As Manzhen and Shijun go on their separate paths, they lose track of one another, and their lives become filled with feints and schemes, missed connections and tragic misunderstandings. At every turn, societal expectations seem to thwart their prospects for happiness. Still, Manzhen and Shijun dare to hold out hope—however slim—that they might one day meet again. A glamorous, wrenching tale set against the glittering backdrop of an extraordinary city, Half a Lifelong Romance is a beloved classic from one of the essential writers of twentieth-century China.
About the Author
Karen S. Kingsbury taught and studied in Sichuan and Taiwan for nearly two decades, and is currently Professor of International Studies at Chatham University, where she teaches East Asian studies and world literature. She lives near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Read an Excerpt
He and Manzhen had met . . . a long time ago. Working it out, he realized it had been fourteen years since then. Quite a shock! It made him feel, suddenly, very old.
Time does fly for the middle-aged: a decade whips by in the blink of an eye, a flick of the fingertips. When you’re still young, even three or four years, maybe five, can seem an entire lifetime. That’s all they’d had, from meeting to parting—just a few years together. But in that brief span, they’d had a full measure: all the joy and the sorrow that comes with (as the old saying has it) “birth, old age, illness, death.”
She’d asked him, back then, when he’d first started liking her. “The moment I first saw you,” he’d replied, of course. His feelings were running so high then, he’d have believed anything. He was certain he was not lying. But in fact, the moment when he first saw her was not all that clear in his mind.
It was Shuhui, his best friend from engineering college, who met her first. Shuhui, who’d graduated before him and found work in a factory office, had then found him a position, as a trainee, in the same factory. Manzhen worked in that office, at a desk next to Shuhui’s, so he must have passed her several times on his way to see Shuhui, but nothing stuck in his mind. Probably because he was fresh out of college, shy around girls, too awkward to take a good look.
He was on his way to becoming a fully trained engineer, which meant he was on the shop floor all day long, with the manual workers; as soon as he’d grasped one thing, he was sent off to learn another. The work was hard, but the experience invaluable. It paid almost nothing, but fortunately his family wasn’t relying on him. They lived in another city, and he was boarding with Shuhui’s family in Shanghai.
That was the first time Shijun had spent New Year’s away from home. He’d never enjoyed the holiday; something unpleasant always happened then, in his family. They’d wait for his father to come home and lead the ceremony, then have a family meal. But his father would always be late, held back by this or the other, over at the concubine’s place. His mother did not usually argue about this, but at New Year’s she had to say something: “A family should act like a family.” The master of the house was supposed to be at home, leading the proceedings, if only for the ancestors’ sake.
The problem was that festivities were being held at the other place too. This concubine had been with his father for many years. She’d borne him several children, and her house was livelier, filled with family: it had become his father’s chief residence. He rarely went back to his first wife’s home. When he did, he was received like a visiting dignitary, most of the time. But maybe because the holiday made her feel her lot in life, Shijun’s mother just had to clash with her husband at New Year’s. A woman her age, and there she’d be, in tears. It had been that way every year since Shijun was little. Hence his gladness at being somewhere other than at home, well away from all that unpleasantness.
And yet, when it came time to bid the old year adieu, with everyone gathering at dusk for the holiday meal while random bursts of firecracker noise filled the streets, he still felt the weight of worries he couldn’t quite figure out.
He joined Shuhui’s family for the New Year’s Eve dinner, then invited his friend to see a film with him. The cinema ran a late show during the holiday break, and they stayed to the end of the double bill. Watching midnight movies on New Year’s Eve was a peculiar experience: all that seasonal jollity, with a twinge of loneliness in the middle.
The factory had only a three-day holiday, but their usual lunch place took five days off. He and Shuhui went there, on their first day back, but the doors were shut. They turned around and headed back through streets strewn with the red-paper shells of burnt-out firecrackers. When they passed a half-open restaurant, Shuhui suggested going in. The owners had not yet held their New Year’s opening ceremony, with blessings from the God of Wealth, so the shop front was still half blocked by shutters, and the interior was dim. There wasn’t much business so close to the holiday, but a young woman in an old gray sheepskin coat sat at a table facing the door. She had a teacup and chopsticks and was waiting for her food to come. To pass the time, she was rubbing her red-gloved fingers in slow circles, two fingers running down the opposite forefinger, along the inside of the thumb, then back again.
“Oh, Miss Gu! You’re here too!” Shuhui called out, the moment he saw her. He started to sit down at her table, then saw Shijun hanging back. “We’re all co‑workers, you know—haven’t you met before? This is Shen Shijun, this is Gu Manzhen.”
She had a round face that seemed squarish inside the roundness— not four-cornered, but distinct, well defined. Her hair was ruffled and loose, falling over her shoulders in a casual style. Shijun wasn’t in the habit of assessing a girl on some sort of beauty scale; he simply liked the way she looked. She thrust her hands into her coat pockets and smiled. The two young men pulled out a bench, only to find that the red-painted seat was black with grime. Shijun didn’t care; he was grimy too, from working on machinery. But Shuhui, trim and tidy in a business suit, gave it a sharp look before sitting down.
The waiter came over, bringing two teacups that he held with his fingers stuck inside them. Shuhui noticed, and frowned. “This place is no good at all—so dirty!” The waiter poured the tea, and they each ordered a meal. Shuhui had an idea. “Hey there,” he called to the waiter, “bring us some paper so we can wipe the chopsticks clean.” But the waiter was already out of earshot.
“Wash them in the tea,” Manzhen suggested. “I don’t think you’ll want this tea anyway.” She swished his chopsticks around in the tea, dried them with a single firm shake, and balanced them across his teacup. Then she reached over to do the same for Shijun.
“Oh—you’re too kind!” Shijun protested, with a half-bow of thanks. After she’d washed his chopsticks, he took them from her and thanked her again.
Manzhen kept her gaze lowered, never looking at them directly, but she smiled quietly. After he’d taken the chopsticks from her, Shijun put them down again. Then he saw his mistake: he’d put them on the table, which could seem ungrateful, or even impatient, as if he thought her overly fussy. Quickly, he picked up the chopsticks and, following her lead, balanced them across his teacup. He lined them up precisely. Of course, once the chopsticks had touched the table they were dirty again, so now he was just trying to cover up his error. A wave of embarrassment swept over him. To hide his confusion, he picked up his soup spoon and swished it in the tea.
At this point the waiter brought their food. They each had a bowl of clam soup. Shijun took a spoonful and remarked, “Clams at New Year—I’ll bet it’s for good luck. They’re yuan bao, little lumps that look like a stack of coins.”
“Clams are money mounds,” Shuhui agreed, “and so are taro cakes, and flour-wrapped dumplings, and egg-wrapped dumplings too. Even fresh fruit and tea eggs can be money mounds—apparently we Chinese are obsessed with money, since everywhere we look we see yuan bao.”
“Oh, but it goes even further than that,” Manzhen said. “There’s a kind of caterpillar called a ‘bag worm’ that drops from the ceiling in a fat little roll, and people in the north like to call it a ‘coin-string worm.’ How’s that for being money-crazy?”
“Miss Gu, are you from the north?” Shijun asked.
Manzhen shook her head and smiled. “My mother is a northerner.”
“Well then, you’re a half-northerner.”
“Our usual lunch place does northern-style food,” Shuhui said. “It’s just across from here—have you tried it? It’s good.”
“I haven’t been there,” said Manzhen.
“Let’s all go there tomorrow. This place is no good. So dirty!”
After that, the three of them ate lunch together on a daily basis. They’d order three dishes and a soup, definitely better than three set meals. Or they’d stand on the street side by side, and eat roasted taro straight from the vendor’s cart. But even after their acquaintance had deepened, Shuhui and Manzhen stuck to shop talk. Theirs was simply a workplace friendship, it seemed. Shuhui didn’t talk about her after work; he would at most mention her in passing.
Once, when he and Shijun were commenting on the various tensions among their colleagues, Shijun said, “You’re lucky. The two of you in that office get along so well.”
“Yeah,” said Shuhui, offhandedly. “Manzhen is great. She doesn’t play games.”
Shijun let it go at that. If he seemed too interested in her, Shuhui would tease him.
But then, while they were chatting about something else, Shuhui suddenly said, “Manzhen was talking about you today.”
Shijun was startled. It took him a moment to follow this up, and find out what she’d said.
“She wanted to know why I do all the talking—meaning that you can’t get a word in edgeways,” explained Shuhui. “I told her that lots of people think I’m unfair to you. Even my mother thinks that! But really, it’s just a matter of personality. You’re like the ‘straight man’ in a comedy.”
“You know, the one who’s always getting smacked on the head with a folded fan.” Shuhui couldn’t help laughing at his own remark. “I know you don’t mind my teasing. That’s one of your good points. That’s something we have in common—I’m not the type who dishes it out but can’t take it.”
Once Shuhui started talking about himself, there was no end to it. Maybe it’s just that a man who is smart and good-looking is bound to be a bit of a narcissist too. Shuhui plunged into a stream of self- analysis, examining the finer points of his own personality. Meanwhile, Shijun could only wonder, in silence, what could have made Manzhen start talking about him.
Their factory was on the edge of town, where half-developed streets gave way to empty lots and open fields. Spring had come, dusting the fields with green, even though the air was chilly.
One day, at the noon break, Shijun washed himself quickly and went to the office to meet up with Shuhui, just as he usually did. But Shuhui wasn’t there; Manzhen sat alone at her desk, straightening some papers. She was wearing a blue-and-red-checked scarf, even while indoors; it went well with her dark blue tunic-type gown, very much the outfit of a genteel young woman. The blue gown had been through the wash many times and a whitish nap stood out on the worn material. The effect was gentle and refined, like the soft blue cover of a cloth-bound book.
“Where’s Shuhui?” Shijun asked.
Manzhen tipped her head in the direction of the manager’s office. “He waits till five minutes before break time,” she said in an undertone, “then calls you in for something terribly important. That’s how bosses are, I suppose.”
Shijun grinned and nodded. Perching on Shuhui’s desk, he reached over to the wall calendar and flipped through the pages while he waited. “I’m looking for the first day of spring on the lunar calendar.”
“Oh, it’s started already.”
“Then why is it still so cold?” He went on lifting the pages. “They’ve cut down on printing costs, no color here except the red on Sundays. I like the old calendars better, the ones we had when I was little, with Sundays in red and Saturdays in green. We tore off a page each day till finally we got to Saturday. Just seeing that bright green made us happy.”
“Yes, yes—and when we were in school, Saturday was happier than Sunday. Sunday was printed in red, but that only heightened the image of a beautifully fading sunset.”
Just then, Shuhui came in. As soon as he saw Manzhen, he called out, “Hey, didn’t I say you two should go ahead?”
“What’s the rush?” she asked.
“After we eat, we should find a good place to take pictures. I’ve borrowed a camera.”
“But it’s so cold. We’ll have ruddy noses and eyes—that won’t make a good picture.”
Shuhui pursed his lips in Shijun’s direction. “It’s for him, you know. His mother wrote to him and asked him to send her a picture. For matchmaking purposes, I would imagine.”
Shijun blushed. “What? No, it’s just my mother worrying about me. She’s afraid I’m getting thin, won’t believe me when I say I’m fine. She wants to see for herself.”
Shuhui looked him over carefully. “Well, you might not be thin, but you are dirty. If she sees you like this, she’ll think you’ve turned into a coal miner, and then she will worry.”
Shijun looked down at the workman’s outfit that he always wore.
“Wipe your clothes with a handkerchief,” Manzhen said. “I’ve got one here.”
“Oh—no, that’s fine,” Shijun said quickly. “It’s machine oil. It’ll never wash out of your handkerchief.” He took a crumpled wad of paper from the wastebasket and wiped his trousers with it.
“That won’t do,” Manzhen said, opening a drawer and taking out a neatly folded handkerchief. She dipped it in Shuhui’s water cup, and handed it to Shijun. He had to take it. One swipe, and a black splotch spread across the snow-white handkerchief. He winced.
Shuhui stood by the window looking at the sky. “It looks like the sun’s not going to stay out today. The pictures might not come out.” As he spoke, he took a comb from his trouser pocket and smoothed his hair, using the window as a mirror. Then, craning his neck, he adjusted his tie. Manzhen, watching this little display of vanity, had to stifle a laugh. Shuhui gave himself a wink, then turned and prodded Shijun: “Aren’t you ready yet?”
“There’s a spot on your face,” Manzhen told Shijun. “No, it’s over here—” She pointed to her own face to show him where it was. “And here’s another.” She took a little mirror from her handbag and passed it to him.
Reading Group Guide
This guide is intended to enhance your discussion of Eileen Chang’s Half a Lifelong Romance, a story of star-crossed love tested by the challenges of family and society in an era filled with change.
1. How does the book’s title, Half a Lifelong Romance, apply to the different couples in the book?
2. Early in the novel, the narrator states, “It just goes to show that the same thing can look very different, to different people” (page 21). How does this apply to the way each character views the other characters and their choices throughout the book?
3. Half a Lifelong Romance is set during the Second Sino-Japanese War, during which time Shanghai under occupation. How is the war depicted in the novel? How is it present (and absent) in the lives of the characters?
4. In what ways are the women in the novel limited by the conventions of 1930s Chinese society? How do the expectations of women differ when they are in Nanking (the country) versus Shanghai (the city)? How are Manzhen, Manlu, and Tsuizhi treated differently in the novel?
5. How is infidelity viewed by each of the main characters? How does this change throughout the novel? Who holds more power—Shijun’s mother or the concubine? Does the power dynamic shift at any point?
6. Shijun repeatedly worries that Manzhen was disappointed in him for giving up his job in Shanghai to take over his father’s business, but Manzhen never expresses this sentiment. Shijun is simply projecting his own feelings onto Manzhen. What other times does he do this in the novel?
7. Who is more to blame for Manzhen's kidnapping: Manlu or Hongtsai? How are other characters, like Manzhen’s mother and the servants, implicated in keeping her confined? A complete stranger eventually helps Manzhen escape. What does this imply?
8. Immediately after Manzhen’s attack, Manlu is “overcome with shame” but decides “it was too late now for regrets . . . she’d have to stay evil till the bitter end” (page 224). Does Manlu in fact remain malicious, or do you think she finds redemption before she dies?
9. On page 340, Manzhen thinks, “Looking back now, all she saw was the huge mistake she had made. The first mistake was Hongtsai’s. But she shouldn’t have married him afterwards. That was her big mistake.” Do you agree that marrying Hongstai was Manzhen’s big mistake? How do both fate and her own actions shape her destiny?
10. Shijun claims to have married Tsuizhi only because of his grief over his father and Manzhen and that he would have married any girl he spent time with during that period. Do you think that is true? Does Tsuizhi feel the same way about her decision to marry Shijun?
11. Manzhen chooses to marry a man who repulses her so that she can be with her son. Shijun has children with Tsuizhi, but he does not display deep love for them. Do you think that Manzhen and Shijun would have made good parents together?
12. At the end of the novel, the focus shifts between Manzhen and Shijun, but the reader never gets a full account of either side of the story. Why do you think the author chose to do this?
13. Much of the novel focuses on Manzhen and Shijun, but Shuhui and Tsuizhi are also star-crossed lovers. How does their love story differ from Manzhen and Shijun’s? How is it similar?