It tells the story of a woman from a middle-class merchant family—daughter of a sesame oil seller—who is married to a wealthy, traditional family, but to a cripple. Stylistically, The Golden Cangue (金鎖記) is based on the 18th century Chinese classic The Dream of the Red Chamber. It examines the life of a woman who is forced by her family into a loveless marriage. Her invalid husband dies young, leaving her a meager share of family legacy. But her in-law family looks down on her. Through her effort to maintain her status and her prickly personality, she alienates the in-law family. She grows mad after years of suffering, but eventually obtains wealth and independence after the death of her mother-in-law and husband. This suffering doesn’t end, she manages to terrorize and manipulate everyone near her. The years of suffering has made her so cold and biter that she ruins the chances of her children for a better and happier life.
While the story depicts family activities, love relationships, and marriages that occupy the mundane life, it reveals the eternal mysteries in human nature that lie beneath the surface of life, the mysteries of human desires for power and money. Chi-chao’s repressed desires over the years have been liberated and gone berserk. She gives rein to her desires and indulges herself in doing whatever she wants. The golden cangue, symbolizing power and money, harbors the ugliest and dirtiest aspects of the world, but it holds people under its spell and makes them debase themselves willingly.
The Golden Cangue along with six other stories are available in one collection published by NYRB under the title Love in a Fallen City.