Sealed Off Eileen Chang Analysis Essay

The tramcar driver drove his tram. The tramcar tracks, in the blazing sun, shimmered like two shiny worms oozing out from water: stretch, then shrink, stretch, then shrink. Soft and slippery, long old worms, slinking on and on and on . . . the driver stared at the wriggling rails, and did not go mad. The tramcar would have gone on forever, if the city hadn't been shut down. It was. The streets were sealed off. "Ding-ding-ding-ding" rang the bell. Each "ding" was a small, cold dot: dot after dot, they formed a line that cut through space and time.

The tramcar stopped, but the people on the street started rushing around: those on the left rushed over to the right, those on the right rushed over to the left. The metal shop gates came rattling down, all in a single sweep. Matrons tugged madly at the bars. "Let us in!" they cried. "At least for a little while! There are children here, and old people too!" But the gates stayed tightly shut. The two sides glared at one another through the bars, feeding off each other's fear. On the tram, people were fairly calm. They had somewhere to sit, and though the tram interior was shabby, it was still quite a bit better, for most passengers, than their rooms at home.

Gradually the street grew quiet too–not a complete silence but voices turned blurry, like the soft rustling of a marsh-grass pillow, heard in a dream. The huge, shambling city sat dozing in the sun, its head resting heavily on people's shoulders, its drool slipping slowly down their shirts, an inconceivably enormous weight pressing down on everyone. Never before, it seemed, had Shanghai been this quiet–and in the middle of the day! A beggar, taking advantage of the breathless, birdless quiet, lifted up his throat and began to chant: "Good master, good lady, kind sir, kind ma'am, won't you give alms to this poor soul? Good master, good lady. . ." But soon he stopped, overawed by the eerie quiet.

Then a braver beggar, a man from Shandong Province, broke the silence firmly. His voice was round and resonant: "Sad, sad, sad! No money do I have!" An old, old song, sung from one century down to the next. The tram driver, also from Shandong, succumbed to the sonorous tune. Heaving a long sigh, he folded his arms across his chest, leaned against the tram door, and joined in: "Sad, sad, sad! No money do I have!"

A few passengers got off. There was some scattered conversation among those who stayed, and a group of office workers, over by the door, resumed the discussion they'd been having. One of them flicked his fan open–it made a quick ripping sound–and delivered his conclusion: "Well, in the end, his problem is simply that he doesn't have any manners." Someone else snorted, and smiled sarcastically. "No manners, you say? He sure knows how to kiss up to the bosses!"

A middle-aged couple who looked very much like brother and sister stood together in the middle of the tram, holding on to the leather straps. "Careful!" she yelped. "Don't get that on your trousers!" The man flinched, then lifted his hand, dangling a parcel of smoked fish. He held the greasy paper parcel with gingery care, several inches out from his trousers. His wife did not let up. "Do you know what dry cleaning costs these days? Or what it costs to have new trousers made?"

Lu Zongzhen, accountant for Huamao Bank, was sitting in the corner. When he saw that smoked fish, he remembered the steamed spinach buns that his wife had asked him to buy at a noodle stand near the bank. Women are always like that! Buns that are bought in the hardest-to-find, most twisty-wisty of little alleys have to be the cheapest and the best. She didn't consider how it made him look–a man smartly dressed in dapper suit and tie, with tortoiseshell glasses and a leather briefcase, and then, tucked under his arm, these steaming hot buns wrapped in newspaper–how ridiculous! Still, if the city was sealed long enough to affect his dinner hour, the buns would do, in a pinch.

He glanced at his watch; it was only four-thirty. The power of suggestion? Already he felt hungry. He loosened one corner of the paper wrapping and peeked inside. Snowy white mounds, giving off soft little whiffs of sesame oil. A piece of newspaper had stuck to a bun, and gravely he peeled it away; the ink had transferred to the bun, and the writing was in reverse, as in a mirror. He pored over the words till he could make them out: "Obituaries . . . Positions Wanted . . . Stock Market Developments. . Now Playing . . ."–all normal, useful expressions, though funny, somehow, seen on a bun. Eating, it seems, is serious business; it turns everything else, by way of contrast, into a joke. Lu Zongzhen thought the words looked funny, but he didn't laugh: he was a very straightforward fellow. He went from bun-print to newsprint, but after perusing half a page of old news, he had to stop: if he turned the page, all the buns would fall out.

While Lu read his newspaper, the others did likewise. People who had newspapers read newspapers; those who didn't have newspapers read receipts, or rules and regulations, or business cards. People who were stuck without a single scrap of printed matter read shop signs along the street. They simply had to fill this terrifying emptiness–otherwise, their brains might start working. Thinking is painful business.

Not a problem, however, for the old man across from Lu Zongzhen, clacking two polished walnuts around and around in his hand: a rhythmic little gesture can fill in for thought. The old man had a clean-shaven pate, a ruddy yellow complexion, and an oily sheen on his face. When his brows were furrowed, his whole head looked like a walnut. And his brains were like walnut meat–sweet, slightly moist, and in the end, very bland.

To the old man's right sat Wu Cuiyuan, who looked very much a young Christian wife, even if she was unmarried. She wore a white linen cheongsam with narrow blue piping all around–the navy blue, next to the white, looked like the dark border around an obituary–and she carried a little blue-and-white-checked parasol. Her hairstyle was utterly banal, afraid of attracting attention. Actually, she had little reason to be afraid. She wasn't bad-looking, but hers was an uncertain, unfocused, timid kind of beauty, always trying not to offend. Her whole face was bland, limp, undefined: even her own mother couldn't say for certain whether it was long or round.

At home she was a good daughter, at school she was a good student. After graduating from college, Cuiyuan had become an English instructor at her alma mater. Now, with the city sealed off, she decided to make use of the time by grading a few papers. The first one was a male student's. It railed against the evils of the big city, full of righteous anger, the prose stiff, choppy, ungrammatical. "Lipstick-wearing prostitutes . . . cruising the Cosmo . . . seedy bars and dance halls." Cuiyuan paused for a moment, then pulled out her red pencil and gave the paper an "A." Ordinarily, she would have gone right on to the next one, but now, because of all this time for thought, she couldn't help wondering why she had given this student such a high mark. If she hadn't asked herself this question, she could have ignored the whole thing, but once she did ask, her whole face flushed red. Suddenly she understood: it was because this student was the only man who, with perfect frankness, no qualms whatsoever, raised such topics with her.

He treated her like someone who had been places and done things; he treated her like a man, like a trusted friend. He respected her. Cuiyuan usually felt that no one at school–from the president on down to the professors, the students, and even the janitors–respected her. The students' griping was especially hard to take: "S. U. is really falling apart–getting worse all the time! A Chinese person teaching us English is already bad enough, and this one's a Chinese who's never even been abroad . . ."

Cuiyuan took abuse at school, and she took abuse at home. The Wu household was a modern, model household, devout and serious. The family had pushed their daughter to study hard, to climb upward step by step, right to the very top . . .A girl in her twenties teaching at a university! It set a new record for women's professional achievement. But her parents were losing their enthusiasm; now they wished that she had slacked off a bit as a student and worked harder at getting them a wealthy son-in-law.

She was a good daughter, a good student. All the people in her family were good people. They took baths every day; they read the newspaper every day. When they turned on the radio, they never listened to local folk opera, comic opera, that sort of thing, just symphonies by Beethoven or Wagner; they didn't understand what they were listening to, but they listened anyway. In this world, there are more good people than real people. . .Cuiyuan wasn't very happy.

Life was like the Bible, translated from Hebrew to Greek, from Greek to Latin, from Latin to English, from English to Mandarin Chinese. When Cuiyuan read it, she translated the Mandarin into Shanghainese. Some things did not come through.

Cuiyuan put the student's essay down and buried her chin in her hands. The hot sun beat down on her back.

Sitting next to Cuiyuan was a nanny with a small child stretched out on her lap. The sole of the child's foot pushed against Cuiyuan's thigh. Tiny red cloth shoes, decorated with tigers, on a soft but tough little foot . . . this at least was real.

A medical student who was also on the tram had taken out a sketch pad and was carefully putting the last touches on a diagram of the human body. The other passengers thought he was sketching the man who sat dozing across from him. Since they had nothing else to do, they crowded around, clumping together in threes and fours, leaning on one another with their hands behind their backs, watching the man sketching from life. The man with the smoked fish whispered to his wife: "I can't get used to this cubism, this impressionism, that's so popular these days!" "Your trousers!" she hissed.

The medical student meticulously wrote in the name of every bone, nerve, muscle, and tendon. One of the office workers half covered his face with a folding fan, and quietly informed his colleague: "That's the influence of Chinese painting. Nowadays, a bit of writing is often added to Western art too–clearly a case of 'Eastern ways spreading westward.'"

Lu Zongzhen didn't join the crowd; he stayed in his seat. He had decided that he was hungry. With everyone gone, he could comfortably munch his spinach-stuffed buns. But then he looked up and glimpsed one of his relatives, his wife's cousin's son, back in the third-class car. He deeply disliked this Dong Peizhi. Peizhi was a man of humble origins who harbored a great ambition: to marry a young lady of means, to serve as a starting point for his climb to the top. Lu Zongzhen's eldest daughter had just turned thirteen; even so, she had caught Peizhi's eye. The mental calculations he had made pleased him no end, and his manner grew ever more assiduous.

When Lu Zongzhen caught sight of the young man, back in the other car, he gasped softly in alarm, afraid that Peizhi, seeing the father of his intended, might seize this golden opportunity to go on the attack. Trapped in the same car with Dong Peizhi while the city was shut down–that would be unbearable! Zongzhen quickly closed his briefcase, wrapped up the buns, and fled to a seat on the opposite side of the tram. Now Wu Cuiyuan, sitting next to him, conveniently obstructed the view. There was no way his nephew could see him.

Cuiyuan turned her head and shot him a look. What a mess! This woman must think that he was making a pass, switching seats like that, for no apparent reason. He recognized that look women get–face rigid as can be, not a trace of a smile in the eyes or on the lips, not even in the little hollows by the nose, and yet, somewhere, a trembling hint of a tiny smile that is on the verge of breaking out. When a woman feels that she really is very attractive, she just can't help but smile.

But–damn it! Dong Peizhi had spotted him after all and was coming toward the first-class car, very self-deprecating, bowing even at a distance, with his long, red, blushing face, and his long, gray, monkish gown–a chaste, long-suffering young man, the perfect social-climber son-in-law. Thinking fast, Zongzhen decided to steal a page from Peizhi's book and move in on an opportunity. So he stretched one arm out across the windowsill behind Cuiyuan, soundlessly announcing his flirtatious intent. He knew this would not scare Dong Peizhi into immediate retreat, because in Peizhi's eyes he already was a dirty old man. According to Peizhi, everyone over thirty was old, and everyone who was old was nasty. After he'd witnessed Zongzhen's disgraceful behavior, Peizhi would feel compelled to go and tell his wife all about it. Well, if she got riled up, that was fine with him. Her fault for saddling him with a nephew like that. Let her get angry–it would serve her right.

He didn't care too much for this woman sitting next to him. Her arms were white, true enough–white like squeezed-out toothpaste. Her whole body was like squeezed-out toothpaste, no shape at all.

"Whenever will this blockade end?" he said in a low, smiling voice. "It's awful!"

Cuiyuan jumped and turned to look at him, at which point she saw his arm stretched out behind her. Her whole body froze. But come what may, Zongzhen could not let himself pull that arm back. His nephew stood just across the way, watching him with brilliant, glowing eyes and the hint of an understanding smile. If, at this moment, he looked his nephew in the eye, maybe the young fool would get scared and drop his gaze, flustered like some sweet young thing; then again, Peizhi might give him a knowing wink–who could tell?

Zongzhen gritted his teeth, and renewed the attack. "Aren't you bored? We could chat a bit, no harm in that! Let's . . . let's talk!" He couldn't keep the plaintiveness out of his voice.

Once again, she was startled and turned to look at him. Now he remembered, he had seen her get on the tram–a striking image, thrown up by chance, and nothing she could have planned. "You know, I saw you getting on the tram," he said softly. "In the window at the front of the tram, there's an advertisement with a piece torn out, and I saw part of your face, just a bit of your chin, through the tear." It was an ad for Lacova powdered milk, and it showed a fat little child. Under the child's ear, this woman's chin had suddenly appeared; it was a little spooky, when you thought about it. "Then you looked down to search for change in your purse, and I saw your eyes, then your eyebrows, then your hair." When you considered her features in isolation, one after another, you had to admit she did have a certain charm.

Cuiyuan smiled. You'd never guess that this man could talk so sweetly–he looked like such a respectable businessman! She looked at him again. At the edges of his nostrils, the cartilage glowed red in the sunlight. The hand at the end of his sleeve, the hand that rested on the newspaper, was a tanned, living hand–a real person! Not too honest, not too bright, but a real person! Suddenly she felt flushed, happy. "You shouldn't be talking like that," she murmured, and turned her face away.

"Huh?" Zongzhen had already forgotten what he'd said. His eyes were fixed on his nephew's back–that tactful young man had decided that three's a crowd, and he didn't want to offend his uncle. Anyway, they'd meet again, since they were such a close family, no knife sharp enough to sever their ties; so Peizhi retreated to the third-class car. Once he was gone, Zongzhen withdrew his arm, and acted like a respectable man. Casting about for something to say, he glanced at the notebook lying on Cuiyuan's lap. "Shenguang University," he read out. "Are you a student there?"

Did he think she was so young? That she was still a student? She laughed without answering.

"I graduated from Huaqi." He repeated the name. "Huaqi." On her neck there was a small, dark mole, as if someone had given her a sharp pinch. Zongzhen rubbed the fingers of his right hand across the nails of his left, absentmindedly. He coughed slightly, then continued. "What field are you in?"

Cuiyuan saw that he had moved his arm. She thought that his change of attitude had come in response to the subtle influence of her own fine character, and that she therefore owed him an answer."Literature. And you?"

"Business." Suddenly he felt their conversation was getting stuffy. "When I was in school, I ran around joining student movements. Now that I'm out, I run around trying to earn a living. I can't say I've ever studied much."

"Does your job keep you very busy?"

"Terribly busy. In the morning I take the tram to work, and in the evening I take it home, but I don't know why I'm going to work, or why I'm going home! I'm not the least bit interested in my job. Sure, it's a way to earn money, but I don't know who I'm earning it for!"

"Everyone has family to think of."

"Oh, you don't know–my family–" A short cough. "We'd better not talk about it!"

"Here it comes!" thought Cuiyuan. "His wife doesn't understand him. Every married man in the world seems to be in desperate need of another woman's understanding."

Zongzhen hesitated, swallowed hard, and forced the words out: "My wife–she doesn't understand me at all."

Cuiyuan looked at him, and frowned to show her sympathy.

"I don't know why, every evening when the time rolls around, I go home. What home? I don't really have a home." He removed his glasses, held them up to the light, wiped off the moisture with his handkerchief. Another little cough. "So–I just have to keep going on, and try not to think about it. I can't start thinking about it!" Cuiyuan always felt a certain revulsion when a nearsighted person removed his glasses in front of others. It was indecent, like taking off your clothes in public.

"You–you have no idea what this woman is like!" Zongzhen continued.

"Then why, back then, did you . . . ?"

"Even back then, I was against it. It was my mother who chose her. Of course I wanted to choose for myself, but, well, she was very beautiful, and I was quite young . . . a young man, you know. . ." Cuiyuan nodded.

"And then she changed into this kind of person. She even got into a huge fight with my mother, who turned around and blamed me for marrying her! She has such a temper. . . she didn't even make it through elementary school."

Cuiyuan couldn't help saying, with a tiny smile, "You seem to think that diplomas matter a lot! Education doesn't make that much difference–for a woman." She didn't know why she said that, hurting her own pride.

"Well of course, you can laugh about it because you've been to college. You don't know what kind of–" He stopped, breathing hard, and took off the glasses he had just put back on.

"It can't be that bad, now can it?" Cuiyuan said.

Zongzhen made a jerky, awkward gesture with the glasses in his hand. "You don't know what kind of–"

Cuiyuan responded quickly: "I know, I know." She knew that if he and his wife didn't get along, it couldn't be only his wife's fault. He too was a person of limited intellect. What he wanted was a woman who'd forgive him and accept him for what he was.

The street erupted in noise as two trucks full of soldiers rumbled by. Cuiyuan and Zongzhen stuck their heads out to see what was going on; to their surprise, their faces were drawn into sudden proximity. Seen near up, anyone's face is somehow different–tension-charged like a close-up on the movie screen. Zongzhen and Cuiyuan suddenly felt they were seeing each other for the first time. To his eyes, her face was the spare, simple peony of a watercolor sketch, and the strands of hair fluttering at her temples were pistils ruffled by a breeze.

He looked at her, and she blushed. When she let him see her blush, he grew visibly happy. Then she blushed even more deeply.

Zongzhen had never thought he could make a woman blush, make her smile, make her turn her face away, then turn it back again. In this he was a man. Usually Zongzhen was an accountant, a father, a head of household, a passenger on the tram, a customer in the store, a local citizen. But to this woman who knew nothing about him, he was only and entirely a man.

They were in love. He told her all kinds of things: who at the bank was his real friend, and who was just pretending; how his family squabbled; his secret sorrows; his schoolboy dreams . . . unending talk, but she was not put off. A man in love likes to talk; a woman in love changes her ways and doesn't want to talk. She knows, without even knowing that she knows, that after a man really understands a woman, he won't love her anymore.

Zongzhen was sure that Cuiyuan was a lovely woman–pale, wispy, warm, like breath in winter. You don't want her, and quietly she drifts away. Being part of you, she understands everything, forgives everything. You tell the truth, and her heart aches for you; you tell a lie, and she smiles as if to say, "Go on–you're just pulling my leg!"

Zongzhen was quiet for a moment. Then, suddenly: "I'm thinking of marrying again."

Cuiyuan quickly assumed an air of shocked surprise. "You want to divorce your wife? You can't do that, can you?"

"I can't get a divorce. I have to consider my children's happiness. My oldest daughter is thirteen this year and she's just passed the secondary school entrance exam, with a good score too."

"What's that got to do with it?" Cuiyuan thought.

"Oh," she said aloud, and coldly, "you plan to take a concubine."

"I plan to treat her like a wife," said Zongzhen. "I'll–I'll take good care of her. I won't let her suffer in any way."

"But," said Cuiyuan, "a girl from a good family won't want to be a concubine, will she? And so many legal problems . . ."

Zongzhen sighed. "Yes, you are right. I can't do it. Shouldn't have even mentioned it . . . I'm too old. Thirty-five already."

Cuiyuan spoke very deliberately. "Well, these days that's not considered old at all."

Zongzhen was still. Finally he asked, "How. . . how old are you?"

Cuiyuan ducked her head. "Twenty-five."

Zongzhen was silent for a while. "Are you available?" he finally asked. Cuiyuan didn't answer. "You aren't," Zongzhen said. "And even if you were willing, your family would oppose it . . . that's the problem, isn't it?"

Cuiyuan pursed her lips. Her family–her prim and proper family–how she hated them! She'd had enough of their lies. They wanted her to find them a wealthy son-in-law; Zongzhen didn't have money but he did have a wife. Well, if they got mad, that would be just fine with her! It would serve them right!

The tram was filling up again. Apparently the people outside were saying that the "all clear" would come any minute now. One after another, the passengers got on and sat down; they squeezed against Zongzhen and Cuiyuan, forcing them to sit closer, then closer again.

Zongzhen and Cuiyuan wondered how they could have been so dense, not sitting closer on their own. Zongzhen felt he was too happy–he had to fight against it. "No, no, it just won't work!" His voice was agonized. "I can't let you sacrifice your future! You're a fine person, with such a good education . . . and I, I don't have much money. I can't ask you to bury yourself like that!"

Well, of course, it always comes down to money. He was only being reasonable. "It's over," Cuiyuan thought. In the end she'd probably marry, but her husband could never be as dear as this stranger met by chance . . . this man on a tram in the middle of a sealed-off city. . . it could never be this natural again. Never again . . . oh, this man, he was so stupid! So very stupid! All she wanted was one small part of him, a little part that no one else wanted. He was throwing away his own happiness. Such an idiotic waste! She wept, but it wasn't a gentle, maidenly weeping. She pretty much spit the tears all over his face. He was a good man–the world had gained one more good man!

What use would it be to explain things to him? A woman who has to use words to touch a man's heart is a sorry figure.

Once Zongzhen became anxious, he couldn't get any words out, just kept shaking the umbrella Cuiyuan was holding. She ignored him. Then he tugged at her hand. "Hey–hey–there are people here, you know! Don't! Don't get so upset! Wait a bit, and we'll talk it over on the telephone. Give me your number."

Cuiyuan didn't answer. He pressed her. "You have to give me your telephone number."

"Seven-five-three-six-nine." Cuiyuan spoke as fast as she could.

"Seven-five-three-six-nine?"

She would not answer.

"Seven-five-three-six-nine, seven-five . . ." Mumbling the number over and over, Zongzhen searched his pockets for a pen, but the more frantic he became, the harder it was to find one. Cuiyuan had a red pencil in her bag, but she purposely did not take it out. He ought to remember her telephone number; if he didn't, then he didn't love her, and there was no point in continuing the conversation.

The city started up again. "Ding-ding-ding-ding" rang the bell. Each "ding" was a small, cold dot: dot after dot, they formed a line that cut through space and time.

Cheers rippled through the vast city. The tram started clanking its way forward. Zongzhen suddenly stood up, pushed into the crowd, disappeared. Cuiyuan turned her head away, as if she didn't care. He had gone. To her, it was as if he were dead.

The tram picked up speed. On the evening street, a seller of curdled tofu had set his shoulder pole down and lifted his rattle; eyes shut, he shook it back and forth. A big-boned blonde with a straw hat slung across her back bantered with an Italian sailor. All her teeth showed when she grinned. Cuiyuan's eyes saw them and they lived, lived for that one moment. The tram clanked onward, and one by one they died away.

Cuiyuan shut her eyes fretfully. If he telephoned her, she wouldn't be able to control her voice; it would be filled with emotion for him, a man who had died and come back to life again.

The lights inside the tram went on; she opened her eyes and saw him sitting in his old seat, looking remote. She trembled with shock–he hadn't gotten off the tram after all! Then she understood his meaning: everything that had happened while the city was sealed off was a nonoccurrence. The whole city of Shanghai had dozed off and dreamed an unreasonable dream.

The tramcar driver raised his voice in song: "Sad, sad, sad! No money do I have! Sad, sad, sad—" An old beggar woman, thoroughly dazed, limped across the street in front of the tram. The driver bellowed at her. "Swine!"

"Sealed Off" appears in Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang; it is used here by permission of New York Review Books. An earlier version appeared in The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature, copyright © 1995 by Columbia University Press.

Unformatted text preview: ZHANG AILING (1921- ] Sealed Off Translated by Karen Kingsbury The tramcar driver drove his tram. The tramcar tracks, in the blazing sun, shimmered like two shiny eels crawling out of the water,- they stretched and shrank, stretched and shrank, on their onward way—soft and slippery, long old eels, never ending, never ending . . . the driver fixed his eyes on the undulating tracks, and didn’t go mad. If there hadn’t been an air raid, if the city hadn’t been sealed, the tramcar would have gone on forever. The city was sealed. The alarm-bell rang. Ding— ding-ding—ding. Every ”ding” was a cold little dot, the dots all adding up to a dotted line, cutting across time and space. The tramcar ground to a halt, but the people on the street ran: those on the left side of the street ran over to the right, and those on the right ran over to the left. All the shops, in a single sweep, rattled down their metal gates. Matrons tugged madly at the railings. ”Let us in for just a while,” they cried. ”We have children here, and old people!” But the gates stayed tightly shut. Those inside the metal gates and those outside the metal gates stood glaring at each other, fearing one another. Inside the tram, people were fairly quiet. They had somewhere to sit, and though the place was rather plain, it still was better, for most of them, than what they had at home. Gradually, the street also grew quiet: not that it was a complete silence, but the sound of voices eased into a confused blur, like the soft rustle of a straw-stuffed pillow, heard in a dream. The huge, shambling city sat dozing in the sun, its head resting heavily on pe0ple’s shoulders, its spittle slowly dripping down their shirts, an inconceivably enormous weight pressing down on everyone. Never before, it seemed, had Shanghai been this The Taiwan authorized edition was used for this translation. zHANGAILING , 189 quiet—and in the middle of the day! A beggar, taking advantage of the breathless, birdless quiet, lifted up his voice and began to chant: ”Good master, good lady, kind sir, kind ma’am, won’t'you give alms to this poor man? Good master, good lady . . .” But after a short while he stopped, scared silent by the eerie quiet. Then there was a braver beggar, a man from Shandong, who firmly broke the silence. His voice was round and resonant: ”Sad, sad, sad! No money do I have!” An old, old song, sung from one century to the next. The tram driver, who also was from Shandong, succumbed to the sonorous tune. Heaving a long sigh, he folded his arms across his chest, leaned against the tram door, and joined in: ”Sad, sad, sad! No money do I have!” Some of the tram passengers got out. But there was still a little loose, scattered chatter; near the door, a group of office workers was discussing something. One of them, with a quick, ripping sound, shook his fan open and offered his conclusion: ”Well, in the end, there’s nothing wrong with him—- it's just that he doesn’t know how to act.” From another nose came a short grunt, followed by a cold smile: ”Doesn’t know how to act? He sure knows how to toady up to the bosses !” A middle-aged couple who looked very much like brother and sister stood together in the middle of the tram, holding onto the leather straps. ”Care- ful!” the woman suddenly yelped. ”Don't get your trousers dirty!” The man flinched, then slowly raised the hand from which a packet of smoked fish dangled. Very cautiously, very gingerly, he held the paper packet, which was brimming with oil, several inches away from his suit pants. His wife did not let up. ”Do you know what dry—cleaning costs these days? Or what it costs to get a pair of trousers made?” Lu Zongzhen, accountant for Huamao Bank, was sitting in the corner. When he saw the smoked fish, he was reminded of the steamed dumplings stuffed with spinach that his wife had asked him to buy at a noodle stand near the bank. Women are always like that. Dumplings bought in the hardest-to- find, most twisty—windy little alleys had to be the best, no matter what. She didn’t for a moment think of how it would be for him—neatly dressed in suit and tie, with tortoiseshell eyeglasses and a leather briefcase, then, tucked under his arm, these steaming hot dumplings wrapped in newspaper—how ludicrous! Still, if the city were sealed for a long time, so that his dinner was delayed, then he could at least make do with the dumplings. He glanced at his watch,- only four-thirty. Must be the power of sugges- tion. He felt hungry already. Carefully pulling back a corner of the paper, he took a look inside. Snowy white mounds, breathing soft little whiffs of sesame oil. A piece of newspaper had stuck to the dumplings, and he gravely peeled it off; the ink was printed on the dumplings, with all the writing in reverse, as though it were reflected in a mirror. He. peered down and slowly picked the words out: ”Obituaries . . . Positions Wanted . . . Stock Market 190 . Fiction, 1918—1949 Developments . . . Now Playing . . .” Normal, useful phrases, but they did look a bit odd on a dumpling. Maybe because eating is such serious business; compared to it, everything else is just a joke. Lu Zongzhen thought it looked funny, but he didn’t laugh: he was a very straightforward kind of fellow. After reading the dumplings, he read the newspaper, but when he'd finished half a page of old news, he found that if he turned the page all the dumplings would fall out, and so he had to st0p. While Lu read the paper, others in the tram did likewise. People who had newspapers read them; those without newspapers read receipts, or lists of rules and regulations, or business cards. People who were stuck without a single scrap of printed matter read shop signs along the street. They simply had to fill this terrifying emptiness—otherwise, their brains might start to work. Thinking is a painful business. Sitting across from Lu Zongzhen was an old man who, with a dull clacking sound, rolled two slippery, glossy walnuts in his palm: a rhythmic little gesture can substitute for thought. The old man had a clean-shaven pate, a reddish yellow complexion, and an oily sheen on his face. When his brows were furrowed, his head looked like a walnut. The thoughts inside were walnut—flavored: smooth and sweet, but in the end, empty-tasting. To the old man’s right sat Wu' Cuiyuan, who looked like one of those young Christian wives, though she was still unmarried. Her Chinese gown of white cotton was trimmed with a narrow blue border—the navy blue around the white reminded one of the black borders around an obituaryuand she carried a little blue—and-white checked parasol. Her hairstyle was utterly banal, so as not to attract attention. Actually, she hadn't much reason to fear. She wasn't bad-looking, but hers was an uncertain, unfocused beauty, an afraid-she—had—offended-someone kind of beauty. Her face was bland, slack, lacking definition. Even her own mother couldn’t say for certain whether her face was long or round. At home she was a good daughter, at school she was a good student. After graduating from college, Cuiyuan had become an English instructor at her alma mater. Now, stuck in the air raid, she decided to grade a few papers while she waited. The first one was written by a male student. It railed against the evils of the big city, full of righteous anger, the prose stiff, choppy, un'grammatical. ”Painted prostitutes . . . cruising the Cosmo . . . low-class bars and dancing-halls.” Cuiyuan paused for a moment, then pulled out her red pencil and gave the paper an ”A.” Ordinarily, she would have gone right on to the next one, but now, because she had too much time to think, she couldn't help wondering why she had given this student such a high mark. If she hadn't asked herself this question, she could have ignored the whole matter, but once she did ask, her face suffused with red. Suddenly, she understood: it was because this student was the only man who fearlessly and forthrightly said such things to her. He treated her like an intelligent, sophisticated person; as if she were a ZHANGAILING _ 191 man, someone who really understood. He respected her. Cuiyuan always felt that no one at school respected her—from the president on down to the professors, the students, even the janitors. The students’ grumbling was especially hard to take: ”This place is really falling apart. Getting worse every day. It’s bad enough having to learn English from a Chinese, but then to learn it from a Chinese who’s never gone abroad . . .” Cuiyuan took abuse at school, took abuse at home. The Wu household was a modern, model house— hold, devout and serious. The family had pushed their daughter to study hard, to climb upwards step by step, right to the tip—top . . . A girl in her twenties teaching at a university! It set a record for women’s professional achievement. But her parents’ enthusiasm began to wear thin and now they wished she hadn’t been quite so serious, wished she’d taken more time out from her studies, tried to find herself a rich husband. She was a good daughter, a good student. All the people in her family were good people; they took baths every day and read the newspaper; when they listened to the wireless, they never tuned into local folk—opera, comrc opera, that sort of thing, but listened only to the symphonies of Beethoven and Wagner; they didn't understand what they were listening to, but still they listened. In this world, there are more good people than real people . . . Cui an wasn’t ver ha . _ [life was like theyBibIlgytranslated from Hebrew into Greek, from Greek into Latin, from Latin into English, from English into Chinese. When Cui- yuan read it, she translated the standard Chinese into Shanghainese. Gaps were unavoidable. ~ ' She put the student’s essay down and buried her chin in her hands. The ' sun burned down on her backbone. Next to her sat a nanny with a small child lying on her lap. The sole of the child’s foot pushed against Cuiyuan's leg. Little red shoes, decorated with tigers, on a soft but tough little foot . . . this at least was real. A medical student who was also on the tram took out a Sketchpad and carefully added the last touches to a diagram of the human skeleton. The other passengers thought he was sketching a portrait of the man who sat dozing across from him. Nothing else was going on, so they started saunter— ing over, crowding into little clumps of three or four, leaning on each other with their hands behind their backs, gathering around to watch the man sketch from life. The husband who dangled smoked fish from his fingers whispered to his wife: ”I can’t get used to this cubism, this impressionism, which is so popular these days." ”Your pants,” she hissed. The medical student meticulously wrote in the names of every bone, muscle, nerve, and tendon. An office worker hid half his face behind a fan and quietly informed his colleague: ”The influence of Chinese painting. Nowadays, writing words in is all the rage in Western painting. Clearly a case of ’Eastern ways spreading Westward.’ ” . Lu Zongzhen didn't join the crowd, but stayed in his seat. He had decrded 192 Fiction, 1918—1949 he was hungry. With everyone gone, he could comfortably munch his spin- ach—stuffed dumplings. But then he looked up and caught a glimpse, in the third-class car, of a relative, his wife's cousin’s son. He detested that Dong Peizhi was a man of humble origins who harbored a great ambition: he sought a fiancee of comfortable means, to serve as a foothold for his climb upwards. Lu Zongzhen’s eldest daughter had just turned twelve, but already she had caught Peizhi's eye; having made, in his own mind, a pleasing calculation, Peizhi’s manner grew ever softer, ever more cunning. As soon as Lu Zongzhen caught sight of this young man, he was filled with quiet alarm, fearing that if he were seen, Peizhi would take advantage of the opportunity to press forward with his attack. The idea of being stuck in the same car with Dong Peizhi while the city was sealed off was too horrible to contemplate! Lu quickly closed his briefcase and wrapped up his dump- lings, then fled, in a great rush, to a seat across the aisle. Now, thank God, he was screened by Wu Cuiyuan, who occupied the seat next to him, and his nephew could not possibly see him. Cuiyuan turned and gave him a quick look. Oh no! The woman surely thought he was up to no good, changing seats for no reason like that. He recognized the look of a woman being flirted with—-—she held her face abso— lutely motionless, no hint of a smile anywhere in her eyes, her mouth, not even in the little hollows beside her nose; yet from some unknown place there was the trembling of a little smile that could break out at any moment. If you think you're simply too adorable, you can’t keep from smiling. Damn! Dong Peizhi had seen him after all, and was coming toward the first—class car, very humble, bowing even at a distance, with his long jowls, shiny red cheeks, and long, gray, monklike gown—a clean, cautious young man, hardworking no matter what the hardship, the very epitome of a good son—in-law. Thinking fast, Zongzhen decided to follow Peizhi's lead and try a bit of artful nonchalance. So he stretched one arm out across the window— sill that ran behind Cuiyuan, soundlessly announcing flirtatious intent. This would not, he knew, scare Peizhi into immediate retreat, because in Peizhi’s eyes he already was a dirty old man. The way Peizhi saw it, anyone over thirty was old, and all the old Were vile. Having seen his uncle’s disgraceful behavior, the young man would feel compelled to tell his wife every little detail——Well, angering his wife was just fine with him. Who told her to give him such a nephew, anyway? If she was angry, it served her right. He didn’t care much for this woman sitting next to him. Her arms were fair, all right, but were like squeezed-out toothpaste. Her whole body was like squeezed-out toothpaste, it had no shape. ”When will this air raid ever end?” he said in a low, smiling voice. ”It’s awful!” Shocked, Cuiyuan turned her head, only to see that his arm was stretched 1 ZHANGAILING . 93 out behind her. She froze. But come what may, Zongzhen could not .let himself pull his arm back. His nephew stood just across the way, watching him with brilliant, glowing eyes, the hint of an understanding smile on hls face. If, in the middle of everything, he turned and looked his nephew in the eye, maybe the little no-account would get scared, would-lower his eyes, flustered and embarrassed like a sweet young thing; then again, maybe Peizhi uld kee starin at him—who could tell? W0He gritfed his tgeeth and renewed the attack. ”Aren't you bored? We could talk a bit, that can't hurt. Let’s . . _. let’s talk.” He couldn't control himself, his voice was plaintive. _ Again Cuiyuan was shocked. She turned to look at him. Now he remem- bered, he had seen her get on the tram—a striking image, but an image concocted by chance, not by any intention of hers. ”You know, I saw you get on the tram,” he said softly. "Near the front of the car. Theres a torn advertisement, and I saw your profile, just a bit of your chin, through'the torn spot.” It was an ad for Lacova powdered milk that showed a pudgy little child. Beneath the child’s ear this woman‘s chin had suddenly appeared; It was a little spooky, when you thought about it. ”Then you looked down to get some change out of your purse, and I saw your eyes, then your brows, then your hair.” When you took her features separately, looked at them one by one, you had to admit she had a certain charm. Cuiyuan smiled. You wouldn’t guess that this man could talk so sweetly— you'd think he was the stereotypical respectable businessman. She looked at him again. Under the tip of his nose the cartilage was reddened by the sunlight. Stretching out from his sleeve, and resting on the newspaper, was a warm, tanned hand, one with feeling—a real person! Not too honest, not too bright, but a real person. Suddenly she felt flushed and happy; she turned away with a murmur. ”Dont talk like that." ’ ‘ . ”What?” Zongzhen had already forgotten what he d said. His eyes were fixed on his nephew’s back—the diplomatic young man had dec1ded that three’s a crowd, and he didn’t want to offend his uncle. They would meet again, anyway, since theirs was a close family, and no knife was sharp. enough to sever the ties; and so he returned to the third-class car. Once Peizhi was gone, Zongzhen withdrew his arm,- his manner turned respectable. Casting about for a way to make conversation, he glanced at the notebook spread out on her lap. ”Shenguang University,” he read aloud. ”Are you a student 7” this; he think she was that young? That she was still a student? She ed, without answerin . - [magi-[graduated from Huafi.” He repeated the name. ”Huaqi." On he; neck was a tiny dark mole, like the imprint of a fingernail. Zongzhen a sent- mindedly rubbed the fingers of his right hand across the nails of his left. He coughed slightly, then continued: ”What department are you in? 194 I Fiction, 1918-1949 Cuiyuan saw that he had moved his arm and thought that her stand-offish manner had wrought this change. She therefore felt she could not refuse to answer; ”Literature. And you?” _ ”Business.” Suddenly he felt that their conversation had grown stuffy. "In school I was busy with student activities. Now that I’m out, I’m busy earning a living. 80 I’ve never really studied much of anything.” ”Is your office very busy?” ”Terribly. In the morning I go to work and in the evening I go home, buti don’t know why I do either. I’m not the least bit interested in my job. Sure, it's a way to earn money, but I don’t know who I'm earning it for.” ”Everyone has family to think of." ”Oh, you don't know . . . my family . . ."A short cough. ”We’d better not talk about it.” . ”Here it comes,” thought Cuiyuan. ”His wife doesn't understand him. Every married man in the world seems desperately in need of another woman's understanding.” Zongzhen hesitated, then swallowed hard and forced the words out: "My wife—she doesn’t understand me at all.” Cuiyuan knitted her brow and looked at him, expressing complete sym- pathy. ‘ ”I really don’t understand why I go home every evening. Where is there to go? I have no home, in fact.” He removed his glasses, held them up to the light, and wiped the spots off with a handkerchief. Another little cough. ”Just keep going, keep getting by, without thinking—above all, don't start thinking!” Cuiyuan always felt that when nearsighted people took their glasses off in front of other people it was a little obscene; improper, somehow, like taking your clothes off in public. Zongzhen continued: ”You, you don’t know what kind of woman she is.” ”Then why did you . . . in the first place?” ”Even then I was against it. My mother arranged the marriage. Of course I wanted to choose for myself, but . . . she used to be very beautiful . . . I was very young . . . young people, you know . . ." Cuiyuan nodded her head. ”Then she changed into this kind of person—even my mother fights with her, and she blames me for having married her! She has such a tempermshe hasn't even got a grade-school education." Cuiyuan couldn't help saying, with a tiny smile, ”You seem to take diplomas very seriously. Actually, even if a woman’s educated it’s all the same.” She didn't know why she said this, wounding her own heart. ”Of course, you can laugh, because you’re well—educated. You don’t know what kind of—” He stopped, breathing hard, and took off the glasses he had just put back on. ”Getting a little carried away?” said Cuiyuan. ZHANGAILING_ 195 Zongzhen gripped his glasses tightly, made a painful gesture with his hands. ”You don’t know what kind of—” ' ”I know, I know," Cuiyuan said hurriedly. She knew that if he and his wife didn’t get along, the fault could not lie entirely with her. He too was a person of simple intellect. He just wanted a woman who would comfort and forgive him. The street erupted in noise, as two trucks full of soldiers rumbled by. Cuiyuan and Zongzhen stuck their heads out to see what was going on; to their surprise, their faces came very close together. At close range anyone’s face is somehow different, is tension—charged like a Close—up on the movie screen. Zongzhen and Cuiyuan suddenly felt they were seeing each other for the first time. To his eyes, her face was the spare, simple peony of a water- color sketch, and the strands of hair fluttering at her temples were pistils ruffled by a breeze. He looked at her, and she blushed. When she let him see her blush, he grew visibly happy. Then she blushed even more deeply. Zongzhen had never thought he could make a woman blush, make her smile, make her hang her head shyly. In this he was a man. Ordinarily, he was an accountant, a father, the head of a household, a tram passenger, a store customer, an insignificant citizen of a big city. But to this woman, this woman who didn’t know anything about his life, he was only and entirely a man. They were in love]; He told her all kinds of things: who was on his side at the bank and who secretly opposed him; how his family squabbled; his secret sorroWs; his schoolboy dreams . . . unending talk, but she was not put off. / Men in love have always liked to talk;-women in love,’on the other hand, don’t want to talk, because they know, without even knowing that they know, that once a man really understands a woman he’ll stop loving her. . Zongzhen was sure that Cuiyuan was a lovely woman—pale, wispy, warm, like the breath your mouth exhales in winter. You don’t want her, and she quietly drifts away. Being part of you, she understands everything, forgives everything. You tell the truth, and her heart aches for you; you tell a lie, and she smiles as if to say, ”Go on with you—what are you saying?” Zongzhen was quiet for a moment, then said, ”I'm thinking of marrying again.” Cuiyuan assumed an air of shocked surprise. ”You want a divorce? Well . . . that isn't possible, is it?” "I can't get a divorce. I have to think of the children's well—being. My oldest daughter is twelve, just passed the entrance exams for middle school, her grades are quite good.” ”What,” thought Cuiyuan, ”what does this have to do with what you just said?" ”Oh,” she said aloud, her voice cold, ”you plan to take a concubine.” 196 Fiction, 1918-1949 ”I plan to treat her like a wife," said Zongzhen. ”I—I can make things nice for her. I wouldn’t do anything to upset her.” ”But,” said Cuiyuan, ”a girl from a good family won't agree to that, will she? 50 many legal difficulties. . .” Zongzhen sighed. ”Yes, you’re right. I can't do it. Shouldn't have men- tioned it . . . I'm too old. Thirty-four already.” ”Actually,” Cuiyuan spoke very slowly, ”these days, that isn’t considered very old.” ‘ Zongzhen was still. Finally he asked, ”How old are you?” Cuiyuan ducked her head. ”Twenty—four." Zongzhen waited awhile, then asked, ”Are you a free woman ?” Cuiyuan didn’t answer. ”You aren’t free,” said Zongzhen. ”But even if you agreed, your family wouldn’t, right?” Cuiyuan pursed her lips. Her family—her prim and proper family—how she hated them all. They had cheated her long enough. They wanted her to find them a wealthy son—in-law. Well, Zongzhen didn’t have money, but he did have a wife—that would make them good and angry! It would serve them right! Little by little, people started getting back on the tram. Perhaps it was rumored out there that ”traffic will soon return to normal." The passengers got on and sat down, pressing against Zongzhen and Cuiyuan, forcing them a little closer, then a little closer again. . Zongzhen and Cuiyuan wondered how they could have been so foolish not to have thought of sitting closer before. Zongzhen struggled against his happiness. He turned to her and said, in a voice full of pain, ”No, this won’t do! I can't let you sacrifice your future! You’re a fine person, with such' a good education . . . I don't have much money, and don’t want to ruin your life!” Well, of course, it was money again. What he said was true. ”It's over,” thought Cuiyuan. In the end she'd probably marry, but her husband would never be as clear as this stranger met by chance—this man on the tram in the middle of a sealed-off city . . . it could never be this spontaneous again. Never again . . . oh, this man, he was so stupid! 50 very stupid! All she wanted was one small part of him, one little part that no one else could want. He was throwing away his own happiness. Such an idiotic waste! She wept, but it wasn't a gentle, maidenly weeping. She practically spit her tears into his face. He was a good person—the world had gained one more good person! What use would it be to explain things to him? If a woman needs to turn to words to move a man’s heart, she is a sad case. Once Zongzhen got anxious, he couldn’t get any words out, and just kept shaking the umbrella she was holding. She ignored him. Then he tugged at her hand. ”Hey, there are people here, you know! Don’t! Don’t get so upset! Wait a bit, and we'll talk it over on the telephone. Give me your number.” zHANGAILING 197 Cuiyuan didn't answer. He pressed her. ”You have to give me your phone number.” ' “Seven—five-three-six-nine.” Cuiyuan spoke as fast as she could. ”Seven~five—three—six-nine.7” No response. ”Seven-five-three~six—nine, seven—five . . .” Mumbling the number over and over, Zongzhen searched his pockets for a pen, but the more frantic he became, the harder it was to find one. Cuiyuan had a red pencil in her bag, but she purposely did not take it out. He ought to remember her telephone number; if he didn't, then he didn’t love her, and there was no point in continuing the conversation. The city started up again. ”Ding-ding-ding-ding." Every ”ding" a cold little dot, which added up to a line that cut across time and space. A wave of cheers swept across the metropolis. The tram started clanking its way forward. Zongzhen stood up, pushed into the crowd, and disappeared. Cuiyuan turned her head away, as if she didn’t care. He was gone. To her, it was as if he were dead. The tram picked up speed. On the evening street, a tofu-seller had set his shoulder-pole down and was holding up a rattle; eyes shut, he shook it back and forth. A big-boned blonde woman, straw hat slung across her back, bantered with an Italian sailor. All her teeth showed when she grinned. When Cuiyuan looked at these people, they lived for that one moment. Then the tram clanked onward, and one by one they died away. Cuiyuan shut her eyes fretfully. If he phoned her, she wouldn't be able to control her voice; it would be filled with emotion, for he was a man who had died, then returned to life. . The lights inside the tram went on; she opened her eyes and saw him sitting in his old seat, looking remote. She trembled with shock—he hadn't gotten off the tram, after all! Then she understood his meaning: everything that had happened while the city was sealed was a non-occurrence. The whole of Shanghai had dozed off, had dreamed an unreasonable dream. The tramcar driver raised his voice in song: ”Sad, sad, sad! No money do I have! Sad, sad, sad—" An old beggar, thoroughly dazed, limped across the street in front of the tram. The driver bellowed at her. ”You swine !” 1943 ...
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