Wu Jianren’s 1906 novella ‘Sea of Regret (originally titled Hen Bai) is a masterpiece of modern Chinese literature. The book is rich in themes of morality and the challenges of modernity and patriotism. Adopting a tone of sentimentality that is essential to the Chinese literary aesthetic the novella deals also with concepts such as chivalry in the Chinese milieu of early twentieth century. This essay will argue how the tragedies in the lives of the two central female characters – Dihua and Juanjuan – are shaped largely by their own personal choices as opposed to external compulsions.
It is interesting to begin by trying to understand the choice of metaphor that constitutes the title. Sea of Regret is taken from an ancient Chinese myth that is well known to the Chinese public. The myth concerns the daughter of a feisty Emperor, who, after drowning in the ocean off the East coast, returns as the mythical bird Jingwei. This bird spends the rest of her life flying back and forth from the Western mountains, trying in futility to fill up the Eastern Sea with stones. One can see parallels of this vain hard work in the life of Dihua and Juanjuan – who are two central to Jianren’s work. Indeed, the Jingwei myth is seen in China as representing futile effort, while it also gently lauds the determination and persistence of the bird Jingwei. In the context of Di Hua and Juanjuan, the figurative mountain they were trying to move is one of achieving fulfillment in romantic love. Their paths they adopt are very different. But their limitations set them up for tragic outcomes that followed. In this respect, Wu Jianren’s masterpiece is also comparable to Fu Lin’s Stones in the Sea – another novel that takes after the Jingwei mythology. Indeed, Sea of Regret is a polemical response to the messages in the Stones in the Sea.
Through the lives of Dihua and Juanjuan, we witness the apprehensions and confusions experienced by Chinese women at the turn of the twentieth century. This was a time when Chinese cultural identity was being threatened by Western political and commercial influences. On the other hand, these threats also opened up opportunities for Chinese women to change their view of themselves. They questioned their social and familial roles and compared it with socio-cultural currents in the West. In the Sea of Regret, we see how both the women apprehend these influxes. One of the reasons why Dihua and Juanjuan incur so much suffering is because of their misplaced ideation of romantic and sexual love in the context of a rapidly changing Chinese cultural scene. These young women, during their impressionable years, articulated such fashionable buzzwords as freedom, equal rights and progress. One of their prime concerns was freedom and equality in the domain of the family, for most women the broader polity does not have a direct bearing. But the personalities of Dihua and Juanjuan are quite different and hence they addressed these issues in their own individual styles. Of the two, Juanjuan was bolder in questioning preset functions and scope of a married life. And her choice of profession as a courtesan exemplifies this. While her valor to not get locked in the stifling role of a housewife is to be lauded, the alternative she chose is none too emancipator. The houses of courtesans are as ancient a tradition as marriage itself. And while she looked down on one side of the oppression against women, she had embraced its other side. In this sense, she takes a large share of responsibility for the way her life would pan out later.
One of the major influences on author Wu Jianren is the Chinese Reformist Movement of 1898. Women’s rights were one of the central motivations for this movement. One can see how Jianren transposes this social movement into the thoughts and actions of the two characters. Despite vibrant discourse on social issues, Dihua and Juanjuan do not avail of its potential application to their own lives. Western understanding of love and marriage is very different than what prevails in China. In the latter, it is usually ‘duty-bound’, while in the West it is largely ‘self-motivated’, that is without any external compulsion. For example, Dihua undergoes an ‘arranged’ marriage to Bohe, who is not the man whom she was engaged to for much of her adolescence. In what is a deliberately construed narrative device, Dihua meets her fiance when they were both fleeing from Beijing with their families. But as Chinese social norms dictate Jianren shows this inkling of love in chaste terms. Dihua, despite her acquaintance with Western culture, is still a product of her native culture. And so when the name of her betrothed is mentioned, she feels timid and shy and blushes in tenderness. She curiously eavesdrops when others talk about him. She feels a pang of pain upon hearing of his misfortunes. In the same vein, she feels elevated upon hearing his successes. While this might sound romantic in the literary sense, this type of sentimentality is a recipe for dependency and disappointment. This is where Dihua lets herself down and the women’s rights movement in China down. Her love and marriage are so driven by preset social formulae that love is synonymous to duty. This is why she was easily able to transfer her ‘love’ to her longtime fiance to her husband Bohe with utter ease. But behind this ease is the trivially of her ‘love’. The novelist renders in well-articulated prose, the mental and emotional processes by which young Dihua falls in love with the person chosen by her parents. But this scenario of a lifetime in duty-inspired bonding, love inevitably suffers. This explains why Dihua life turns into a tragedy ultimately.
Though Dihua was betrothed as a child, she ends up being married to another man – Bohe, But, Bohe was really not worthy of her virtuous and disciplined up-bringing. Astoundingly, though, Dihua manages to transfer the abstracted love she held for her fiance to her husband. In this respect, she is an epitome of Confucian description of the ideal wife. But when the reader steers clears of this sentimental romanticism, he/she will see this event for what it is – a needless, willing and tragic sacrifice on part of the woman. Juanjuan’s life, on the other hand, is not as chaste as that of Dihua’s, for her circumstances lead her to lead the life of a courtesan in the high social circles of Shanghai. In what is a clever symmetry of plot, she is once engaged to Bohe’s younger brother Zhongai and was to become Dihua’s co-sister. Zhongai shared many virtues similar to Dihua, in that he also maintains chastity as a mark of respect to his engagement and impending marriage to Juanjuan. Just as Dihua’s chastity is wasted on the frivolous Bohe, so is Zhongai’s on the prostituting Juanjuan. While Dihua’s eventual martyrdom is a result of her clinging to a traditional mentality that is getting outdated in her time, the decline of Juanjuan is more of her own making – having been intoxicated by the wealth and privilege of high society to the peace and integrity of true love. Wu Jianren shows in contrast how a girl brought up on Confucian philosophy (Dihua) tends to assume moral responsibility for actions and events not involving her. This leads to low self-esteem and hence her martyrdom at the hands of Bohe is not surprising. On the other hand we have Juanjuan, who is the antithesis of all that Dihua stood for. Yet, her life also turns pathetic ultimately. The Sea of Regret can thus be seen as a work of informed moral ambiguity. One must give credit to author Wu Jianren for creating art out of the folly of two young women in early twentieth century China.
Fu, Lin, and Wu Jianren. The Sea of Regret: Two Turn-of-the-Century Chinese Romantic Novels. Trans. Patrick Hanan. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii, 1995. Print.