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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Peach Blossom Paradise

Ge Fei

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To purchase Peach Blossom Paradise

Title: Peach Blossom Paradise
Author: Ge Fei
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 377 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: Peach Blossom Paradise - US
Peach Blossom Paradise - UK
Peach Blossom Paradise - Canada
Une jeune fille au teint de pêche - France
directly from: New York Review Books
  • Chinese title: 人面桃花
  • Translated by Canaan Morse

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Our Assessment:

B : many impressive scenes, but a bit too disjointed as a whole

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 21/2/2021 Alida Becker
TLS . 26/3/2021 Jeffrey Wasserstrom
Wall St. Journal . 18/12/2020 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "Canaan Morse's translation of the opening volume, Peach Blossom Paradise, showcases its deft mix of history, myth and invention (.....) The inhabitants of Puji village offer an energetic chorus of background voices, as do servants and hangers-on at the family home." - Alida Becker, The New York Times Book Review

  • "A complex work of alternative history (its invented characters commit deeds that parallel those of real revolutionaries in the late 1890s and early 1900s, while forming and breaking plenty of romantic attachments), it has been gracefully translated by Canaan Morse" - Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Peach Blossom Paradise (...) has the crowded cast, the close attention to setting and the dramatic twists of traditional historical fiction, yet its fixation with dreams, disguises and delusions gives it the feeling of an otherworldly fable. (...) A degree of delicacy is required to conjure the theme of transience, and it seems to me that Canaan Morse's translation into English is exemplary, capturing the novel's many registers" - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Peach Blossom Paradise centers on Lu Xiumi, who is fifteen years old when the novel opens with her father -- long considered to have lost his sense of reason -- coming out of his studio and wandering off: removing himself from the family, he disappears without a trace.
       The disappearance of the pater familias -- even (or especially ...) if he was hardly compos mentis any longer, and thus hardly really led the family in any meaningful way-- is appropriately symbolic for the times and place presented here, a nation losing its traditional moorings. The China of the times -- the novel begins at the turn of the twentieth century -- is in some turmoil, with resistance to Qing rule growing (and government crackdowns on opponents intensifying).
       Xiumi's family is quite well off, living on a comfortable property in Puji -- the home base of the novel and the town that she, too, will repeatedly return to over the years; typically, later: "She decided to return to Puji, which, of course, was the only thing she could do". After the father's disappearance a man whom Xiumi's mother identifies as a relative -- without really explaining the family connection -- visits, and becomes a part of the household for a time, moving into the father's now vacant studio -- though he, too, occasionally vanishes, if only for days at a time. Xiumi is both intrigued by and leery of this man, Zhang Jiyuan, uncertain of how to behave towards him. He seems to be attracted to her, but his attentions are cautious; later, Xiumi will read his diaries and get a better idea of his feelings for her.
       Though he does not discuss it in the household, Zhang Jiyuan is involved in some of the local anti-government activities -- dangerous activities, as Xiumi learns when another prominent man in a nearby town, Master Xue, the son of a minister, who was planning to incite revolution against the Qing government is (rather dramatically) beheaded.
       Xiumi's awareness of what is going on around her is largely of the vague kind, pieced together from what she overhears and sees; as a teenager, she is not kept in the loop, but she's in close enough of a proximity to much that happens and the people involved to at least get some sense of what is going on; still, often, she only gets a better sense of what really was involved after the fact. Hers is the common teen-feeling:

     Xiumi had long suspected that while the world beyond held innumerable secrets, it consistently refused to to reveal any of them to her. She felt as if she were trapped in a windowless room, and could barely make out the contours of the walls by the faint light that managed to sneak inside.
       Still, even she can't help but constantly brush close to the political reality around her, even without fully understanding what is happening. So, for example, shortly before he was killed, she was sent to Master Xue with a letter from her teacher, local scholar Ding Shuze; she was surprised to find Zhang Jiyuan there. He and Master Xue pretended the letter was merely some request for a favor by Ding, when in fact it was a warning (which they did not heed). Xiumi also comes to learn that, unsurprisingly, Zhang Jiyuan is part of the same revolutionary group -- and, also unsurprisingly, he soon meets with a similar fate as Master Xue.
       Xiumi is greatly affected by Zhang Jiyuan's death and the diaries he left behind for her; if not complete understanding, she has now reached a different level of maturity -- even as it first manifests itself in withdrawal and illness, to the extent that her mother worries she is following in her father's footsteps into madness. When she's somewhat recovered, her mother decides to marry her off; Xiumi is indifferent to this next step in her life -- perhaps for the best, since things don't turn out as planned or expected, and her life is derailed on the way to her groom, when she is kidnapped. She finds herself in the hands of a clan of robbers who have a good kidnapping-scheme going, but her fate looks decidedly less promising when no one wants to pony up a ransom for her (her mother later claiming she was never approached for one) -- and then when the clan get involved in an internecine conflict that quickly gets way out of hand.
       The novel is divided into four parts, with the second beginning after Zhang Jiyuan's death. Near the start of this part come the preparations for her marriage, and it also ends with her again about to be betrothed; this, too, does not work out.
       The third part jumps ahead ten years, Xiumi having returned to Puji. We learn little of what happened in the interim, beyond that she spent time in Japan and that she has a son, called Little Thing -- and: "one thing was obvious: Xiumi wasn't the Xiumi of ten years ago". As 'the Principal' she tries to sets up all kinds of social services to better the lives of the locals in this town, but with only limited success. She truly wants to improve the lot and lives of the people -- but this is also about simply being active and (pre)occupied:
     "Because the only way to forget something is to do something else," the Principal said.
     "What do you want to forget ?"
       After she has sold off the family land, more or less all is lost; she again finds herself carried off and settled in almost complete isolation. The final part of the novel begins with her transferred to yet another isolated place -- but not exactly one of great hardship:
She found it a perfect arrangement. day after day of quiet repose and mournful leisure suited her clouded brain and tired body very well. Truly, no place could compare with prison. The carefree state enforced by the loss of one's freedom she experienced as deep relaxation.
       Eventually, she returns to Puji, settling back in the old family home which she then shares with one of the family's maids, Magpie. For ages, Xiumi does not speak, communicating with Magpie only through written notes -- a less than ideal solution, given Magpie's illiteracy. Magpie has to rush over to master Ding's with each note to learn what the missives say -- but eventually they decide she might as well try to learn how to read for herself, and she does, so something positive comes from it; she also eventually proves to be quite the poet. (These little side-stories about several of the characters are particularly appealing; Ge also offers some annotations -- here presented as footnotes -- about the lives (and afterlives) of some of the characters, a nice little touch as well.)
       There are leaps of time here -- "In a flash, three years passed", or, simply: "Twelve years passed" -- with minimal changes in how Xiumi lives. At one point a famine threatens, but in the end Xiumi and the others are able to stave off the worst. If there is perhaps a bit less turmoil in the world at large for now, Xiumi in any case lives an almost entirely withdrawn life in her hometown; aside from essential action -- as when the town faces famine -- she is barely involved in practically anything.
       If Peach Blossom Paradise is a novel of China's transition from Qing rule to republic, and the revolutionary turmoil of the times, the narrative remains largely at the periphery. Even those active in revolution, such as Zhang Jiyuan, are seen almost only at rest, rather than in the thick of things; the only ones who really roil things up at times are the criminal groups (who often have government ties, playing whatever sides seem most profitable). There's a hint of romance -- and passion (though generally of the darker sort) -- with even Zhang Jiyuan writing in his diary about Xiumi: "Without you, what good is revolution ?" -- but for the individuals both romance and revolution (or even just smaller scale social-projects such as those undertaken by Xiumi) mostly fail. In perhaps the best summing-up of Xiumi, and her life, someone observes:
Everyone calls you crazy, but in my own humble opinion you're the most cunning woman in the world. How unfortunate that you should never find your moment.
       Indeed, Peach Blossom Paradise is marked by, especially, Xiumi's lack of success, for all her best intentions. A realist like her teacher Ding can point out: "while a Peach Blossom Paradise might exist in heaven, you would never find one on earth"; certainly, they are unable to create anything resembling one.
       Peach Blossom Paradise is an interesting character- and life-study, but Xiumi remains in many ways elusive. Making her so withdrawn and isolated, refusing to talk for long stretches, and even descending into a fog of ill- or madness numerous times sets her apart -- and when she is at her most active, trying to set up institutions to help her village the narrative moves to an even greater remove, referring to her often as 'the Principal' and focusing much more on what goes on around the household than the details of what she is doing in town. The leaps in time also leave gaps, notably as to her years in Japan, about which we learn almost nothing.
       Much of the narrative focused on those near Xiumi -- the surrounding goings-on that aren't necessarily directly about her -- is among the most compelling, especially with its focus on the young children in the household. And Ge also uses examples of the coarse and natural very well, with bodily functions particularly effectively used, from Xiumi's bafflement about her period, which sets in on the same day when her father disappears, to a scene of her in what is meant to be her wedding bedroom:
A small oil lamp burned on the table. The single window looked out onto the back wall of a private household; when Xiumi neared the window and stood on tiptoe, she could see past the hedge into the rear courtyard, where an old man was using a chamber pot.
       Without drawn-out scenes of violence, there is nevertheless quite a bit of it -- but Ge expertly cuts to the chase (or lopped-off head, as the case may be), and the near-casual handling of so much of the death that occurs does make it sink in all the deeper.
       There's much here that impresses, and the narrative certainly carries the reader along, but Peach Blossom Paradise still comes across as somewhat disjointed. It is the first volume in a trilogy -- the 'Jiangnan trilogy' [江南三部曲] -- and it will be interesting to see how the larger project comes together; as is, Peach Blossom Paradise is a thoroughly engaging but not entirely satisfying work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 February 2021

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Peach Blossom Paradise: Reviews: Other books by Ge Fei under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Ge Fei (格非; actually Liu Yong) was born in 1964.

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© 2021 the complete review

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