The Sea of Regret
Few works of fiction can claim to put into perspective the passion and sexual love life of the people living in China in the beginning of the 20th Century to the extent The Sea of Regretdoes. Wu Jianren uses the novel to portray China’s struggles faced with proliferation of Western values and as such forced to redefine its culture, ethics, romance and sexual relationships. The book has rightly been seen to be a response to or to have been inspired by the earlier and equally significant Stones in the Sea. When read as a pair, they portray a fascinating perspective of the Romantic and by extension social life in China at the turn of the century. Life in China had until the onset of the 20th Century, been a mystery to the Western world.
Many Europeans had considered the Chinese love life and interpersonal relationships bland perhaps due to the latter’s culture that did not encourage public display of passion and romance. Sea of Regret proves otherwise and portrays that romance did indeed play a significant role in the social life of the Chinese and was actually key in the formation and definition of morality and moral values. The author asserts that contrary to the opinion of many, it is possible to find love in an arranged marriage. Dihua, the protagonist, falls in love with and ideal of her fiancé but later, transfers the love to Bohe, the fiancé her parents have chosen for her. Her love is evident and portrayed by the care she shows for Bohe as she nurses him when he is ill.
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The partners in an arranged marriage know that they have various duties to each other and one such duty is to love each other. Dihua has effectively done that by transferring all the love that she has nurtured for her ideal fiancé to Bohe. Zhongai is aware of this obligation and preserves his fidelity for his chosen fiancée Juanjuan who has unfortunately become a prostitute. Bohe is not a stranger per se to Dihua as she has met him before marriage. However, he does not know much about him but is able to love him fully. The author proves that love survives turbulent times. The story is set during the Boxer uprising yet the characters are able to show the care, concern and love to those close to them. Dihua for instance shows undying devotion to her mother as well as to Bohe when they are ill. The role of love in building morality is evident from the story. Zhongai’s love for Juanjuan makes him maintain his chastity though they are far apart.
His love can not let him betray her even in her absence. Bohe effectively silences his conscience when it reprimands him for lying in order to acquire chests that may contain a fortune. It is the concern and the love that he has for his family that finally puts him on the right path. Status of women in the society is also put into perspective. Although both Dihua and Juanjuan are well educated and city bred, they are supposed to conform to tradition that requires them to marry those chosen for them by their parents. Dihua proves that this can become a success while Juanjuan shows that like all type of marriages, arranged marriages have their fair share of problems and challenges. Traditionally, women were not consulted when important decisions were being made and Zhang Heting’s wife is actually surprised when her husband consults her over their child’s impeding betrothal.
Zhang admits that the mother is closer to the child and has deep knowledge of their behavior and interests. He therefore points out that wives play a central role in their families and the lives of their children. He is also aware that due to the love a mother has for their child, they would only choose what is good for them. The appropriateness of the title cannot escape the eye of a keen reader. It is derived from an ancient myth an emperor’s daughter dies, later returns as the bird Jingwei and spends her time attempting to fill the sea with sticks and stones. In Chinese folklore the story symbolizes patience of love and the difficulties it has to endure.
Love and family life in China at the turn of the century was hard and faced many challenges especially due to the hard economic times in the country and the prevailing political turmoil as well as the rigidity of tradition that dictated that one had to have their fiancé or fiancée chosen for them by their parents. The characters in Sea of Regrethowever suggest that love remained alive even in these times of war romance was never dampened by the mood that the country was in.
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