Does this sound familiar? Somebody gets sick from a highly contagious disease, and the patient is told to go into isolation for their greater good of their community. Everybody around the infected person is told to quarantine, because they too might be infected. Only, the patient’s newlywed husband refuses to follow the advice of doctors. He demands that he must stay to tend her and nurse her back to health. She does recover, but because newlywed refused to follow the doctor’s instructions, he contracts the illness from his betrothed and dies.
This sounds like a COVID-19 tragedy — especially if you are American where the disease is still out of control. But, it is not. Actually, it’s a Chinese story, and it has nothing to do with COVID-19. It is a plot of a play written originally in English by a Changzhou native, Hong Shen, more than a hundred years ago. It was originally performed at Ohio State University. In 2013, the university revived the play with a multicultural casting. The disease in question was the plague. The story goes like follows.
This play, “The Wedded Husband,” was about much more than just dealing with an epidemic. It was also about the conflicts of traditional Chinese values confronting a modernizing world. It tells the tale of an arranged marriage. The perspective husband is a bumbling idiot, as he is both childish and a simpleton.
And his future wife? She wants none of that noise.
She knows she has been promised her father’s close friend. Even though she loves somebody else, she’s willing to accept her duty and do as her father commands. It’s a basic case of Chinese filial piety.
Yet, she faints during the wedding ceremony. She’s whisked away, and the diagnosis is not a broken heart, it’s the plague that’s hit China. Throughout the script, plague has always been in “The City” and not the small town where they are at. I know this is wild extrapolation, but I never saw a Changzhou-Shanghai conflict if I actually hadn’t before. Changzhou, and every thing else that isn’t Shanghai, are just mere provinces. They are The City. We who don’t live there are the The Wilderness. It’s not a big part of a this play, but is a part of living in China and near Shanghai is to be constantly told that you are always inferior to Shanghai. Anyhow moving on.
The play ends with a reversal. The widow now has a chance at a wedding she wanted from the get go: to a man she actually loved. Only, now, she refuses that as well, citing Chinese tradition and a sense of duty to a man she never liked. She now feels the need to honor a guy who nursed her back to health and gave his own life doing so.
The psychological entanglements here are epic. Hong Shen, as a modernizing dramatist wanting to pull the Chinese stage away from traditional opera, once professed a desire to become his native country’s Henrik Ibsen. Besides possibly “Pyr Gynt,” most of this Norwegian’s plays were gritty and real and tackled issues facing everyday people. A play like “The Wedded Husband” definitely shows that influence — gritty and real — goes a long way in doing exactly that.
There is a very tiny memorial hall dedicated Hong’s family. It’s in an alley next to Hongmei Park. It’s in this hall that I learned of “The Wedded Husband” and the Changzhou native that sought to revolutionize Chinese drama.
COVID-19 is a generational issue. It has affected so many lives across the world that one blogger could never totally assess its impact. It’s an issue that historians for generations to come will be examining. Living through it has been hell. A lot of expats have experienced this pain both in China and then in our native countries. Finding this play gave me some comfort that outbreaks have happened before, and people do find a way through them. And, most importantly, dealing with the corona virus is not new. Fighting disease is a story as old as being human.