Chang’s novella is, among other things, a subtle examination of how gender dynamics shape relationships.It’s the story of Zhenbao, a young man recently returned to Shanghai after studying in England. He falls into a passionate affair with his classmate’s beautiful wife, Jiaohui, whom he calls Red Rose, a Singaporean woman who carries herself very casually, free from the decorum society expects of women in China. But ever fear of his mother’s wrath, he ultimately forsakes her for an unhappy marriage to the dull, inept, but socially acceptable Yanli, the White Rose.
There were two women in Zhenbao’s life: one he called his white rose, the other his red rose. One was a spotless wife, the other a passionate mistress. Isn’t that just how the average man describes a chaste widow’s devotion to her husband’s memory – as spotless, and passionate too?
Maybe every man had two such women – at least two. Marry a red rose and eventually she’ll be a mosquito-blood streak smeared on the wall, while the white one is ‘moonlight in front of my bed’. Marry a white rose and before long she’ll be a grain of sticky rice that’s gotten stuck to your clothes; the red one, by then, is a scarlet beauty mark just over your heart.
In this darkly ironically, but sexually charged novella, Chang posits that every man faces the same choice at least once in his life. The story derives its moral compass and narrative drive from displaying actions against their consequences, the whole concept of “love” being an unattainable entity for Zhenbao who distances himself from true affection in order to remain the unrelenting master of his principle of creating “a right world.” This principle seems to exempts him from visiting a prostitute every three weeks.
No one is a winner in this novella; and as usual Chang casts a very jaundiced, almost disdained eye on marriage. Zhenbao’s loveless marriage to Yanli is only on paper. He doesn’t care for her and he secretly despises her. He gloats at her social blunder and delights in her transgressions. But he is no better than her, for man like him is the inveterate dreamer who forever fantasizes and finds greater happiness in the tender regard of another human being. Despite repeated disappointments and frustrations, he clings to the hope of experiencing beauty, even if it’s ephemeral.
Red Rose, White Rose along with six other stories are available in one collection published by NYRB under the title Love in a Fallen City.