If the Great Wall and the Forbidden City in Beijing are most photographed monuments from China, then Shanghai is the city that has been written up the most. Wang Anyi captures Shanghai’s splendor and also the normal lives outside of the glitter in The Song of Ever Lasting Sorrow.
Wang Qiyao is one little piece of that passion and romance, not the part that rivets all eyes and becomes the center of attention, but the part that serves as ballast for the heart. She is the heart of hearts, always holding fast and never letting anything out. Supposing there was no Wang Qiyao, the parties would become nothing but hollow, heartless affairs, perfunctory displays of splendor. She was the most meaningful part of this passion and romance. She was that desire that lurks in the soul; if not for this desire, there would be no reason for passion and romance. As a result, passion and romance have found their roots, coloring Shanghai with that thing called mood. The mood casts a magic on every place and every thing, causing them to speak words more gorgeous than song. (Part I, p.54)
This is an interesting story for me from the beginning. Wang’s writing is like the shadow of Eileen Changm who was her predecessor. After first few chapters of The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, the language that Anyi used was beautiful. It actually creates a picture of Shanghai in my mind: in small longtang—similar to Beijing’s hutong, it filled with gossip. “If the longtang of shanghai could dream, that dream would be gossip.” “Gossip is one of the thing that make this city so romantic.” Pigeons is other beautiful scene and spirit of Shanghai, unlike sparrow, they fly much higher and be able to see everything happened in Shanghai.
The title doesn’t bode a happy ending, and I do not expect one. Wang Qiyao seems to have enjoyed the highlight of her life when she wins second runner-up for Miss Shanghai pageant. Her life goes downhill from there. People come and go throughout her life, but she can never hold on to them.
Other than Eileen Chang’s style that Wang evokes, the book appeals to me because it borrows its title from one of the most famous literary works of the Tang Dynasty, Bai Juyi’s extended narrative poem Chang hen ge, which forms the single most important subtext to the novel. The original poem tells of the epic romance between the Tang emperor Xuanzong and his beloved concubine Yang Guifei, whose stunning beauty is legendary in Chinese historical lore. Beginning with Yang’s entry into the palace, the poem recounts the emperor’s passionate love for her, which eventually leads to his dereliction of state affairs and a full-scale rebellion (the leader of which gained power through Yang’s influence). In the wake of the coup and growing unrest, Xuanzong is pressured to order the execution of his beloved consort, and the final section of the poem describes his quest to find her in heaven.