” All I know is that everything happens for a reason, and those reasons are set and nonnegotiable . . . All the saying means is that each individual has a certain amount of happiness he is entitled to, and that amount is predestined and different for each individual. ” (Part II, p.176)
As the title might have implied, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow does not bode a happy ending. While the book is a tragedy laced with grandeur and elegance, it also exudes an air of irrepressible urge to live, to die and have no regrets, to be untethered and carefree. Four decades the book spans, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow tells the story of Wang Qiyao and the relationships spun around her, a Shanghai girl enraptured by fashion and Hollywood movies who, after being discovered by an amateur photographer (Mr. Cheng, the first man who becomes smitten with her), competes in the 1946 Miss Shanghai beauty pageant—and she wins third place—a fleeting moment of stardom that is the pinnacle of her life.
Consider the near-cynical relations between men and women in that era, it is difficult not to think immediately of Eileen Chang’s work. From the notion of gossip to strong emphasis on fashions and descriptions of women’s clothing, to the often complex love affairs between women and men whose involvement in relationships in part based on ulterior motives, this novel evokes Eileen Chang’s work. It’s under this impression that Wang Qiyao ends up in a relationship with Director Li, an influential politician of the Republic regime, who sets her up in a luxury apartment, her home until the arrival of the Communists in 1949.
At least half of the splendor of Shanghai was built on (the girls’) desire for fame and wealth; if not for this desire, more than half of the stores in the city would have long gone under. (Part I, p.61)
In stark contrast to the rich literary history in which Anyi Wang anchors her fictional setting lies a seeming weightlessness of history against which her story plays out. Although the novel spans four crucial decades of modern Chinese history, encompassing Civil War, Great Leap Forward, and Cultural Revolution, all of which Wang downplays, political changes are hinted rather than highlighted. Under the new regime, Wang Qiyao trains as a nurse, living alone as a widow in a longtang (a row of attached tenements) apartment. She develops a relationship with Kang Mingxun out of mutual sympathy and convenience. They have a child together but he new society would forbid them to get married owing to their suspicious class backgrounds. She has resorted to living a life of not steadfastness but whatever happiness she can have.
It is true that it is the most steadfast. But do you know what steadfastness means? Steadfastness means suffering. Only love means happiness. Steadfastness implies suffering together, love implies enjoying one another’s company together. Which would you choose? (Part II, p.169)
Amid the vicissitudes, each of the novel’s characters, Wang Qiyao in particular, possesses (for better or worse) an unalterable core that remains unaffected not only by the lessons of history but by those of personal experience. I don’t think Wang Qiyao is incapable of maintaining enduring relationships; she’s rather out of luck with fate. Caught in the cataclysmic change of politics she is helpless. Politics also plays a role in the deaths of two of the men she loves. Later in the 1970s, when a nostalgia of old Shanghai leads to an unexpected return to popularity for Wang Qiyao, who becomes a frequent guest at parties for younger people living the new Shanghai dream, her relationship with a young man is plagued by off timing. In a way Wang Qiyao represents the fate of Shanghai in modern times—and Wang Anyi purposely genders Shanghai feminine. The city is full of girls like Wang Qiyao; behind every doorway you will find a Wang Qiyao eating, embroidering, and whispering secrets to a sister. As a person, Wang Qiyao compulsively situates herself in complicated relationships and fails to see the pain she causes in the process. As she grows older, she is driven to recreate relationships. It is a nostalgia that drives Wang Qiyao to ceaselessly attempt to re-create earlier moments in her life. In the machinery of politics, women are helpless because when they scheme, it’s always for love. The deeper they are in love, the craftier they become. If they are deprived of love, they can only hold on to the relics of the past, and for her case, it’s the bygone glamor of her clothes.
440 pp. Columbia University Press. Weatherhead Books on Asia. Paper. [Read/
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