Red Rose, White Rose (1943?)
By Eileen Chang
Red Rose, White Rose is a story about a man’s love life spiraling out of control.
Zhenbao grew up in a poor family but made a living by becoming a successful businessman in the textile industry. He studied abroad in Europe and falls in love with a young woman named Rose. However, their relationship didn’t last long since he had to move back to Shanghai. He gets a job at a textile and weaving company and lives with his younger brother, Dubao who is currently attending school and hopes to join his brother in the industry. Zhenbao and Dubao rent a room from Wang Shihong and Wang Jiaorui’s household.
When Shihong went on a business trip, Zhenbao and Jiaorui end up having a passionate love affair. However, their relationship ended in shambles once Jiaorui wrote a letter to Shihong confessing about her affair and her desire for a divorce without Zhenbao’s consent. Zhenbao decides to leave Jiaorui because the affair could ruin his chances of climbing the social ladder.
So he marries Yanli, a dutiful and submissive woman who contrasts from the previous women Zhenbao dated. However, Zhenbao doesn’t appreciate nor respect Yanli which leads her to have some resentment towards him and his family. Zhenbao suspects Yanli of having an affair with a tailor which leads him to depression. One day, while riding the bus, he encounters Jiaorui. He learns that Jiaorui remarried and now has a child. Zhenbao has some resentment and envy towards Jiaorui and her new life because his married life is falling apart. Zhenbao has a mental breakdown and lashes out at Yanli. Soon after, he turns back to normal and acts like a good man the very next day.
As a reader, we question Zhenbao’s actions and treatment towards women especially to his wife, Yanli. In the beginning, the narrator builds up Zhenbao’s character as a “good man.” He’s well educated and always is willing to help his family out. He also seems to have standards and boundaries when selecting a wife. For example, when Rose desired a more lustful relationship, he had self-control and properly rejected her: “He had never dreamed that Rose loved him so much; he could have done whatever he wanted. But …this would not do. Rose, after all, was a decent girl. This sort of thing was not for him” (261). However, after rejecting Rose, he immediately regrets his decision: “His behavior that evening filled him with astonishment and admiration, and yet in his heart, he felt regret. Without admitting it, he felt quite a lot of regret” (262).
In the beginning, you would admire Zhenbao’s proper behavior towards women, but at the same time, it’s evident that he exhibits some “big ego” characteristics. For example, when he has an affair with a married woman, Jiaorui, he was willing to break up with her once it might affect his career and reputation, and he didn’t show much remorse towards his decision: “Our love can only be love between friends. What happened before is my mistake, and I’m very sorry. But now you’ve written and told him without letting me know—that’s your mistake” (293). Even when Zhenbao got married, he still showed this “big ego” by treating his wife with disrespect and when she had an affair with another man, he seems to blame her and acts like a complete violent drunkard: “He bent down and picked up the metal base of the lamp, hurling it at her, electrical cord and all. Turning, she fled from the room. Zhenbao felt that she had been completely defeated. He was extremely pleased with himself” (312). In front of people, Zhenbao is a good man, but behind closed doors, he shows his demons to his lovers. And so, as a reader, you begin to question whether or not you can trust and classify him as a good man based on the narrator’s character descriptions and his interactions with other people. Personally, I found Zhenbao to be a bit full of himself since it seems that he wants to control the women that he is surrounded by. The ironic part is that he seems to think it’s okay for him to cheat, but when his wife does it, she is viewed as a “whore” or a “prostitute” and so there’s this double-standard when it comes to gender roles.
I have no sympathy for Zhenbao. I think that karma caught up to him once he left Jiaorui and so, he got what he deserved. Yet, I would also like to mention that I found it interesting that even if you follow the ideal path of what’s expected of a man—have a good education, get a great job, and marry a dutiful and loyal wife—it doesn’t necessarily mean you will be happy. Zhenbao followed the path that was constructed for him, but in the end, it brought him to his own demise.
Chang, Eileen. “Red Rose, White Rose.” Love in a Fallen City. Trans. Karen S. Kingsbury. New York Review Books, 2007, pp. 255-312.
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