Feng Menglong starts his first collection of stories (from the collection Stories Old and New) with an entertaining story about coincidences, an unfaithful wife, and how to get into a married woman’s bed chamber.
The story is titled Jiang Xingge Reencounters His Pearl Shirt. It is about several families of the merchant class of China, and it takes place in the mid-Ming dynasty.
What we learn from this story:
- Merchants routinely made journeys of a year, or more. This shows up in other stories as well. Why Chinese merchants would takes such long trips seems odd to me. I believe there is nothing like this in European stories, not until the age of exploration. European merchants traveled, but they were never gone for more than nine months.
- Men and women falling in love was commonplace, though it is usually a source of trouble – hence interesting stories. So, despite all these arranged marriages, love, passionate love, is perfectly understood and it seems born out of physical desire in addition to a harmony of personality.
- Divorce was possible in Imperial China. You were allowed to divorce because your spouse had abandoned you. If you were a man, you could certainly divorce your wife if she engaged in adultery. In theory, you could divorce a woman who behaved disrespectfully towards your parents, but this never seems to happen. Also, in theory, you could divorce a woman who failed to bear a son, but this also never seems to happen. Instead, you just brought in a second woman into your household.
- At the end of the story, one merchant has married two women, one woman was his first wife, then he divorced her, then he married her again and he married another woman in-between these events. The question was: who is the primary wife? There can only be ONE primary wife, but that is not based on who you marry first, instead its based on other factors such as social status. For example, if you were rising man in the imperial government and the emperor offered you one of his daughters as a wife, she would become the primary wife no matter how many other women you were already married to.
Note how this story has a happy ending which would not have been possible in Europe. And why does it have a happy ending? Because our main character had every right to marry two women.
Note: all of the wonderful stories of Feng Menglong have been translated by the Yang and Yang. My thanks and appreciation for their dedicated work over the last 30 years is deep. A good essay here about the series of books from the copy-editor at the University of Washington Press.