Marriage and Courtship in Modern Asian Literature
Modern Asian culture is very different from what it was in ancient times particularly in terms of love and marriage. In most Asian countries, as in other parts of the world, marriages were arranged by parents of the bride and groom. Very often a man in a position of wealth or power could offer himself as a suitor and the father would decide whether or not his daughter would marry that man. Whether or not she liked the man, let alone if she was in love or not, she would be forced to marry him. Women were subordinate to men, first to their fathers and then to their husbands, and then even to their sons. In the modern era, this is thankfully no longer the case, or at least far more seldom. Throughout the world archaic courtship practices have disappeared and the cultures have come to understand and appreciate the individuality of human beings and the right to marry based on love rather than familial obligation or patriarchal rule. The different aspects of modern courtships in Asian culture are present in the romances of Cuicui in Shen Congwen’s Border Town and the various males and females in Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City. A common theme that appears throughout the stories is that a man will be likely to fall in love with a woman at first sight, women are more complex creatures who fall in love only after a deep emotional connection has been forged. Through the different relationships presented the two authors explain why modern marriages between consenting adults should be based on shared love and respect.
Shen Congwen’s Border Town is a novel which focuses on young Cuicui who is only thirteen when the reader first encounters her. She lives in China with her elderly grandfather. This relationship is the foundation of her adult interactions. During her short life, Cuicui has faced many hardships, including the loss of her parents and the ensuing feelings of abandonment. Her father had been a soldier in the military and her mother had been too young to cope with the responsibility of motherhood. Congwen writes, “The girl’s mother, the ferryman’s only child, had some fifteen years earlier come to know a soldier from Chadong through the customary exchange of amorous verses” (11). She became pregnant by him and he felt unable to abandon his duty to be with her and unable to take her with him and so the only option open to them was death. The two committed suicide, the father by poisoning and the mother by drowning shortly after the birth of her baby, and it is stated that they truly loved one another and that this was part of the reason for the deaths. It does not make a lot of sense to people in the west why this couple chose this course of action, but it must be remembered that throughout Asia, honor was extremely important. To have gotten pregnant without being married was dishonorable, to abandon you military duty was dishonorable, to leave her father alone would be dishonorable, but suicide can erase the dishonor that actions have cast upon the family name. Because of this poor Cuicui has lived with the understanding that love can be damaging and highly destructive but that the emotions can be so powerful as to be worth it. Despite all the pain and suffering she has had to deal with, Cuicui is still hopeful and indeed highly romantic in her ideas. More than anything she wants to find a true love and marry him eventually. This is not very feasible for most members of society; few ever find a true love and most eventually settle for someone at least emotionally compatible.
Cuicui’s grandfather is a relic of the ancient attitudes towards marriage. Two young men live in the same village as Cuicui and her grandfather and he encourages them to court his young granddaughter. These courtships begin which she is still in her early teens, which is something that modern society would frown upon. In the modern period, thirteen-year-olds are still seen as children while in ancient cultures children as young as twelve were considered marriageable age. Cuicui feels a great amount of pressure to marry according to her grandfather’s wishes, particularly since she knows that he is approaching death. After he dies, she will be completely alone in the world and this is also incentive to marry and start a family. He says, “Cuicui, when your grandfather is gone, what will you do then?” (Congwen 106). In his eyes, Cuicui’s value to others is in her ability to be a wife and mother. Since she is a girl, this is her purpose whereas if she had been born a boy then the grandfather would have encouraged her to follow along in the family business or perhaps to have gone to college and enter a different field. Without the benefit of being a member of the male gender, Cuicui can only hope to marry well and be supported by another man.
From a young age, Cuicui is able to attract the attentions of the opposite sex. “When a stranger on the ferry cast a look at her, she would shoot him a glance with those brilliant eyes, as if ready to flee into the hills at any instant; but once she saw that he meant her no harm, she would go back to playing by the waterside as if nothing had happened” (Chadong 13). Females, being the naturally submissive gender, tend to be the target of the male gaze. In society, males will look at females and wordlessly appraise that girl in terms of attractiveness and potential suitability as a mate, even if he is already married or if the girl is too young to accept him as a potential suitor.
As a young adult, Cuicui is wooed by two brothers who both seem to fall in love with her at first sight, without knowing anything about her. Their feelings for her are at first wholly superficial but deepen when they get to know her. The grandfather encourages both brothers to court his young granddaughter because they are the sons of a wealthy merchant and will therefore be able to financially support Cuicui. At one point he asks her, “Cuicui, if No. 1 wanted to take you as his wife and sent over a matchmaker, would you agree?” (Congwen 42). It is interesting that throughout the book, the grandfather only references the suitors as either No. 1 or No. 2. They do not have any real identity to him because they are representative of the kind of man he wants for his granddaughter. As icons of the archaic traditions, they do not require real identities. In this way, Congwen explores the fact that although China is still a patriarchy, women can have as great a personality as males and perhaps can even transcend their male counterparts.
Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City and Other Stories explores some of the same issues as the . In the title story “Love in a Fallen City,” the main female character Liusu must go to a matchmaker in order to find a potential husband. She exists in a realm between the past and the future. Liusu would like to find a husband and marry based upon shared interests and companionability. Historically men and women would be matched by parents or by the village’s matchmaker. Within this insulated society, the matchmaker is utilized to pair up eligible young men and women. Although a semblance is made to create unions based on shared interests and likelihood of a happy union, the matchmaker would not necessarily take such things into account if a certain match was desired by the elder generation within the dynamic. Liusu has many positive characteristics, such as a generous spirit and the ability to forgive even the most egregious of transgressions against her, such as her brother taking all of her money.
When a match is finally made between Liusu and a Mr. Fan it is evident that the man has far more flaws that Liusu, whose only negative characteristic seems to be that she is beyond her mid-twenties and still unmarried. Mr. Fan is not apparently a great man, but he has financial gifts which makes him appealing. Eileen Chang writes:
Everyone in the Bai family kept asking Mrs. Xu how such a could still be single, and she told them that when Fan Liuyuan returned from England, a whole passel of mothers had forcefully, insistently, pushed their daughters at him. They had schemed and squabbled, pulling every trick in the book and making a huge fuss over him. This had completely spoiled Mr. Fan; from then on he took women to be so much mud under his feet (122).
Men and women in Asian cultures have a complex dynamic. Over the last few decades, women have achieved some level of equality, but the history of patriarchy in these country’s cultures is still clear to this day. In this story, Mr. Fan is representative of all males in Asian countries, China in particular. The women are so determined to have any suitable person marry their daughters that they literally offer up one and then the other when the first one is not accepted by the man in question (Chang 123). Because he has the money and because he is an eligible male, then the community fall all over him and try to force him or coerce him into taking their daughters off of their hands. Knowing that being male gives him automatic power and having money even more so, Mr. Fan has become a product of the patriarchy, indulging and dwelling in on the ability to dominate.
Liusu does not actually seem to have any romantic feelings towards the man who she is being matched with; quite the contrary: she has very strong feelings for a young man in the village with whom she has experienced kisses and embraces and other forms of physical intimacy. However, he is unwilling to marry her because of her age and lack of social position. He does offer to rent her an apartment in a larger city so that he can visit her whenever he wishes to share more moments of physical gratification. This is unacceptable to her because she values herself more highly than as a mistress. For her, there is no connection between love and marriage. She has the choice of experiencing love with her sexual partner but not the sanctity of marriage. The other relationship that is offered to her is a marriage without any chance of love; the two are not completely separate. Marriage is a feat, and the better the match, the more successful the woman. Within this village, she again has no value except as a married woman; to marry the man that she loved would be considered a victory in her life but one that she does not really expect to be able to accomplish.
A very different male character from the ones presented in either Border Town or in Eileen Chang’s other short stories or novellas is the character Zhenbao from the story “Red Rose, White Rose.” Zhenbao is made out to be the epitome of a modern Chinese man. He is supposed to be enlightened about gender binaries and to accept and even embrace women who demand individuality and equality. Of Zhenbao, Chang writes:
Never had a son been more filial, more considerate, than Zhenbao was to his mother; never was a brother more thoughtful or helpful to his siblings. At work he was the most hard-working and devoted of colleagues; to his friends, the kindest, truest, and most generous of men. Zhenbao’s life was a complete success. If he had believed in reincarnation — he didn’t — he’d have hoped simply to pick up a new name, then come back and live the same life all over again (255-56).
Zhenbao is devoted to his mother and to his brothers and sisters, despite the fact that as the male of the family he would have been historically able to dominate them completely. During his life, Zhenbao did everything he could to help his fellow men and women; he is given the same kind of generous adjectives which were earlier applied to female characters indicating by extension that he will be subjected to the same negative gender binaries as were the female character before him.
At the beginning of “Red Rose, White Rose,” the reader is told that Zhenbao is in a love triangle with two other women. The roses of the title refer to these two women, with the white rose symbolizing the chaste woman who society says is the better woman because of her lack of promiscuity, while the red rose symbolizes the more passionate woman. Because she enjoys physical activity and, it is indicated, sex, then the society automatically says that she is a less worthy match for the fine young man Zhenbao. The love or lust he feels for these two women is also symbolic because it represents the quandary each man is in when he chooses a mate; he knows that society wants him to marry the good girl. Chang writes, “Marry a red rose and eventually she’ll be a on the wall, while the white one is ‘moonlight in front of my bed.’ Marry a white rose, and before long she’ll be a grain of sticky rice that’s gotten stuck to your clothes; the red one, by then, is a scarlet beauty mark over your heart” (255). Neither of these descriptions is particularly attractive. The promiscuous girl is compared to an insect which sucks blood out of the human body and injects venom while the virtuous girl is annoying and clingy. His cultural heritage has engrained in him that chastity is valuable and that the chaste, virginal woman is therefore a better woman. However, he feels basic human urges and wants to express them; in some cases he feels the absolute need to express them. Yet, society says that a woman who would give in to physical acts of love is lesser. Ultimately even the great Zhenbao falls victim to the patriarchal attitudes and convinced of his own superiority to the point where he does egregious harm to the white rose. Society reflects these same attitudes towards these women, granting them worth based upon their sexual activities.
In the three examples here described, Shen Congwen’s Border Town and the Eileen Chang short stories “Love in a Fallen City” and “Red Rose, White Rose” show the gender dynamic between men and women in modern Chinese literature. By extension, this shows how the gender communication has changed but that it still reflects the attitudes of the more ancient Chinese customs and traditions. Even in the modern era where people believe themselves to be more enlightened about the faults of former gender norms, many cultures still reflect the ancient beliefs. The further back the history of the culture goes, the more engrained the gender normative have become which explains why in a country like China with a history that goes back millennia, the position of male and female has been so defined and thus more difficult to overcome. Male characters in these stories are still in positions of power and the females are all far weaker, despite the fact that they possess characteristics which should be valued. Women are individual, they are deserving of equal power with their male counterparts but this is not the case. Underlying all interactions between male and female in the literature described, is a subtle attempt to undermine women’s power and reassert male domination.
Chang, Eileen, and Karen S. Kingsbury. Love in a Fallen City and Other Stories. London [etc.:
Penguin, 2007. Print.
Congwen, Shen. Border Town: A Novel. New York: Harper Perennial, 2009. Print.