Category Archives: religion

Where a woman is both beautiful and wise.

I am re-posting this book review because even I who wrote it am fascinated all over again when I consider the character and the story. I’m sure many of my readers have not read all the book reports I’ve made, and some of you who read this review the first time might not have been interested back then. I might need a reread of Peony myself.

I am so blessed to have met the appealing character of Peony in Pearl S. Buck’s novel about Jews in China. It seems that as early as the 8th century Jewish traders settled in China and their tribe increased through the centuries. Buck thoroughly researched their history and includes many authentic details in this story that tells about their community in the city of K’aifeng in the northern province of Honan. She gives a short intro and timeline of the Jewish presence in China in a preface, and my Kindle edition includes an afterword by Wendy R. Abraham with a thorough history up to about 1990.

The events take place in the middle of the 19th century. At this time the last rabbi died and the Jews were in the final stages of being assimilated into the Chinese culture. One big reason can be summed up in this question that several of the characters ask themselves: “…here [in China], where all are friends to us and receive us eagerly into their blood, what is the reward for remaining apart?”

The story is told from the point of view of the Chinese bondmaid Peony, who belongs to a Jewish household and for her own survival uses all her resources to promote this abandonment of her owners’ practice of their Jewish lifestyle. She and the Young Master of the household grew up as playmates and good friends, and now that they have come of age she works to turn his heart away from the faith that has been passed down from his parents. That may sound bad, but she is honestly playing her part in this drama in which each one tries to follow the most prudent path he can, while at the same time honoring his elders. From the distance of time or in a novel we can see a broad view, but when you are thrust into a role with no script, you can only do your best.

The substance of the Jewish faith portrayed in the novel is somewhat vague. Other than the goals of “remaining separate” and remembering their history, any tenets of faith mentioned were ideas the Chinese neighbors could and did easily agree with. An example of this is in a synagogue mentioned in the story, on whose stones are written “‘The Temple of Purity and Truth,’ and beneath the words are carved the history of the Jews and their Way, and it is there said, ‘The Way has no form or figure, but is made in the image of the Way of Heaven, which is above.'”

The name of the temple is factual, and if the confusing statement about The Way comes from Pearl Buck’s imagination, it is probably based on the truth of what it is like to try to live out a faith tradition that is more history than reality. This experience — or rather, lack of it — is certainly not foreign to many moderns.

I don’t know when I last read such a wonderful work of fiction. It was a page-turner because I could not at all imagine how the plot would flow. The setting in China was the primary strange aspect for me; I don’t think I’ve read any of Buck’s other works set in that country and I’ve been fairly incurious about Asia generally. But recent exposure to the writings of Lin Yutang has made the history and culture of China seem much more accessible and intriguing, and prepared me to enter into this tale.

Peony is a young Chinese girl whose depiction I fully trust, because Pearl S. Buck grew up in China as the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries and was immersed in that world. She returned as an adult and wrote many books about China and its people, including the most famous one, The Good Earth. Lin Yutang himself was a friend of hers and they seem to have encouraged each other in their writing.

Peony was sold by her mother to the family whom she serves; she has no one else but them in the world. So she sees that it is in her interest to be the very best servant she can be, and she truly loves not only the Young Master but his parents. About the Young Master she thinks, “His heart was centered in himself, and so must hers be centered in him.”

Her love for the family increases as the years go by, even as they come to depend on her in countless ways. That’s o.k., because she always tries to make things work out for their health and welfare. Her own happiness must be found in the context of disappointment, and in relationship with people who take her for granted.

When she is still fairly young she asks the older servant a philosophical question:

Was life sad or happy? She did not mean her life or any one life, but life itself— was it sad or happy? If she but had the answer to that first question, Peony thought, then she would have her guide. If life could and should be happy, if to be alive itself was good, then why should she not try for everything that could be hers? But if, when all was won, life itself was sad, then she must content herself with what she had.

“You cannot be happy until you understand that life is sad,” Wang Ma declared. “See me, Little Sister! What dreams I made and how I hoped before I knew that life is sad! After I understood this truth I made no more dreams. I hoped no more. Now I am often happy, because some good things come to me. Expecting nothing, I am glad for anything.”

Getting to know Peony and watching how she matures over the years was pure pleasure. She has good sense and character even as a teenager, and as she responds to the sometimes cataclysmic changes in the household her competence and wisdom grow, often through struggling to overcome her own desires and heartache. Through her we get an idea of how the Jewish religious practices might have appeared to the Chinese, and she also epitomizes many of the best qualities of the Chinese and their outlook on life that I was only recently reading about in Lin Yutang’s books.

For me the Jewish characters in the story were also unpredictable, though they are well-drawn and believable. They are people of their particular time and place, most of them already a unique blend of the Chinese and Hebrew. The patriarch of the family is of mixed-blood, having had the “consolation” of “a rosy, warm little Chinese mother.” This image is contrasted with his own wife who is almost single-handedly trying to preserve their religious tradition, and who causes a Jewish friend to muse, “For a woman to love God too much was not well, he now told himself. She must not love God more than man, for then she made herself man’s conscience, and he was the pursued.”

This theme of women and their power is another element of the story that fascinated me, being myself a woman with power. Of the only son David we read,

His mother, Leah, Peony, Kueilan, these four women who had somehow between them shaped his life were shaping him still. He longed to be free of them all, and yet he knew that no man is ever free of the women who have made him what he is. He sighed and tossed and wished for the day when he could return to the shops and the men there who had nothing to do with his heart and his soul.

In the end it is Peony who has the best and sweetest sort of influence. Her conversation with the father when she is giving him a foot-rub:

Peony knew his thoughts. Nevertheless, she asked, “Why do you sigh, Master?” “Because I do not know what is right,” Ezra replied. She laughed softly at this. “You are always talking of right and wrong,” she said. Now she was pressing the soles of his feet. They were hard and broad, but supple. She went on in her cheerful way. “Yet what is right except that which makes happiness and what is wrong except that which makes sorrow?” “You speak so because you are not confused between Heaven and earth,” he said. “I know I belong to earth,” she said simply.

I’ve tried not to spoil the story by telling too much. One review I read ahead of time said something about the ending being sad, but I didn’t find it so. We find Peony considering her life and that of the people she has served, and wondering if she had been wrong to have a part in closing the book on the Jewish tradition in her city. In keeping with her outlook on life and religion, she concludes that it’s all o.k.:

Long she pondered, and as often happened to her in her great age, the answer came to her. She had not done wrong, for nothing was lost. “Nothing is lost,” she repeated. “[The Jew] lives again and again, among our people,” she mused. “Where there is a bolder brow, a brighter eye, there is one like him; where a voice sings most clearly, there is one; where a line is drawn most cleverly to make a picture clear, a carving strong, there is one; where a statesman stands most honorable, a judge most just, there is one; where a scholar is most learned, there is one; where a woman is both beautiful and wise, there is one. Their blood is lively in whatever frame it flows, and when the frame is gone, its very dust enriches the still kindly soil.”

kaifeng-jews-450x532

Food for the mind, feasts for the eyes.

If I have trouble putting together a Real blog post, it’s not because I haven’t been soaking up the sights and thinking about so many things. Now that I am actually here, I have been reading about and discussing with Kate and Tom Indian history, language, politics, slums, and religion.

The night before Baby Raj was born, Tom projected maps of India on the big screen and gave a little talk on various of these topics — it was the best sort of lesson for me, the map presentation helping me to tie bits of knowledge together in my mind. Perhaps there’s a chance I will retain more than a smidgen.

My “studies” are interspersed with or carried on in the midst of Baby Immersion. Just being in a home where a newborn baby lives and breathes and will stare back at you with no feeling of awkwardness — it’s too sweet.

This baby will have Indian nannies as long as he lives here, so some of the first words impressed on his pliable mind will be from Indian languages. But which ones? Hindi is not the primary language spoken in these parts, and India has designated 30 languages as “official” languages of the nation. According to Census of India of 2001, India has 122 major languages and 1599 other languages.

20% of Indians speak Dravidian languages, which are not even related to Indo-Aryan languages such as Hindi. These and other non-Hindi speakers have fought against proposals to impose the Hindi language in southern India. The Indian constitution does not give any language the status of national language, but the authorized version of laws is required to be in English, and the business of the Supreme Court is conducted in English.

I’ve learned very few Indian words, mostly names of food. But I didn’t learn the name of the Diwali festival treat above before eating the last one in the house. Almost everyone I encounter seems to speak at least a little English, but sometimes I can’t understand one word in a whole sentence by the most fluent speakers, because of their accent.

Everywhere we go I feast on colors, and feel myself to be somewhat ghostly in appearance in contrast to the Indian women in their rich attire. I’m sure I will come home with a few new and bright, concrete items to go with the images on my computer and the imprints on my mind. New dishes are constantly being set out on this banquet table.

The cows are back.

Housekeeper Kareena went out to do the grocery shopping yesterday morning and came back empty-handed. The shops and produce stands were all shut up. It was the latest development in the strife between the Dalits and the Hindu Nationalists.

I can’t really say more than that without revealing my ignorance and no doubt also over-simplifying one of the many complex and interrelated issues troubling this country with so many cultures, languages, and religions clashing and blending and layering over the centuries. I know little about it but now I am living in it for a time. It feels like a lot of excitement for only my first week.

The photo above shows some Dalit demonstrators in our neighborhood, the only thing happening in the emptied streets. Tom took this one, and it is blurry because he didn’t want to get too close to the action.

He and I had been planning to buy lunch out before going to visit Baby Boy and his mom, but all of the  eateries were closed, too, so we ate some leftovers from last week, and then walked back to the hospital.

I had become familiar with this intersection from our trips to the hospital over the last couple of days. The same man was constant in roasting sweet potatoes on the corner near our apartment building, and at the side of the road across the street from the hospital, several cows always stood with their keepers in two groups, three cows and two cows.

But the sweet potato roaster was not to be seen, and even the cows were gone. Rickshaw drivers slept in their vehicles, shopkeepers slept outside their shops, and for the first time I had to walk around a man sleeping on the sidewalk. The street in the picture below is normally filled with hundreds of cars, rickshaws and pedestrians all flowing around each other in close and chaotic streams.

By the end of the day someone in power had met for talks with the police, and the Dalits called off further protests. I have been too busy holding a baby to read much about the situation (This is the article I am starting with), but we were all glad that last night the shops had opened again, and this morning the shopping got done and we now have spinach paneer and chicken tikka masala in the house, with fresh chapatis. The cows are back in their place.

On our walk home from the hospital after dark, the neighborhood church was in the middle of serving food to the poor. Its Light and its lights had not stopped shining for even one day.

ST church lights