Women’s literature – Passing Under Heaven

I have a prejudice against what I call “women-life-stories” – the kind of book that narrates the life story of a girl, because I am too impatient for the slow, often ruminative style of sharing and reflection that the recount of a woman’s life almost necessarily entails. Therefore, I nearly passed this book over upon reading the blurb :

Married at sixteen; divorced at nineteen; executed at twenty six.

In the twilight years of the Tang Dynasty, a young girl is given up by her mother and orphaned before she is five years old, yet rises to become one of the most famous and celebrated women of her age…”

I stopped there, thinking it was another of those stories celebrating the indomitable feminine spirit (I’ve had enough of sub-par determined-woman-finds-meaning-in-life books) and would have completely passed it by if I hadn’t suddenly recalled how much I enjoyed Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha“. Just as Arthur Golden had extensive exposure to Japanese culture, so was Justin Hill familiar with Chinese culture, having lived in China for several years (or so I researched)…I decided to give Passing Under Heaven a try.

I was beguiled by Hill’s simple, flowing prose. This is not a book that seizes your imagination and yanks you along at breakneck pace, but the ephemeral quality of it is equally entrancing. There is none of the dense metaphors and indulgent description I was cynically expecting. Instead, Hill moves the reader’s attention from the harsh life of women to the culture of the Tang dynasty with elegance. Little Hope, the only daughter of Concubine Hwa, is orphaned at seven and adopted into another family as Little Flower. As a woman she is named Lily, and pon being sold as a concubine to Minister Li, she becomes Mistress Yu. Minister Li has to juggle his grandmother’s dislike for concubines, his own wife, as well as Lily’s affections at once, while Lily, craving for purpose and excitement, is stifled by the docility and submission expected from women in the Tang dynasty. The tormented love between Minister Li and Lily is as classic a symbol in the Tang Dynasty as Heathcliff’s and Catherine’s love is in the Victorian Era.

From The Manual For Instructing Women.

To be his.

To serve him.

To lie in his arms at night.

To fold his garments.

To bring him his food.

To pour his tea.

To heal his headaches.

To obey his commands.

To obey the commands of his mother.

To test the flavour of a dish or the heat of the wine.

To care for him in his old age.

These will be your joys in life.

The relationship between Minister Li and Concubine Lily soon sours terribly, and while Lily manages to leave the minister, neither she nor Minister Li truly get over their love. Lily becomes both a notorious seductress and a skilled poetess before eventually being punished for her crimes. More than a love story, Passing Under Heaven is a understated yet powerful book about the society of China a thousand years ago. The details on culture and era were believable and evocative; on the whole, the book was thoroughly enjoyable. For the Guardian review, see here.

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