One of the major influences on author Wu Jianren is the Chinese Reformist Movement of 1898. Women’s rights were one of the central motivations for this movement. One can see how Jianren transposes this social movement into the thoughts and actions of the two characters. Despite vibrant discourse on social issues, Dihua and Juanjuan do not avail of its potential application to their own lives. Western understanding of love and marriage is very different than what prevails in China. In the latter, it is usually ‘duty-bound’, while in the West it is largely ‘self-motivated’, that is without any external compulsion. For example, Dihua undergoes an ‘arranged’ marriage to Bohe, who is not the man whom she was engaged to for much of her adolescence. In what is a deliberately construed narrative device, Dihua meets her fiancé when they were both fleeing from Beijing with their families. But as Chinese social norms dictate Jianren shows this inkling of love in chaste terms. Dihua, despite her acquaintance with Western culture, is still a product of her native culture. And so when the name of her betrothed is mentioned, she feels timid and shy and blushes in tenderness. She curiously eavesdrops when others talk about him. She feels a pang of pain upon hearing of his misfortunes. In the same vein, she feels elevated upon hearing his successes. While this might sound romantic in the literary sense, this type of sentimentality is a recipe for dependency and disappointment. This is where Dihua lets herself down and the women’s rights movement in China down. Her love and marriage are so driven by preset social formulae that love is synonymous to duty. This is why she was easily able to transfer her ‘love’ to her longtime fiancé to her husband Bohe with utter ease. But behind this ease is the trivially of her ‘love’. The novelist renders in well-articulated prose, the mental and emotional processes by which young Dihua falls in love with the person chosen by her parents. But this scenario of a lifetime in duty-inspired bonding, love inevitably suffers. This explains why Dihua life turns into a tragedy ultimately.
Though Dihua was betrothed as a child, she ends up being married to another man – Bohe, But, Bohe was really not worthy of her virtuous and disciplined up-bringing. Astoundingly, though, Dihua manages to transfer the abstracted love she held for her fiancé to her husband. In this respect, she is an epitome of Confucian description of the ideal wife. But when the reader steers clears of this sentimental romanticism, he/she will see this event for what it is – a needless, willing and tragic sacrifice on part of the woman. Juanjuan’s life, on the other hand, is not as chaste as that of Dihua’s, for her circumstances lead her to lead the life of a courtesan in the high social circles of Shanghai. In what is a clever symmetry of plot, she is once engaged to Bohe’s younger brother Zhongai and was to become Dihua’s co-sister. Zhongai shared many virtues similar to Dihua, in that he also maintains chastity as a mark of respect to his engagement and impending marriage to Juanjuan. Just as Dihua’s chastity is wasted on the frivolous Bohe, so is Zhongai’s on the prostituting Juanjuan. While Dihua’s eventual martyrdom is a result of her clinging to a traditional mentality that is getting outdated in her time, the decline of Juanjuan is more of her own making – having been intoxicated by the wealth and privilege of high society to the peace and integrity of true love. Wu Jianren shows in contrast how a girl brought up on Confucian philosophy (Dihua) tends to assume moral responsibility for actions and events not involving her. This leads to low self-esteem and hence her martyrdom at the hands of Bohe is not surprising. On the other hand we have Juanjuan, who is the antithesis of all that Dihua stood for. Yet, her life also turns pathetic ultimately. The Sea of Regret can thus be seen as a work of informed moral ambiguity. One must give credit to author Wu Jianren for creating art out of the folly of two young women in early twentieth century China.
Fu, Lin, and Wu Jianren. The Sea of Regret: Two Turn-of-the-Century Chinese Romantic Novels. Trans. Patrick Hanan. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii, 1995. Print.