In Zhang’s ‘‘Love Must Not Be Forgotten,’’ the narrator, Shanshan, discusses the discovery of her mother’s love for a married man, and much of the story is devoted to the unfolding of the details of this secret attachment. Zhang uses Shanshan’s memories, in conjunction with the diary, to allow the reader and Shanshan a glimpse into the emotional love affair to which Shanshan’s mother, Zhong Yu, has devoted her life. Criticism of the story in China has been based on Shanshan’s rejection of a marriage not based on love and on the extramarital love experienced by Zhong Yu and the married man for whom she has secretly longed. Following the story’s English publication in 1986, critics explored Zhang’s stylistic techniques and her political views. In addition, the mother’s secret life and her relationship with her lover have been the subject of reviews, as has Shanshan’s own journey of self-discovery. What is often overlooked, however, is the relationship between Shanshan and her mother. Zhang explores not only Shanshan’s childhood but also the evolution of her relationship with her mother and the changing of her perspective as she digests her mother’s diary. Through the course of the story, Shanshan begins to comprehend the complexities of her mother’s personality, as a woman and not simply as a mother. Zhang demonstrates that, as Shanshan’s understanding of her mother deepens, Shanshan simultaneously begins to feel both more connected to and more isolated from her mother. That the mother-daughter relationship— particularly the relationship between a daughter and the single mother who raised her—is a primary feature of Zhang’s story is unsurprising. This type of mother-daughter relationship mirrors Zhang’s experience as both a daughter and a mother.
Early on in the story, Zhang introduces Shanshan’s conflicted feelings about her mother. Shanshan recollects the persistent anxiety she felt as a child, discussing how she would wake up crying and ‘‘disturbing the whole household.’’ With the entire house aware of her distress, it is her nurse who attends to the young Shanshan in the middle of the night. Significantly, Shanshan’s mother does not seek out her crying daughter and ease her fears during the night. Shanshan does not explain her mother’s absence, nor does she make any judgments about her mother. However, the nurse, who is both ‘‘old’’ and ‘‘uneducated,’’ simply tells Shanshan that an ‘‘ill wind had blown through [her] ear,’’ and it is clear that Shanshan did not feel comforted.
Shanshan does think of her mother in the next paragraph, describing her as her ‘‘closest friend’’ and revealing how much she loved her. Shanshan goes on to recall that her mother was not the type who lectured. Rather, Zhong Yu (Shanshan’s mother) discussed her own experiences in the hope that her daughter would learn from them. Shanshan perceives from these discussions that her mother’s life was characterized by her many failures. In remembering the discussion shared with her mother on the topic of Shanshan’s possible marriage to Qiao Lin, Shanshan observes that her mother admonished her to wait if she was uncertain, and she notes that, more than anything, her mother wanted her to be happy. Shanshan also discerns the bitterness in her mother’s comments about her own experiences. Zhong Yu states that she had been talked into getting married before she knew what she really needed. She says that she has longed for ‘‘a fresh start.’’ When Shanshan asks her mother why she does not consider remarrying, Zhong Yu is elusive, and Shanshan suspects that her mother is reluctant to tell her the truth regarding this matter. Shanshan thinks about her father and of how her parents divorced when she was very young. Shanshan remembers her mother’s attitude about her father; Zhong Yu was ashamed of her decision to marry him, considering it a stupid mistake. In conveying these attitudes of shame and misjudgment to her daughter, Zhong Yu implies that if her marriage was a mistake, then so was Shanshan, the child of that marriage. Shanshan does not speak on this matter, but the logical progression of Zhong Yu’s line of thinking is clear, and as a reader one must wonder whether Shanshan has considered it. At the very least, Shanshan observes the extent of her mother’s sense of bitterness and regret where her past choices, particularly her marriage, are concerned.
The depth of Zhong Yu’s regrets are made clear to Shanshan when, after her mother’s death, Shanshan reads the diary her mother asked her to destroy. Shanshan sees her mother’s love for a married man played out before her, in her mother’s words, and realizes that the diary reflects her mother’s torment at the fact that ‘‘for over twenty years one man occupied her heart, but he was not for her.’’ One of the most telling lines in the story comes after Shanshan begins to understand that her mother’s heart was ‘‘already full, to the exclusion of anybody else.’’ Shanshan’s words suggest her perception that her mother’s love for the man operated in such a way as to not simply exclude other lovers but also, to some degree, Shanshan herself. In contemplating this exclusion, Shanshan thinks that the love between her mother and the man embodied a saying she recalls: ‘‘No lake can compare with the ocean, no cloud with those on Mount Wu.’’ Connecting her mother’s feelings for the man with those lines, Shanshan reflects, ‘‘No one would love me like this.’’ Shanshan’s comment implies that the ‘‘no one’’ includes her mother. Shanshan understands now all the evasions she witnessed during her mother’s life and knows that her mother’s love for the man she could not have shaped not only Zhong Yu’s life but Shanshan’s as well. Zhong Yu’s love for the unnamed man took over her heart and became the focus of her life. This is not to say that Zhong Yu did not love her daughter, but, as Shanshan now knows, as a daughter she certainly did not experience the fullness of her mother’s love. Zhong Yu’s love for the man and her anguish at having never been able to pursue it held her back from embracing the life she did have, the life she shared with her daughter.
Shanshan’s understanding of the extent to which she was excluded from her mother’s heart is revealed to her when she reads her mother’s words in the diary. Zhong Yu writes in the diary as if she is writing to the man she loves, and she reports feeling that something is perpetually missing, that ‘‘everything seems lacking, incomplete, and there is nothing to fill up the blank.’’ Shanshan recalls not being allowed to meet her mother at the train station when she returned from a trip, as Zhong Yu preferred to be alone on the platform and imagine that the man was meeting her. After the man’s death, Zhong Yu wears a black band around her arm in his honor. Shanshan asks if she, too, should wear one. Shanshan remembers the way her mother then patted her cheeks, as if she were still a young child. Years have passed, Shanshan recalls, since her mother had displayed her any such affection.
As the diary and her memories show Shanshan that her childhood was lacking in her mother’s devotion, Shanshan considers this loss but focuses instead on the anguish her mother endured at never being able to be with the man she loved. Shanshan seems to pride herself on finally being able to understand her mother more fully. ‘‘I am the only one able to see into your locked heart,’’ she says to the memory of her mother, fleshed out in the pages of the diary. While Shanshan recognizes the agony her mother endured, while she cries for her mother and finds the tragedy she experienced both ‘‘beautiful’’ and ‘‘moving,’’ she also wonders at her mother’s ability to continue to love the man so fully and passionately, even as she was dying. To Shanshan, ‘‘it seemed not love but a form of madness.’’ Seeing such devotion as insanity and expressing her vehement desire to avoid following her mother’s path, Shanshan in her way passes judgment on a mother virtually debilitated by ‘‘undying love.’’
As Shanshan’s memories and thoughts reveal, her childhood suffered because her mother was distracted by her love for a man whose life she could not share. Zhong Yu was not a full participant in her daughter’s life. She failed to comfort her or show her affection. Rather than devote herself to moving forward when it became clear that she and her lover could not be together, she devoted herself to loving him through her diary, through the brief moments when they saw each other at work, and through the set of Chekhov books he had given her. While Shanshan was unaware of the extent of her mother’s emotional distraction as a child, she perceived absences in attention, quirks in her mother’s behavior. She was told that her mother did not love her father, that the marriage had been a mistake, something Zhong Yu had been rushed into. As an adult considering marriage herself, Shanshan understands, through the diary, the reasons why her mother behaved the way she did, and now sees the full picture, the entirety of the secret her mother kept. Simultaneously hurt and sympathetic, Shanshan is compelled to take a stand against marriages that are not made for love. Whether or not Shanshan sees the possibility of the kind of love her mother possessed for the man she could not have, Shanshan is aware of the way that people rushed into ‘‘indifferent’’ marriages are tortured by such decisions. Shanshan regards her mother as both a figure of sympathy (because she endured such tragedy) and as someone to pity (because her love reduced her, Shanshan feels, to ‘‘madness’’). Shanshan consequently takes what seems to her to be a safe position with regard to love and marriage when she advocates patient waiting.
Catherine Dominic, Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Zhang Jie, Published by Gale Group, 2010