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The Sea of Regret - Two Turn-Of-the-Century Chinese Romantic Novels

Sea of Regret - Patrick Hanan


Hong Kong, 1902



At the beginning of the 20th century China underwent a social turmoil the extent of which I do not yet grasp but which seems to have some similarities with the corresponding developments in Meiji Japan. In the face of increasing (and often quite unpleasant) contact with Westerners, some fraction of the Chinese intelligentsia questioned the rigid and paternalistic structure of the family and society in general that had been a characteristic of Chinese culture since at least the 4th century BCE. This expressed itself in a number of ways, among which were: a nascent movement for the rights of women emerged, the notion of marriage for love as opposed to arranged marriage began to find proponents and even some practitioners, and the interest in Western science and literature grew.(*) Of course, this spurred a backlash from the cultural conservatives who decried the concomitant loss of Chinese cultural identity.


In The Sea of Regret (1995) we find two novellas that took part in that debate: Qin hai shi (literally, "bird, stone, sea," translated here as Stones in the Sea) by Fu Lin and Hen hai (translated as The Sea of Regret) by Wu Jianren. Qin hai shi appeared in the Spring of 1906 and Hen hai in the Autumn of the same year; the latter is a conservative response to the former. "Fu Lin" was probably a defensive pseudonym, but Wu Jianren (1866–1910) was a well known author.(**) In fact, Patrick Hanan, the translator here, says in his informative introduction that Hen hai is one of the most famous novels of the period. 


The dialogue between these two authors took place on more than one level. According to Hanan, Wu wrote the first Chinese novel told in the first person in 1903-1905 (but the narrator was a disengaged observer). Fu's first person narrator in Qin hai shi is a centrally involved primary character passionately appealing his case, apparently a first in Chinese literature.


In fact, that Fu both treats the somewhat self-deluded and self-absorbed young narrator ironically and satirizes figures of power in Chinese society evidences a level of literary sophistication Wu does not display, though Wu himself does not just repeat received notions. Hanan informs us that Wu wrote his texts in vernacular Chinese, while Fu used a classical literary style; even those of us who cannot read Chinese can recognize that Fu flavors his text with apt classical allusions and quotations (explained by Hanan in footnotes), while Wu does none of that. Nonetheless, it is Fu who is arguing for change and Wu for the status quo, and it is Fu who is arguing by appeal to emotion while Wu is arguing from a philosophical tradition deeply rooted in Chinese culture. This dialogue is not at all stereotypical.(***)


In Fu's story, told with great charm, the narrator is a teenager who fell in love with a girl before he was 12, but her family moved away. A few years later, a coincidence brings them together again and re-kindles his love. But his stupefaction before her unexpected appearance makes a very bad impression on her family. So the drama begins, but it develops in ways one would not expect. There are no stick-in-the-mud fathers resisting their children's wishes; by cleverness and persistence the couple overcome the many obstacles placed in their path by Chinese tradition itself and almost attain their wish - then suddenly the Boxer Rebellion arrives!


Qin hai shi is a romance with melodramatic traits, and Hen hai is a direct rejoinder with even more pronounced melodramatic traits. Fu's narrator insists that his love with Aren was one of passion, not lust. Wu's first person narrator insists (in accordance with neo-Confucian philosophy) that passion (qing) is the energy behind the entire universe (human passion is but one small manifestation of qing) and that only the proper guiding of passion can lead to a good outcome. Passion can lead to evil as readily as it can to good. Needless to say, this proper guidance involves sacrificing one's own wishes to those of one's family (above all, of one's father) and one's society.


Assuming that his audience was already familiar with Fu's text, Wu lifts many elements from Qin hai shi and modifies them to fit his purpose; I found it very entertaining to watch a painting of a tiger be disassembled and pieced together again to reveal an elephant. In this story, after a little flirtation with transgression of social mores and a nearly imperceptible hint of sensuality, all enters into the proper track, and the universe gives a little sigh of relief as the children make their sacrifices (even going beyond what their parents expected). This combination of the little frisson of stepping off the track for a moment and the reassurance of getting back to the straight and narrow with a vengeance is likely why Hen hai was and still is acclaimed by the Chinese and Qin hai shi was forgotten, even though the latter is a far more engaging read and, in the former, the excruciatingly proper girl Dihua's ability to interpret everything as her fault exceeded my ability to apply the theory of cultural relativity. I was begging for someone to give her a sharp slap...


In general, if one wants to write a tear jerker in Asia, one is sure to play upon the conflict between a personal love and the obligation to one's family, and then is doubly sure to arrange that the offspring renounce their personal happiness to conform with their family's wishes.(4*) In Japan, this often ends with a double suicide; not so often on the mainland, where one moistens one's sleeve with many tears, swallows hard, and then does one's duty. 



(*) Apparently, in 1907 over two-thirds of all novels published in China were translations. The most popular: La Dame aux camélias and and H. Rider Haggard's Joan Haste


(**) Wu was by no means a stereotypical reactionary: among other things, he was an editor at the Central China Post, an American-owned newspaper, but when the Americans extended their exclusion laws against the Chinese (after bringing in thousands of Chinese to build the railroads in America's West, there was a racist backlash) Wu resigned in protest.  


(***) No doubt my experience with the sleep-inducing clichés wielded by both sides of the culture wars in contemporary America has led to my pleased surprise here.


(4*) Indeed, the national poem of Vietnam, Kim Vân Kiều,  is about the extremes of self-sacrifice a young woman can make for her family...