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[367] The Rouge of the North 怨女 – Eileen Chang

Yindi sat plucking veins off her fan. So the man she married would never see what she looked like. Part of her died at this. All the blind men she knew told fortunes. Some had horrible-looking eyes. What kind did he have? ” [2:21]

I’m not sure if I consider Chang a feminist, who breathes a strange but raw honesty into gender politics, but for all her concern about an age in transformation and a city—Shanghai, in decline, she makes woman and her status in the Chinese family the central issue of The Rouge of the North. It’s the story of Yindi, at first a saucy and resourceful girl, who is determined against all odds to seek her own marriage. Her parents already dead, she lives with her brother’s family, which makes a living selling sesame oil. She falls in love with with Young Liu, an apprentice of the herbal medicine store next door, but she is wary of the inevitable life of poverty ahead if she is to tie the knot with him.

Because we’re here in front of Buddha. Since we’re not meant to meet in this life let’s tie a knot for the next incarnation. [7:81]

Thus when approached by the match-making go-between on behalf of the rich and powerful Yaos, Yindi agrees to the marriage proposal even though her brother doesn’t count on her as a source of wealth. Little does Yindi know that her future husband is a blind, bedridden, puny invalid, one of the living dead that even his family is conditioned to snub. Most dreadful of all the household is on the heels of its glory: stifling and decadent, despite the Old Mistress’ exacting dictates on manners and rituals.

They’d say you lower yourself to argue with servants, and make a scene in front of Old Mistress because of some servants’ gossip. You play right into their hands. These people are always the worst. [6:67]

Beneath the evocation of the flavor of everyday life, the story traces irretrievable consequences of her nuptial decision: her humiliating position among the in-laws, her sexual frustration with her husband, her increasingly haughty manner borne of self-defense, her fruitless affair with her prodigal brother-in-law, the Third Master, and her widowhood.

Yindi no doubt is the victim of the patriarchal ideology, but the innocent suffering doesn’t warrant sanctification. The scene in which she wanders into the courtyard of a Buddhist temple where names of women are cast in iron for moral stature is a crucial point of the novel. Followed by the sudden appearance of the Third Master, Yindi is tempted to transgress the conventional boundary of feminine virtue. She chooses defiance but the cowardly Third Master stops after he has aroused her. Frustrated and shamed, she she attempts to take her life but, ironically, she outlives almost everyone.

There were just too many things between them that no amount of words could clear away. Still she fought him, her resistance having found a focus. With the bitterness piled up over the years she would rather give in to any other man than him. [11:129]

Titled Yuan-nu (Embittered Woman) in Chinese, Chang inquires the psychology of women, who are so deprived by their (feudal) time and environment as to wither away in chronic distress and stoic complaisance. Throughout her life Yindi tries to defy this order and seek outlets for her deep-seated frustration: by marrying a wealthy husband, by rendezvous with her brother-in-law, by fighting for inheritance, and by attempting suicide. But each turns out to be empty promise replacing the previous one. Her life sadly amounts to nothing but a bitter spiral, closed in upon itself. Chang, in her embellished and repugnant prose, shines light on lives of women in the troubled era and how the only way to cope is stoicism. Yindi knows hers is essentially a tragic age, and she refuses to live tragically, but in the end she only reaps desolation.

185 pp. Softcover. In English available from University of California Press. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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