beauty?"
"Sure," I mutter to the air, feeling the wrinkles weighing around the corners of my mouth.
But she keeps staring silently at me with eyes which resemble two graceful dots of ink on rice paper. She's strange, this woman who shares the same house with me but only communicates with the brightness of her eyes and the sensuousness of her body.
I am used to her eccentricity, because she's my other -- much wilder and younger -- self! The delicate beauty opposite me is but a faded oil painting done seventy-five years ago when I was twenty-three.
And the last poet-musician courtesan in Shanghai.
That's why they keep pushing me to tell, or sell, my story -- I am the carrier of a mysterious cultural phenomenon -- Ming Ji.
The prestigious prostitute. Prestigious prostitute? Yes, that was what we were called in old China. A species as extinct as the Chinese emperors, after China became a republic. Some say it's a tragic loss; others argue: how can the disappearance of prostitutes be tragic?
The cordless phone trills on the coffee table; I pick it up with my stiff, arthritic hand. Jane and Leo are already downstairs. Jane is Jade Treasure's English name, of which I disapprove because it sounds so much like the word “pan fry” in Chinese. When I call her "Jane, Jane," I can almost smell fish cooking in sizzling oil -- Sizzz! Sizzz! It sounds as if I'd cook my own flesh and blood!
Now the two young people burst into my nursing home apartment with their laughter and overflowing energy, their embarrassingly long limbs flailing in all directions. Jade Treasure flounces up to peck my cheek, swinging a basket of fruit in front of me, making me dizzy.
"Hi, Grandmama, you look good today! The ginseng gives you good qi?"
"Jade, can you show some respect to an old woman who has witnessed, literally, the ups and downs of a century?" I say, pushing away the basket of fruit.
"Grandmama!" Jade mocks protest, then dumps the basket on the table with a clank and plops down on the sofa next to me.
It is now Leo's turn to peck my cheek, then he says in his smooth Mandarin, "How are you to-day, Po Po?"
This American boy calls me Po Po, the respectful way of addressing an elderly lady in Chinese, while my Jade Treasure prefers the more westernized Grandmama (she adds another “ma” for “great” grandmother). Although I am always suspicious of laofan, old barbarians, I kind of like Leo. He's a nice boy, good-looking with a big body and soft blonde hair, a graduate of journalism at a very good University called Ge-lin-bi-ya? (so I was told by Jade), speaks very good Mandarin, now works as an editor in a very famous publisher called Ah-ba Call-lings? (so I was also told by Jade). And madly in love with my Jade Treasure.
Jade is already clanking bowls and plates in my small kitchen, preparing snacks. Her bare legs play hide and seek behind the half-opened door, while her excessive energy thrusts her to and fro between the refrigerator, the cupboard, the sink, the stove.
A half hour later, after we've finished our snacks and the trays are put away and the table cleaned, Leo and Jade sit down beside me on the sofa, carefully taking out their recorder, pads, pens. Faces glowing with excitement, they look like Chinese students eager to please their teacher. It touches me to see their expressions turn serious as if they were burdened by the sacred responsibility of saving a precious heritage from sinking into quicksand.
"Grandmama," Jade says after she's discussed in English with her fiancé, "Leo and I agreed that it's best for you to start your story from the beginning. That is, when you were sold to the turquoise pavilion after great Grandpapa was executed.”
I'm glad she is discreet enough not to say jiyuan, prostitution house, or worse, jixiang, whorehouse, but instead uses the much more refined and poetic qinglou - turquoise pavilion.
“Jade, if you’re so interested in Chinese culture, do you know there are more than forty words for prostitution house… fire pit; tender village; brocade gate; wind and moon domain. . . .Jade interrupts. “Grandmama, so which were you in?”
“You know, we had our own hierarchy. The prestigious book chamber ladies,” I tilt my head, “like myself, condescended to the second rate long gown ladies, and they in turn snubbed those who worked in the second hall. And of course everyone would spit on the homeless wild chickens as if they were nonhuman.”
“Wow! Cool stuff!” Jade exclaims, then exchanges whispers with Leo. She turns back to stare at me, her elongated eyes sparkling with enthusiasm. "Grandmama, we think that it's better if you can use the 'talk story' style. Besides, can you add even more juicy stuff?”
“No.” I wave them a dismissive hand. “Do you think my life is not miserable enough to be saleable? This is my story, and I’ll do it my way!”
“Yes, of course!” The two heads nod like basketballs under thumping hands."All right, my big prince and princess, what else?"
"That's all, Grandmama. Let's start!" The two young faces gleam as if they were about to watch a Hollywood soap opera -- forgetting that I have told them a hundred times that my life is even a thousand times soapier.
More information about the author and her writing can be found on her website www.mingmeiyip.com