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Only A Dream? Thoughts on “Sealed Off”

(Via Goodreads)

“Sealed Off” (1943?)

By Eileen Chang

“Sealed Off” is a short story written by Eileen Chang.

The story takes place in a “tram car” (a street trolley). The trolley comes to a complete halt after it was announced that the city of Shanghai was “sealed off.” The passengers were all cramped together inside the trolley on a hot summer day.  Two passengers, Zongzhen and Cuiyuan end up sitting together after Zongzhen was trying to avoid his soon-to-be possible son-in-law, Peizhi. Zongzhen pretends to converse with Cuiyuan in order to deceive Peizhi into thinking that he’s busy flirting. However, what was supposed to be a “pretend” encounter ends up being a passionate, “love-at-first-sight” moment between the two individuals. However, the “love affair” is short-lived once the trolley starts to move again and they return to their separate lives.

While reading this story, I had trouble trying to understand what Chang meant by the term “sealed off” which is also the title of this short story. There are some context clues as to what they are referring to: “The street erupted in noise as two trucks full of soldiers rumbled by” (247). From this quote, I am assuming that war is happening, possibly WW2. Thus, the term, “sealed off” refers to no one being able to go in and out of the city until it is safe from any war ambushes and battles. 

However, by having the city “sealed off” and not allowing the trolley car to go through, Chang is creating a division of reality and dreams. The reality is what’s going on outside the trolley:  war and the everyday lives that the people in the trolley left behind. For example, Zongzhen is in an unhappy marriage, and Cuiyuan is an English instructor at a university and her family is pressuring her to marry a rich man.

Both Zongzhen and Cuiyuan have problems in their personal lives that they wish to get away from and so, by being trapped in a trolley, they are in a moment where their worries cannot trouble them. Hence, the trolley could be seen as a symbol of a getaway car since the passengers do not have to deal with outside worries. While on the trolley, Zongzhen and Cuiyuan talked about the possibility of resolving their own personal problems by getting married to each other. However, when the trolley starts moving again, they both realize that it cannot possibly happen: “Then she understood his meaning: everything that had happened while the city was sealed off was a nonoccurrence. The whole city of Shanghai had dozed off and dreamed an unreasonable dream” (250-251). In other words, the idea of getting married is just a dream and once the trolley moved again, they are forced to continue living their separate realities.

This was an interesting short story that I had trouble understanding, mainly due to not fully grasping what “sealed off” means. This could actually be just an issue of translation since I don’t know much Chinese. Yet, on a side note, Chang does a great job in describing the everyday lives of Shanghai people through her descriptions of the people in the trolley.


Works Cited

Chang, Eileen. “Sealed Off.” Love in a Fallen City. Trans. Karen S. Kingsbury. New York Review Books, 2007, pp. 237-251.

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