The Old Man of the Moon (Penguin Little Black Classics) by Shen Fu
Please note: there are some slight spoilers for the story below.
You could be justified in thinking, based on previous posts and comments I have made, that I am not a big fan of romance. It’s not an entirely untrue assumption, but it is more that I am not a big fan of the way that romance is portrayed in the media. I can read or watch a love story with no problems; include an unnecessary romance in an otherwise solid narrative, or imply that a romantic ending is the only kind of happy ending, and then I will take issue. And when I take issue on this topic, I really take issue: just ask my family about my reaction to the last episode of Downton Abbey. But I am stating for the record here that I am not opposed to romance in media, and I am capable of reading (and enjoying) a love story which is just a love story. Case in point: Shen Fu’s The Old Man of the Moon.
The Old Man of the Moon is pretty unashamedly a love story. It is a Victorian-era Chinese tale which follows the married life of a Chinese official and his wife, Yün. It is a marriage arranged partly by the parents, but becomes a marriage of love as the two share their passion for literature and writing with each other. I’ll admit: romances which are based on a shared love of literature have always appealed to me (see: Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning) so it was probably already guaranteed that this would be a love story I would appreciate. However, it is more than just their shared literary interest which endeared these characters to me. There is a clear partnership here: both these characters work hard, together, to weather every hurdle that is thrown their way; they both take responsibility for taking care of each other and they genuinely respect and trust each other. They work hard physically, but also in terms of relating to each other. Their marriage is based on understanding, compromise, and not giving up on each other even when they have disagreements. The protagonist mentions that this makes them a socially subversive couple, with the period they live in, especially given the fact that they are public in their affection for each other.
The narrative follows the couple from their marriage to Yün’s death and the heartbreak which results from this. It is hard to classify the tale in terms of genre and form: it is shorter than a novella, but longer than the average short story; there is little structure to the narrative, especially when contrasted with most pieces of short fiction; the ‘moral’ is not really a ‘moral’ since it is born out of heartbreak and is not reinforced by any other part of the narrative; it is a love story but it is also an elegy. Possibly this is a cultural difference: after all, Western exposure to short fiction is very euro-centric with Tolstoy’s model of the short story being replicated and developed into the forms we see it take now. However, I think there is also a deliberateness from Shen Fu in writing the narrative in the way he does. After all, this is a story the protagonist is relaying to the reader and it is not hard to imagine him sat down, in an armchair somewhere, reliving his memories out loud to a little audience sat at his feet. Shen Fu is cleverly recreating an oral tradition of storytelling that had long since died out by the nineteenth century.
This is a sweet, emotive tale which builds a clear and atmospheric world with well-developed characters. I became really caught up in the endurance and sorrow of the couple, and, even though Yün’s fate is obvious from the beginning of the narrative, it is a sad ending to the tale. I enjoyed this little tale, and it made for some good train-reading over the Christmas period.