Wu Jianren’s 1906 novella ‘Sea of Regret (originally titled Hen Bai) is a masterpiece of modern Chinese literature. The book is rich in themes of morality and the challenges of modernity and patriotism. Adopting a tone of sentimentality that is essential to the Chinese literary aesthetic the novella deals also with concepts such as chivalry in the Chinese milieu of early twentieth century. This essay will argue how the tragedies in the lives of the two central female characters – Dihua and Juanjuan – are shaped largely by their own personal choices as opposed to external compulsions.
It is interesting to begin by trying to understand the choice of metaphor that constitutes the title. Sea of Regret is taken from an ancient Chinese myth that is well known to the Chinese public. The myth concerns the daughter of a feisty Emperor, who, after drowning in the ocean off the East coast, returns as the mythical bird Jingwei. This bird spends the rest of her life flying back and forth from the Western mountains, trying in futility to fill up the Eastern Sea with stones. One can see parallels of this vain hard work in the life of Dihua and Juanjuan – who are two central to Jianren’s work. Indeed, the Jingwei myth is seen in China as representing futile effort, while it also gently lauds the determination and persistence of the bird Jingwei. In the context of Di Hua and Juanjuan, the figurative mountain they were trying to move is one of achieving fulfillment in romantic love. Their paths they adopt are very different. But their limitations set them up for tragic outcomes that followed. In this respect, Wu Jianren’s masterpiece is also comparable to Fu Lin’s Stones in the Sea – another novel that takes after the Jingwei mythology. Indeed, Sea of Regret is a polemical response to the messages in the Stones in the Sea.
Through the lives of Dihua and Juanjuan, we witness the apprehensions and confusions experienced by Chinese women at the turn of the twentieth century. This was a time when Chinese cultural identity was being threatened by Western political and commercial influences. On the other hand, these threats also opened up opportunities for Chinese women to change their view of themselves. They questioned their social and familial roles and compared it with socio-cultural currents in the West. In the Sea of Regret, we see how both the women apprehend these influxes. One of the reasons why Dihua and Juanjuan incur so much suffering is because of their misplaced ideation of romantic and sexual love in the context of a rapidly changing Chinese cultural scene. These young women, during their impressionable years, articulated such fashionable buzzwords as freedom, equal rights and progress. One of their prime concerns was freedom and equality in the domain of the family, for most women the broader polity does not have a direct bearing. But the personalities of Dihua and Juanjuan are quite different and hence they addressed these issues in their own individual styles. Of the two, Juanjuan was bolder in questioning preset functions and scope of a married life. And her choice of profession as a courtesan exemplifies this. While her valor to not get locked in the stifling role of a housewife is to be lauded, the alternative she chose is none too emancipator. The houses of courtesans are as ancient a tradition as marriage itself. And while she looked down on one side of the oppression against women, she had embraced its other side. In this sense, she takes a large share of responsibility for the way her life would pan out later.