Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Rouge of the North

Rouge of the North -- Eileen Chang (1967)

Having lived among the "Singsong girls of Shanghai" for 6 months this year, I had to spend a little more time with the translator, Eileen Chang, who subsequently wrote this brief novel about a proper married lady who lived in the same time and place.

Well -- maybe not quite so proper.

It's a rather grim story -- since the lead character, Yindi, though a smart, feisty, healthy, pretty girl -- has a very bad attitude -- and it just keeps getting worse -- even though, by traditional standards, she was both fortunate and successful -- as a lower merchant class girl who marries into a prominent Mandarin family and
produces two generations of heirs. And in the Chinese world where the mother-in-law can make a young wife utterly miserable, her mother-in-law demanded nothing more than ritual obeisance -- and the extended family was well served by a large staff of servants and slaves. Then, after 15 years, both the mother-in-law and the blind,sick husband are dead -- and our low-born heroine got her own house and servants.

So there she was -- an attractive, independent woman in her mid-thirties -- living with a teenage son and a staff of cooks, maids, butlers etc. -- not wealthy -- but with enough to get by without ever working a day.

Doesn't really sound like such a bad life, does it ?

But oh, her life was miserable! She despised and/or feared everyone - and following the lead of her invalid husband, she became addicted to opium -- which seems to be a disastrous event in many family stories from that period -- whether high born or otherwise.

So ... the world got one more depraved dope fiend -- and why should we care ? Only because her story feels so real -- and the decline of the cute, perky shop girl into an addicted, vicious old woman is mirrored by the decline of the family into which she married -- and the decline of an entire civilization as it foundered upon the rocks of the 20th C. -- and Shanghai was rocked by revolutions and invasions.

No romance in all this dreariness -- only one brief, furtive moment when her loneliness was penetrated by a dissolute, whore-mongering brother-in-law who took a break from the singsong houses to ravish her in a Buddhist temple during the celebration of his dead father's birthday.

Boy -- was that fun! -- as she passionately hissed "enemy" in his ear, and then, immediately consumed by fear of discovery, tried to hang herself that very evening.

Thank goodness this novel was short! -- and yet -- as soon as I finished --- a framing episode got me to begin reading it all over again -- swept into the vortex its downward spiral.

Though in a way -- it's a very upbeat novel -- because there is no great misfortune -- only somebody who brings misery upon herself . (she also
manages to destroy the life of her daughter-in-law, but we never get close enough to that character to care much about her)

I've noticed that some readers have written that this story exemplifies the abuses of arranged marriages -- however -- if you read the story carefully, you'll notice that Yindi was given the right of refusal -- which she had exercised in a previous match.
Some have also mentioned that she was denied a marriage with her true love who worked in a pharmacy across the street -- but Yindi specifically rejects this union, which would make her the daughter-in-law of a poor woman in the countryside.

Both women might have been happier had they been sold as children to a singsong house.

One more note: this is a story about Shanghai high society -- so it also touches the international community --and the Mandarin family keeps an authentic English tutor on premises to coach the sons -- though, since our heroine is restricted to the women's quarters, she never meets him.