Jasmine Tea (茉莉香片) (1943?)
By Eileen Chang
So the title, Jasmine Tea is only referenced at the beginning. Just like the concept of “Once upon a time” within a story, “jasmine tea” is used in a similar function: it is a way to invite the audience to listen to a tale. Furthermore, jasmine tea is bitter which is used as a metaphor for this Hong Kong story. The narrator tells the reader that this story is “sad” and “bitter” just like jasmine tea. And so, readers expect that this story will have a depressing ending.
Jasmine Tea focuses on the pitiful life of Nie Chuanqing, a college student at South China University. Chuanqing is quiet and aloof for the most part. His biological mother passed away at an early age while his father and step-mother are opium users. His father constantly beats him which has led to hearing problems for Chuanqing. He doesn’t have a lot of friends except for an acquaintance, Yan Danzhu. Yan Danzhu is an optimistic and joyful young woman whose father is a professor at South China University.
One day, Chuanqing finds a magazine with a message from Yan Ziye to Miss Biluo (Chuanqing’s biological mother). He realizes that his professor knew his mother, and so he begins to piece together the stories that Amah Liu (his mother’s personal maid) has told him about his mother. He learned that his mother was in love with Yan Ziye when she was younger. However, their relationship didn’t work out because Feng Biluo’s family believed that Yan Ziye was only marrying her because of her wealth. At the time, Yan Ziye was still a student and has yet to establish himself as a scholar. Yan Ziye offered Feng Biluo to join him abroad but she didn’t go because she was worried about ruining his reputation and she knows her family would disown her for going. Eventually, the two ended up marrying other people.
After realizing the truth, Chuanqing grows jealous and envious of Yan Danzhu and her life. He wonders about what could have happened if his mother married Yan Ziye. His envy towards Yan Danzhu becomes a distraction to his studies which eventually leads to an embarrassing incident in Professor Yan Ziye’s classroom. When Chuanqing couldn’t answer a simple question, Professor Yan lectures him about being lazy. This incident deeply scars Chuanqing’s heart.
Then Chuanqing attends a dance and encounters Danzhu. They have a serious conversation where they suspect each other for having feelings. Danzhu mistakes Chuanqing’s distance as a sign of love but in actuality, Chuanqing has a strong hatred towards her. His hate eventually turns violent when he tramples and kicks her. After hurting Danzhu, Chuanqing returns home and realizes that he is forced to see Danzhu at school still. (This is a pretty open ending.)
Jasmine Tea is a psychological story focusing on a young man’s issues with his family and home life. Chuanqing felt so unloved by his own father and stepmother and he holds some resentment towards his own mother for not marrying a man like Professor Yan. I also get the impression that Chuanqing admires Professor Yan as the ideal father figure, and so when Professor Yan scolded Chuanqing, he took it as a father being disappointed in his son: “But the words uttered so lightly by Yan Ziye had ravaged his heart and sickened his mind: he’d never forget them, not even in death” (100).
He believes that if his mother married another man, he would have a better life. His resentment towards his mother turns to envy towards Danzhu’s life. However, if his mother were to marry Professor Yan, there’s a possibility neither of them would exist, but he still holds this fantasy that his life would have changed for the better. His jealousy towards Danzhu leads to a disturbing scene where Chuanqing physically hurts Danzhu. I read his violence as his own personal frustration towards his family and his current situation, but he took it out on someone who is innocent. In this scene, Chuanqing had the chance to kill Danzhu, but he doesn’t do it. I wondered why he didn’t do it since it was the perfect opportunity: “In that moment, his heart and hers were one. He knew that she hadn’t died. And so? Did he have the courage to go back, to finish her off?” (107). You could argue that Chuanqing is still humane to some degree, but it could also be that even if he kills her, it doesn’t matter since his situation still wouldn’t change. Also, it is interesting that Chang used the phrase, “…his heart and hers were one” because ideally, you would use that phrase in a romantic scenario. Yet in this case, this scene was more morbid and violent as opposed to romantic. I would argue that this phrase is referring to the pain that Chuanqing holds within his own heart: resentment, self-hatred, jealousy, and frustration. Although his pain is emotional, I think he wanted to express his pain to Danzhu but the only way he can is through physical pain. I don’t approve of this method, but I do understand that this was an authorial decision made by Chang.
As a reader, I can see some instances of the author’s own life within this piece of fiction. The family issues and experiences that Chuanqing went through could reflect Chang’s own life because her father was an opium user and abused her when she was younger.
Now, the “spilled tea” in this story is the fact that Professor Yan and Feng Biluo used to be lovers, and no one knows except Chuanqing and Professor Yan. The sad part about this situation though is that Chuanqing doesn’t bring it up to Professor Yan. I think if he expressed his personal troubles, he could have saved his grades. Plus, I don’t think Professor Yan would abandon Chuanqing since he is the son of the woman he once loved before.
Chang, Eileen. “Jasmine Tea.” Love in a Fallen City. Trans. Karen S. Kingsbury. New York Review Books, 2007, pp. 79-108.