Marriage by Time Skip

This post contains major spoilers for Way of Choices (擇天記) by Mao Ni. I’m serious, the spoilers are major.

Content note: brief reference to murder-suicide

In the novel Way of Choices by Mao Ni, the protagonist, Chen Changsheng, and another major character, Xu Yourong, develop a romantic relationship. This is a total non-surprise since the reader learns in the prologue that they have been designated as each other’s fiancé since a young age. In many ways, their romance unfolds in a very typical way, though there are enough surprises to prevent it from feeling too clichéd. Though they break off their engagement for a while (because of misunderstandings and not wanting to get married to someone their elders arranged for them to get married), they reach a point where they have obviously decided to get together romantically after all.

Then there is a ten year time skip. I was actually a bit surprised by this time skip because I expected them to have the ‘obligatory’ wedding scene before a decade-long time skip. As both Chen Changsheng and Xu Yourong appeared on the scene after the time skip, I expected to find references to their wedding, or to hear the story of why they were not married ten years later. I found it odd that, chapter after chapter, there were no such references, or even a clarification of Chen Changsheng and Xu Yourong’s official relationship. Since Chen Changshen and Xu Yourong are depicted interacting with each other, the reader can interpret how they feel about each other after the time skip, but that does not answer the question of whether or not they are married.

Quite a few chapters later, Chen Changsheng has a conversation with another character which strongly implies that Chen Changsheng is already married to Xu Yourong, though this is not explicitly confirmed. Of course, Chen Changsheng and this other character would already know whether or not he is already married to Xu Yourong, so they don’t need to say it out loud.

Then there is this sentence:

徐有容一直站在他的身边,不是以妻子的姿态,也不是归属者的姿态,而是平等的姿态。”

Xu Yourong stood by [Chen Changsheng’s] side, not with the posture of a wife, nor with the posture of a follower, but with the posture of an equal.

Again, this does not state what their marital status is, though the fact that the narrator felt the need to specify that Xu Yourong did not stand in the posture of a wife implies that Xu Yourong is, in fact, Chen Changsheng’s wife.

And then, much later, there is a scene which implies very, very strongly that Chen Changsheng and Xu Yourong are married. Previously in the novel, Xu Yourong had said that if she ever had a husband who treated and loved her very well but was generally a bad person, she would kill him and then kill herself. The narrator then reminds the reader of this as Xu Yourong contemplates committing murder-suicide with Chen Changsheng. This could only be connected to Xu Yourong’s views of what to do about a husband who was good to her but bad to everyone else if Chen Changsheng is in fact her husband. And then another character present at the scene says:

你们两个是白痴啊!还没到最后时刻,扮什么殉情夫妻!

You both are idiots! It’s not the last minute yet, why the heck are you acting like a married couple dying together for the sake of love!

It’s not an explicit confirmation of Chen Changsheng and Xu Yourong’s marital status, but I have a hard time imagining that this character would say this if they were not married, especially since the word for ‘die for the sake of love’ (yes, that’s a single word in Chinese) is usually paired with one of the words for ‘lovers’, not the word for ‘married couple’.

Additionally, before the time skip, third parties tended to lose their shit when they observed Chen Changsheng and Xu Yourong spending time alone together or sharing a sleeping space. That is because their society regards pre-marital sexual contact (including kissing or a man and a woman non-sexually sharing a bed) as taboo. For example, when one character noticed that Chen Changsheng and Xu Yourong had spent the night together, she says “好一对奸夫 / What a pair of sluts” (this is awkward to translate because English does not have a gender-neutral word for ‘slut’). Another character responds “他们有婚约在身,如何说得上是奸夫 / They are betrothed, how can you say they are sluts” and the first character responds: “男女授受不亲,即便是未婚夫妻,一日未成亲,便要保持距离 / Men and women should not touch hands, even if they are betrothed, as long as they aren’t married, they must maintain a distance”.

After the time skip, Chen Changsheng and Xu Yourong sometimes share a bedroom without trying to conceal it, or touch each other in public, and nobody loses their shit, which either means that everyone has given up on calling out their impropriety OR they are married.

I must say that having all of these heavy hints that the protagonist got married – to one of the other major characters no less – without any kind of outright confirmation really threw me off. I’m not used to romantic subplots in fiction doing this. I did not completely trust that this was going on until the very end of the novel.

In retrospect, I love that the novel subverts the standard romance-going-up-the-relationship-escalator in this way.

Why does a work of fiction need to spell out whether or not the protagonist has gotten married, or explain why they have not married their main love interest? Why not just let it be unsaid and focus on the main plot, or different subplots, or different aspects of the romantic couple’s relationship?

Just because 99% of romantic plots/subplots featuring the protagonist depict a ‘consummation’ (it could be a wedding, the moment they agree to have a romantic relationship, etc.) and it usually presented as the resolution of the romance arc, or at least makes a point of saying that the marriage/consummation happened / will happen, does not mean it is a required element for a fictional protagonist’s romance to work.

But, because it is so rare for the major romance arc in a story to choose a different structure, it threw me off when I encountered it, so much that I did not believe that the romance arc had skipped the (apparently not) obligatory consummation of the romantic relationship until the very end.

Since it is not spelled out what exactly Chen Changsheng and Xu Yourong think and feel about marriage, their views are a matter of reader interpretation. However, one thing they have in common is not being too concerned by what other people say and think. And to the extent that they are concerned, it is for practical reasons, not because they personally care about other people’s opinions. Thus, I do not think exhortations that young men and women spending time alone together is shameful matters to them much beyond the fact that having a bad reputation would create trouble.

There is a time, when Chen Changsheng is feeling insecure in his relationship with Xu Yourong, that becoming her husband might actually have personal meaning to him. But the way I interpret it, once he’s figured out that she is committed to him in her own way, he feels more secure about the relationship. At that point, the question of becoming officially married is a question of politics and avoiding having others give him grief over his relationship with Xu Yourong, not something which is a personally important change. Xu Yourong, throughout the story, seems to be even less inclined to care about nonsense such as reputation than Chen Changsheng, and she even has a speech at one point where she says that caring about reputation is bullshit (this partially reflects her privilege – most of the time, she is less vulnerable position than Chen Changsheng, and thus offending people is less risky for her than for him).

Also, even though they clearly have a romantic relationship, there is more to their relationship than romance. The novel even suggests that the romance is not even the aspect of their relationship which they value the most. At various points, the novel refers to them as ‘dào​lǚ​’ (道侣). There is no good way to translate that word into English, so I’m going to list a bunch of bad translations: Daoist companions, spiritual partners, companions in mysticism, partners in magic, religious mates, fellow travellers, etc. Their culture does not distinguish between religion, spirituality, magic, mysticism, personal development, etc. and since this novel was written in Chinese this can all be labelled as ‘Daoism’ (yep, that is the ‘dào​’ in dào​lǚ) even if it is not based on traditional Chinese Daoism (if you are bothered by how I chose to present these ideas in English, I hope you appreciate just how hard this stuff is to translate and understand why I am not translating it in the way you prefer).

The point is that their relationship is based on supporting each other in their development as mystics/magicians. I think they both value that more than romance, and other characters who observe their behavior also sometimes seem to interpret it that way. Marital status is irrelevant to their dào​lǚ​ relationship, and I can definitely see Chen Changsheng and Xu Yourong thinking of themselves as dào​lǚ​ first and foremost, even if/after they are married. And the narrative supports this by never confirming or denying whether they actually get married.

I think this choice to never mention whether or not they get married makes the romance feel more special. When a story follows the well-trod path of romance-arcs-in-fiction, it often feel like a rehash of a zillion other romance arcs, and thus the reader can fill in the blanks and not pay too much attention to the details. This novel deviates from that, which pushed me as a reader to pay more attention to this specific relationship and notice the details and view these characters and their romance as unique to them.

Of course, if more stories did marriages by time skip, it would not be unique, and it might even turn into its own cliché.

If you’ve read the entire novel, you also know that Chen Changsheng eventually chooses to leave Xu Yourong. It is not clear whether or not they stay in contact during the 20+ years they never see each other. At the end of the novel, he expresses an interest in meeting with Xu Yourong again, but before he has a chance to do that, the novel ends. It’s the frustrating inconclusive ending (which is inconclusive way beyond the question of Chen whether Changsheng and Xu Yourong see each other again).

All and all, I think that implying without confirming that the protagonist is married was a very cool and thought-provoking choice on the part of the novelist, and it prompted me to think about why it is ‘obligatory’ for romance arcs in fiction to provide ‘closure’ to the romance arc by confirming a marriage or other affirmation of the relationship.

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