Eileen Chang, rightly translated Zhang Ailing, is a Chinese writer born on September 30, 1920 in Shanghai, China. Her novella Red Rose, White Rose tells a story that takes place in Shanghai in the 1940s. It concerns Tong Zhenbao and his attitude towards women and life, in general. Therefore, this analysis focuses on the way the main protagonist is portrayed in the Red Rose, White Rose.
It appears that the fans still enjoy the literary pieces written by Eileen Chang, who is regarded as one of the most famous modern Chinese female novelist. For instance, after Ang Lee’s recent movie “Lust, Caution,” based on Zhang’s story under the same name, the writer’s literature witness another boost in popularity. More and more people go to the theater to view the stage version of the Red Rose, White Rose (1944). For those who understand her work, her words always carry a unique connotative implication. The movies and plays based on the same story apply the words used in the novel. A good example is Stanley Kwan’s movie “Red Rose, White Rose,” in which Chang’s words are directly reproduced on the screen encourage the audience to read the novel. It is clear that after reading the novel, the readers would be able to experience the imagery in a direct manner as opposed to getting the metaphors through the moviemaker’s interpretation.
Red Rose, White Rose is a story about Tong Zhenbao. He is a young man that comes back to Shanghai in the 1930s after studying in England. Zhenbao originates from a poor family; therefore, he is a classic example of a social climber. Furthermore, he is a self-made man who uses everything and everyone to his benefit. This character is a product of an education that is still valued in conservative China. According to the Chinese tradition, the society follows a strict patriarchal order. The man gets his education at a time when the Chinese society has already stepped into the modern times. The author depicts Zhenbao, who works as an executive organizational supervisor at a foreign textile company, as a successful member of the higher middle class. In addition, the protagonist has a home, a wife, and a nine-year-old daughter as expected.
Consequently, at this moment, Zhenbao has a good life that he always wished. It is clear that this character has remained committed to his desire to “create a world that was right” and to bring it to any place where he goes. For this reason, Zhenbao has no reason to regret. It is ironical when the author asserts that Zhenbao is unhappy in his ideal world. He has a feeling that in return for goodness and sacrifices, he fails to get the desired respect and sympathy that the family and friends should have accorded him.
For Zhenbao, love is essentially a complicated issue since his perception of life requires him to be an absolute boss of his little pocket-size world including the women around him. He communicated with the strong women who behave in the manner they wish, particularly when they break the norms set by their society. The women destabilize and attract Zhenbao at the same time. Back in China after studying in England, this character cannot resist the charms of Jiaorui. She is the libertine wife of his friend; therefore, Jiaorui holds strong resentment for Zhenbao because of his advances. However, the two engage in an affair that continues until the woman informs her husband about it and asks for a divorce. Such a step leaves Zhenbao in shock because it compromises his career with the fears of a scandal and its damaging effects. Furthermore, he has no intentions to marry Jiaorui, who is metaphorically his red rose of love. He immediately breaks off the relationships with her.
Zhenbao holds a very different image of an ideal wife. According to his standards, an ideal wife should be spotless, innocent and, above all, tractable. As a result, he allows his mother to arrange a marriage for him so that he can meet his white rose of purity. He chooses Yanli, a beautiful and naïve varsity graduate from the high social class family. Through Yanli, Zhenbao gets what he wants, but the problem is that people never meet the perfect model expected from them.
The author portrays love and marriage in a rather unsentimental manner. The straightforward and, despite all, the strong language of Chang leaves hardly any doubt that for her, the relationship is nothing but a continuous struggle for supremacy over the partner. The main protagonist has an issue with intimacy, and he is not ready to allow any person to have a glimpse into his interior world behind the thick castle bounds. He does not want to lose control. He always alerts and never understands what love is all about. Zhenbao’s shift to do good for the others is a part of his personal rules and accomplishing personal desires as opposed to the philanthropic impulse. Similarly, he idealizes the world and people around him.
In the novel, the stage version of the Red Rose, White Rose is also transcendent. It overlooks the bounds of time, space, and even person. Each of the three main characters in the novel, Zhenbao, Red Rose, and White Rose, are presented by two indistinguishable costumed actors – one showing the character’s outer persona and the other reflecting the inner feelings. All the actors are on the stage together during the entire play. As a result, each character has an opportunity to argue with the self, criticize the self, and offer the self a piece of advice. Sometimes, it leads to the re-enactment of a scene and even a trip into the inner world of a person.
The author considers the moments of romance humorous, as they become a ménage à trois or à quatre. Chang undercuts the scenes through a farcical perspective of the characters’ second-guessing of their intentions, and the physical presence of the four actors instead of two. The director of the stage version of the novel, Tian Qinxin, indicates that the idea behind the presence of the two residents on the same stage, who are portraying different moments and space of Tong Zhenbao’s romantic life, is a stimulus from the novella itself.
At the time, Zhenbao realizes that his wife is cheating on him and remembers his love affair ten year before. A close evaluation of the situation allows the reader to parallel the scene with the one at the beginning of the play. The technique breaks the conventional way of storytelling through disregarding the bounds of time and space. The critics of the staged version acknowledge that it was difficult to play the characters of Eileen Chang’s novel. The conventional playing the roles would have made the story boring since the stage is different from the movies as it requires a conflict.
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In her novel, the author does not waste time on describing an ideal Chinese man of today. Zhenbao, who learned in England and currently holds a high position at the overseas textile company, is married to a beautiful college graduate. The protagonist is a filial son and helpful sibling; he is sincere and generous with those around him. In essence, the author portrays Zhenbao’s life as a complete success. According to some critics, the story is the only one among Eileen Chang’s literary works that focuses on the male character. It is possible that the author wanted to react to Fu Lei’s charge that she failed to probe deeply enough into the characterization or character development in her previous work Love in a Fallen City. In the Red Rose, White Rose, there is evidently much discussion of the mind disposition of Zhenbao. Evidently, the critics pay their attention to Zhenbao’s Freudian state of mind. In the course of the story, the character is superficially transforming at the personal level. He changes from perfection and makes the gradual descent towards becoming a corrupt and useless man, who ends up being perfect again.
Through this character, the author creates a male equivalent of the women in her novel. Chang portrays a man changed by the society from being a self-assured personality into a warped individual with psychological issues. There is a high interest in Zhenbao’s character traits because he is a perfect example of psychological study. In essence, the author explores the aspect of class stratification that results from the perceivably educated people. Zhenbao gets a quality education in England and eventually returns with the changed social class. Throughout his life, he focuses on creating a perfect world around him; it is a dream that he is strongly committed to in his life.