1940s Shanghai is an interesting setting for a novel. China was in the middle of a civil war and many men were conscripted into the Kuomintang. Issues with the communist government were also at the very center of people’s minds. This interesting backdrop has provided an interesting setting for a number of authors, two of which will be explored here. “Love in a Fallen City” by Eileen Chang explores the experience of divorce and the hope of love in 1940s Shanghai and Hong Kong. “To Love” by Yu Hua is a complex film that explores concepts of war, conscription, revolution, love and communism. The purpose of this paper is to compare and contrast these two novels. It will become clear that both use an interesting historical backdrop to explore themes of human nature.
“To Live” is at times a very difficult novel with a huge amount of subject matter. A woman named Jiazhen is forced to leave her husband due to his loss of the family property by gambling. She leaves with her daughter Fengxia and whilst pregnant with a son, Youqing. Although she later reunites with her husband, Xe Fugui, he is then drafted into the Kuomintang for the civil war. His property has all been burnt because the person he lost it to in the war did not want to donate it to the people’s government, essentially acting as a betrayal to the government. The story then moves on to the Great Leap Forward, during which Fugui loses his son. In the Cultural Revolution, Fengxia falls in love with a kind and gentle man who has been permanently injured in an accident and soon becomes pregnant. Fengxia later dies due to the failings of the communist government.
“Love in a Fallen City” is on the surface much more light-hearted. The central concept of the story revolves around Bai Liu-Su, a woman who is publically shamed for being divorced, and a handsome and charming Malaysian businessman named Fan Liu-yuan. It seems as though Bai is potentially tainted by her divorce for life, hating her home life. It is noted that she needs to get remarried because “It doesn’t matter how great a woman is: if she can’t get the love of a man, she can’t get the respect of women” (Chang 256). When Fan comes along, her fate seems to change. Originally Bai thinks that “he did want her, but he wasn’t willing to marry her” (Chang 267), but this later turns out to be the opposite of the case. Unfortunately, their love is not as pure as some of the cases in “To Live”.
The problem with love in “Love in a Fallen City” is that Bai has become so preoccupied with leaving her home life and avoiding the stigma of being an unmarried woman that she loses the ability to love purely. It is noted that “what she wanted from this was financial security” (Chang 272). Fan is also noted to be a playboy and does not have enough reverence for spiritual love as he should. Both individuals are treating the marriage as a type of business transaction. The war in “Love in a Fallen City” is used to teach these people that they should treasure each other. Chang notes “there is no place for individualists, but there is always room for an ordinary married couple” (276). The war taught people the value of marriage, love, and life because they had to see each other as precious.
The background of the war, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution provide a different tool in “To Live”. These elements are used to describe some of the negative parts about living in China at these times and the sense of loss that it can bring to a family. Nearly all of the misfortune for the characters is brought about by some failing of the Communist government, including Fengxia’s death during childbirth being blamed on the lack of doctors (Hua 185). As such, it provides a different perspective on the effects of war, conflict and politics than “Love in a Fallen City” because it has a negative effect on love and the family. It highlights that the government can make mistakes that affect individuals in severe ways. Despite this, “To Live” also ends with a positive message, as Fugui showing hope for the future of his grandson Mantou.
Both of these texts cover a lot of important and sometimes disturbing topics. In “To Live”, one of the main discussions is of suicide. Chunsheng, one of the main characters, was accused of being both a reactionary and a capitalist. He wants to ask for Jiazhen’s forgiveness, deep in distress as his wife has committed suicide. He also wants to commit suicide. The novel states that “Your life is given to you by your parents. If you don’t want to live, you have to ask them first” (Hua 28), showing that even in the midst of all the chaos of the civil war people still placed a huge value on life. In contrast, there is also a discussion of how powerful the effects of psychology can be, with the quote of “No matter how lucky a person is, the moment he decides he wants to die, there’s nothing that will keep him alive” (Hua 37).
- Chang, Eileen. Love in a Fallen City. Penguin Books Limited, 2007. Print.
- Hua, Yu. To Live: A Novel. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2007. Print.