psychological fiction

Contemporary World Literature

ZHANG AILING 1920–1995


In many ways the case of Zhang Ailing embodies the complexities and historical twists of a national literature finding its place in a global community—in this case, the literature of a nation with an immense, intellectually vibrant diaspora. Often acclaimed as the best Chinese writer of the mid-twentieth century, Zhang Ailing was recovered from a period of obscurity by a Chinese professor at Yale University. Zhang’s fame then spread to Taiwan and Hong Kong, and at last to China itself. Although the literary work on which her fame rests was written in China and Hong Kong, Zhang Ailing herself lived more than half her life in the United States, and her best-known novel, The Rice-Sprout Song, from her second residence in Hong Kong, was written first in English and then rewritten in Chinese.

Zhang Ailing was born in Shanghai into an old family of imperial officialdom, with an irascible, opium-smoking father and a mother who left to study in France when Zhang Ailing was a child; thus the girl’s family background combined the decadence and fierce independence of spirit of the Shanghai elite in the 1920s and 1930s. After her parents divorced, Zhang was mistreated by her father and fled his house to live with her mother. When the war in China broke out (1941), she left Shanghai to study at the University of Hong Kong; but after the fall of Hong Kong to the Japanese, Zhang returned to Shanghai, where, under Japanese occupation, she wrote her most famous shorter works. Her marriage, albeit brief, to the collaborator Hu Lancheng and her passive acceptance of Japanese rule made her suspect after the war, and her family background placed her in an even more uncomfortable position when the Communists took Shanghai and the People’s Republic of China was established. In 1952 Zhang went again to Hong Kong, where she put her talent at the service of the anti-Communist passions of the era. There she wrote two novels, both critical of the People’s Republic: The Rice-Sprout Song, which enjoyed a modest success, and Naked Earth, which did not. In 1955 she left for the United States. After remarriage and the death of her second husband, Zhang went to Berkeley as a researcher and at last to Los Angeles, where she lived her last days in bleak austerity.

Far more than her novels, her stories from the 1940s, collected as Tales (sometimes translated as Romances), form the core of her work. One of the best known, a novella later turned into a novel, The Golden Cangue, describes a woman who must choose between love and financial advantage; her choice of the latter eventually destroys her and those around her, including her children. In addition to the stories and novels, Zhang Ailing wrote essays and memoirs that are much admired; she also did scholarly work on the Story of the Stone and an annotated translation of a late Qing novel, in Wu dialect, into Mandarin Chinese.

Zhang is sometimes called a postmodern writer, both for her experimental approach toward language and narrative structure and for her interest in unsettling and unmasking the discourses of modernity. Her fiction is infused with an atmosphere of desolation at odds with the optimism of the narratives of p. 498p. 1346progress and revolutionary success. Her persistent focus on the trivial, the private feeling, the humble detail can be understood as a rejection of the nation-building myths that many of her contemporaries strove to develop.

The story selected here, “Sealed Off” (1943), opens in the city of Shanghai, the buzzing center of Chinese commercial life, technology, and urban activity. The images of geometric abstraction, with the parallel lines of the tramcar tracks extending seemingly into infinity, and even the air siren telegraphing a pattern of “cold little dots,” suggest a rigid and rationalized world, a glowing plane along which the human tokens move in perfect, unending formation. But in shutting down the city, forcing buildings to seal their doors, the streets to clear of pedestrians, and even the tramcar to loiter on its tracks, the air siren imposes an unexpected calm on the metropolis. (The story takes place during the Second World War, when air sirens were a common feature of city life.) Sitting in enforced quietude, the citizens in the tramcar begin to ruminate, ponder, and dream: a groan of complaint, a meditation on food, a fantasy of romance. The narrative voice, too, enters a heavy, dreamlike mode. When the all-clear finally sounds and the hum of the metropolis resumes, a central character, who has been venturing a cautious flirtation with another passenger, is jolted into an awareness that the possibilities unfolding “while the city was sealed off” cannot belong to real life. Yet a form of life did surface: however fleetingly, the governing grid was locked in stasis, enabling a different kind of humanity to emerge.

The story’s genre is psychological fiction, though not in the usual sense of entering directly into the thoughts of characters (although this does happen). Instead, the emphasis lies on the roiling, sensuous unconscious of the city, where the submerged desires and dreams of Shanghai’s populace oppose the ruthlessness of the social order. Readers may detect the influence, through various postwar British writers, of Freud, with his stress on the unconscious and the irrational. Zhang’s concern as a writer, she said, was not History with a capital H: “I cannot write what is commonly known as the memorials of the times, and I have no intention of attempting it, because there seems at present no such concentration of subject matter. I only write some little things between men and women; also there are no wars or revolution in my works, for I believe that a man is both simpler and freer when he is in love than when he is in war or revolution.”

Sealed Off

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 people’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 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. “Careful!” 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 p. 500p. 1348know 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 suggestion. 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 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 stop.

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 obituary—and 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, ungrammatical. “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 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 household, 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, comic 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 . . . Cuiyuan wasn’t very happy.

Life was like the Bible, translated from Hebrew into Greek, from Greek into Latin, from Latin into English, from English into Chinese. When Cuiyuan 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 sauntering over, crowding into little clumps of three or four, leaning on each other with their p. 502p. 1350hands 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 decided he was hungry. With everyone gone, he could comfortably munch his spinach-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 fiancée 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 dumplings, 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 absolutely 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 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 his 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 would keep staring at him—who could tell?

He gritted his teeth 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 remembered, 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. There’s 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. “Don’t 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 decided 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 there?”

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

“I graduated from Huaqi.” He repeated the name. “Huaqi.” On her neck was a tiny dark mole, like the imprint of a fingernail. Zongzhen absentmindedly rubbed the fingers of his right hand across the nails of his left. He coughed slightly, then continued: “What department are you in?”

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. So 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, but I 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 sympathy.

“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 temper—she 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.

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 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 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.”

“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? So many legal difficulties . . .”

Zongzhen sighed. “Yes, you’re right. I can’t do it. Shouldn’t have mentioned 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 dear 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! So 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.”

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.


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!”


“The narrative voice … enters a heavy, dreamlike mode. When the all clear finally sounds and the hum of the metropolis resumes, a central character, who has been venturing a flirtation with another passenger, is jolted into awareness that the possibilities unfolding ‘while the city was sealed off’ cannot belong to real like. Yet a form of life did surface: however fleetingly, …enabling a different kind of humanity to emerge” (Puchner, 2012, p. 498). “Sealed off” by Zhang Ailing is referred to as a psychological fiction where dreams and desires surface. How does the narrative: language, description, dialogue, and repetition create the illusion of reality? Be sure to share a quote from the story to support your discussion.

Please make this 1-2 paragraphs and in APA format.

Please include a reference page and site sources within the paragraphs.

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