The novel is set in 17th Century China and is based on an historical phenomenon of the time known as "lovesick maidens" -- young women who literally starved themselves to death because that was the only part of their lives they could control. It is tied to an opera from 1598 by Tang Xianzu called The Peony Pavilion -- an opera that was banned in its time and is still censored today in China.
Here's how See describes the opera and its affect on women in an essay on the novel on her website:
The Peony Pavilion was the first piece of fiction in the history of China in which the heroine -- a girl of sixteen -- chose her own destiny, and that was both shocking and thrilling. It entranced and fascinated women, who, with rare exceptions, were allowed to read the opera but never see or hear it. The passion this work aroused has been compared to the fanaticism for Goethe’s Werther in 18th-century Europe or more recently, in the United States, for Gone with the Wind. In China, young educated women from wealthy families -- typically between the ages of thirteen and sixteen, and with their marriages already arranged -- were particularly susceptible to the story. Believing that life imitates art, they copied [the heroine] Liniang: They gave up food, wasted away, and died, all in hopes that somehow in death they might be able to choose their destinies, just as the ghost of Liniang had.
Two other things really struck me from listening to See and looking at her website. First, in the mid-17th Century, China had more published women authors -- literally thousands of them -- than the rest of the world combined (and yes, apparently some of that work is still available, though she didn't say if any of it has been translated from the Chinese). And second, she points out that because of the political upheaval of that time:
men left the front gate open and women, who had long lived in seclusion, went out. They became professional writers, artists, archers, historians, and adventurers. Other women -- in what might be considered an early form of the book group -- gathered together to write poetry, read books, and discuss ideas.
Alas, this brief period was shut down toward the end of the century: women were told "there was no 'writing' or 'self' in the four virtues" and were pushed back into silence.
I'm intrigued enough to want to read the book and am even more interested in finding out much more about 17th Century China. We come across bits and pieces of similar stories from other cultures from time to time, though it strikes me that so far most of the hidden history of women that historians have uncovered has focused on individual women. I wonder how many more outbreaks of feminism -- for that strikes me as the best way to describe a time when women previously confined to the home became "writers, artists, archers, historians, and adventurers" -- are still hidden in humanity's collective past.
And considering the efforts of the Christian religious right in the US, and fundamentalist movements that limit the role of women in various religions through out the world, I hope our own breakthroughs will not be wiped out as well, to become a bit of history some other writer discovers 400 years hence.