Tuesday, February 2, 2016
Half a Lifelong Romance is a story of urban families living through Chinese cultural changes that begin with traditional conservative morality and progress to collective communist values in Shanghai in the 1930s. Manzhen Gu and Shijun Shen are the main characters whose romance illustrates the shift from extended family control of career and relationships to state control of individual motivations. The apparent freedom of choice in career and relationships is restricted early on by extended family mores that complicate romance, marriage, financial support roles, and other traditional family responsibilities. There is a complicated calculus of personal motivations and actions among the families of the two lovers that keep them apart.
The descriptions of daily lives of the characters are realistic, detailed, romantic, and tragic creating a historical narrative that has been very popular among Chinese readers. The familiar theme is that individualism can overcome the unjust constraints of the past maintained by the conservatism of traditional families as the culture affords more economic opportunities even as it becomes more controlling of individual social development. Thomas Mann’s early novel Buddenbrooks develops a similar theme in Germany following 4 generations of an urban family in the 19th Century. As in our current US society, both individual personal freedom and restrictive social government progressivism require the compromise of integrity for the goal of survival. In Chan’s novel, compromise is not too high a price to pay when endurance makes possible half a lifelong romance. It is better than no romance at all.
This is a very good novel with a translation by Karen S. Kingsbury that consistently reflects the historical period in Shanghai.