Select one of the keywords
Peony    by Pearl S. Buck order for
by Pearl S. Buck
Order:  USA  Can
Moyer Bell, 2004 (1948)
Hardcover, Paperback

Read an Excerpt

* * *   Reviewed by Barbara Lingens

Pearl Buck writes here of the China she knows so well, but with a difference. In the 1850s, as in various times in China's history, colonies of Jews came to China to live. This is an imagined story of what happened to an influential family of Jews living in the city of K'aifeng.

Madame Ezra, the matriarch of the family, feels strongly about her religion and looks endlessly forward to the time they can return to the promised land. Her husband Ezra, who is half-Chinese, is grateful that the Chinese harbor no prejudice against him and his family, and that he can earn a good living for them. The blind Rabbi, an older man with a young daughter and son, seeks always to bring Yahweh nearer to them all. The Chinese servants and city dwellers look upon these people with curiosity but no ill will. They cannot imagine that the family would want to return to a strip of desert, and that they must observe so many different customs and only have one God who is exclusive to them alone.

The family's only child, David, has grown up with Peony, a Chinese bondmaid sold into the family when she was a child. The two of them have played together, and while serving David, Peony learned right along with him as he was tutored. Her love for him has to be tempered by her knowledge that Madame Ezra would never allow her to marry David, and that Jews, unlike Chinese, do not take concubines. When David reaches maturity, Madame Ezra seeks to have him betrothed to Leah, the daughter of the Rabbi. But this is tragically not to be. Peony brings about a betrothal to a local Chinese girl, the daughter of the wealthiest trader in the city, a pairing Ezra approves, but which causes great pain to Madame Ezra.

As gripping as the story is (and there is lots more to it), it is the religious implications of these actions that make the reading even more interesting. Buck allows us to understand not only what it means to be a small, rather unhappy minority (in a land that has no understanding of why there should be such unhappiness), but also how the Chinese view this situation. As a servant tells Ezra, 'When you remember your father was a Jew you are unhappy and sad, and when you remember your mother was Chinese you are happy and life is good.' An elder says of the Jews, 'There is something strange in them ... If they worship their god they are strange; if they do not worship him they are like other men ... the worship of a special god makes a special people.'

How Peony helps David - torn between his deeply felt heritage, his love, finally realized, for Peony, and the practical fact of his Chinese marriage and family - to resolve the situation in a way satisfactory to all makes an interesting and thought-provoking read.

Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.

Find more Historical books on our Shelves or in our book Reviews