The Story of Yingying features two characters who approach their relationship from different moral perspectives. The two live in an ancient Chinese world in which complexities attend their individual stations in different ways that conspire to keep them apart. Zhang is a scholar who has little money but who holds the promise of becoming distinguished in his academic pursuits. Yingying, by contrast, is an aristocrat whose parents have already drafted her future as it regards whom she will marry. The circumstances under which they meet merely complicate the aspect of reality.
Close attention to the action of the text will clearly demonstrate, however, that they also serve to reveal the true characters of each of the lovers and the depth to which their affections run. For though their romance’s end might have been socially inevitable and might have been the force behind the moral dilemmas they face, the two characters differ at the end in their consideration for each other.
Zhang proves himself to be a profligate who has falsely won the affection of Yingying and broken her heart.
Yingying, on the other hand, demonstrates constancy in her affections for Zhang. Therefore, while Zhang belies his true intentions and debases his nobility, Yingying distinguishes herself as a paragon of true fidelity. The character of Zhang the scholar might be seen as enigmatic from the beginning. Several considerations make it necessary for the reader to question his actions as soon as the story starts. He is introduced as a focused individual—a scholar who has through intense study prepared himself for the imperial examinations.
Viewing this demonstration by Zhang of his (apparent) academic dedication, the reader feels a level of respect for the young man who seems determined to distinguish himself by furthering his studies. However, when he falls precipitately in love with Yingying upon first seeing her, the reader is inclined to become suspect of the intentions of a man who would fall so quickly. Zhang has, after all, seen only Yingying’s face and body; he has not had occasion to study her character. His amazement at seeing her announces two possibilities about him.
The first possibility is that perhaps he has not been as exposed to the world as the reader has once believed. It is, of course, necessary to keep in mind the context of the situation. As a male youth of that era in China, Zhang may have been traditionally kept away from beautiful women of court. He may also have lacked opportunity, by virtue of his station, to be in the presence of a young woman of cultured upbringing and who possesses such physical enhancements to her natural beauty.
Rather, he may have been privy only to the raw (and probably debased) femininity of the common servant girl—or perhaps he (as a scholar) had been kept away from women altogether. These scenarios are all indicative of innocence on the part of Zhang, and therefore his reaction to Yingying might be seen not as mere lechery but a true and flattering response to the sight of a well-groomed and naturally beautiful young woman. His character, in this light, remains noble.
However, the second possibility is that, perhaps as a man of the world, Zhang has been exposed to the sights of beautiful women and knows the physical pleasures that might be had in the company of one. His reaction to her beauty in such a case might be seen as an ignoble act that causes his mind to conjure ways of defiling this woman. Jumping forward a bit in the story (to the scene in which Zheng is about to leave for his examination) hints that such behavior might even be tacitly expected of men within the period and in that land.
Yingying, who suspects that Zheng is about to leave her forever, says to him, “To seduce someone and then abandon her is perfectly natural, and it would be presumptuous of me to resent it. It would be an act of charity on your part if, having first seduced me, you were to go through with it and fulfill your oath of lifelong devotion” (Zhen, 1978). This gives credence to an idea that Zhang might very well have been aware that such actions are expected, and had been planning from the beginning merely to seduce Yingying with promises and leave her.