This week I put my focus on Asian literature. There are authors from Japan like Haruki Murakami or Banana Yoshimoto whose novels are rather popular here in Europe, too, but for the rest Asia is almost a white spot on my literary landscape. The works of the Chinese Nobel Prize laureate for literature of 2012, Mo Yan, are only slowly appearing in the shelves of our bookshops and I haven’t yet read any of them. On the other hand, a friend of mine called my attention to one of her favourite writers, Eileen Chang. I decided to pick her novella Red Rose, White Rose for today’s review.
Eileen Chang (張愛玲, correctly transliterated Zhang Ailing) was born in Shanghai, China, in September 1920. She studied English literature in Hong Kong, but due to the war returned to China in 1941 before finishing her degree. In 1943 Eileen Chang began her literary career and within two years rose to be one of the most acclaimed Chinese writers. Together with Love in a Fallen City (倾城之恋) and Lust, Caution (色，戒) the novella Red Rose, White Rose (紅玫瑰白玫瑰) is one of her best known works outside China. In 1952 she moved to Hong Kong again and then immigrated into the USA where her first novel written in English, The Rice Sprout Song, came out in 1955. She finished two more English novels (both partly autobiographical) in 1963, but The Fall of the Pagoda as well as The Book of Change were published only many years after Eileen Chang had died in Los Angeles, USA, in September 1995.
Red Rose, White Rose is set in Shanghai during the 1940s. The novella revolves around Tong Zhenbao and his attitude towards women as well as life in general. Stemming from a poor family he is the prototype of a social climber and self-made man who subordinates everything and everyone to his plans. He is the product of an education that still treasured traditional Chinese – i.e. strictly patriarchal – values while society was already heading into modern times. As an upper-level manager in a foreign textile company Zhenbao is a successful member of the higher middle class. In addition, he has a home, a wife and a nine-year-old daughter as he ought to. All things considered, he has the ideal life that he always planned to have at this stage. He has been faithful to his resolution to “create a world that was ‘right’, and to carry it with him wherever he went” and has no reason to complain. And yet, he isn’t happy in his ideal world. He feels that in return for goodness and sacrifices he doesn’t receive the respect and sympathy that family and friends owe him.
Love is a particularly difficult matter for Zhenbao because his view of life requires that he is the absolute master of his “little pocket-size world” including the women around him. Strong women who do as they wish, especially if they trespass the bounds that society sets them, shake him and attract him at the same time. Back in China after his studies abroad he can’t resist the charms of Jiaorui, the libertine wife of his friend, and resents himself for it. The affair goes on until Jiaorui tells her husband about it and asks for a divorce. Her initiative shocks Zhenbao because most of all he fears the scandal and its detrimental implications on his career as well as his status. Zhenbao has no intention whatsoever to marry Jiaorui, his red rose of passion, and drops her at once. His idea of the ideal wife is a very different one: she must be spotless, innocent and most of all tractable. To meet his white rose of purity Zhenbao allows his mother to arrange a marriage for him. The girl of choice is Yanli, a pretty and naive university graduate from a good family. Zhenbao gets what he wants, but the trouble is that real people never meet the idealised model assigned to them.
It’s a rather unsentimental picture of love and marriage that Eileen Chang paints in her novella Red Rose, White Rose. The simple and despite all powerful language of the author leaves hardly any doubt about relationship being in her eyes nothing but a constant fight for control over the other. Zhenbao certainly has a problem with intimacy and isn’t ready to let anybody have a glimpse behind the thick castle walls into his inner world. Always on his guard in order not to lose control, he never learns what love really is. He does good for others to observe his own rules and to serve his own interest rather than out of a philanthropic impulse. In addition, he idealises the world and people. How could he not be doomed to disappointment under such circumstances?
Red Rose, White Rose by Eileen Chang is a quick read, but it leaves a lasting impact and much to think about. Had I allowed myself more time to digest, I’d probably have found other interesting aspects of the story to write about. However, it’s an excellent novella for everyone interested in Asian literature that doesn’t actually flood the European market. In brief: I highly recommend it for reading.