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Moral Dilemma

22 Feb 2017Psychology Essays

“The Story of Yingying” features two characters that have a different moral outlook towards their relationship with each other. They live in the ancient Chinese world in which there are many complex issues which affect them differently. This has an impact on their relations pulling them apart. Zhang is a scholar who is not very rich but he is capable and thus holds much promise to excel in his studies. Yingying, on the other hand is from an upper-class background whose future has already been decided by her parents by selecting an aristocratic partner whom she will marry. This difference in the background between the two was not seen when they first met which complicated their relationship later. The text of the story however is very revealing and clearly gives out the true characters of the lovers and the intensity of their love for each other. The different social background of the lovers indicates that their romance is not likely to end favorably. At the same time the difference in feelings felt by them for each other and their moral dilemmas come out clearly in the narrative. Zhang shows that he is an immature person who has falsely won Yingying’s love and broken her heart for his own greed. Yingying, on the other hand, shows that her love for Zhang is true and steady. Thus, Zhang fails to prove his sincerity, while Yingying comes out as more honest and candid in their relationship.

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The character of Zhang, the scholar is difficult to comprehend from the very beginning. Many things about him make it necessary for the reader to question his actions as soon as the story starts. He is introduced as a person who is clear about his goals—a scholar who is working very hard to pass the imperial examinations. The reader is thus quite impressed by Zhang’s dedication to his studies and thus starts respecting him. However, when he very rashly falls in love with Yingying without a second thought on first seeing her, the reader starts suspecting his intentions for a man dedicated to his studies cannot give up his goals so quickly. A person like Zhang who falls in love with a girl as Yingying after seeing her face and body without studying her character does create doubts of his overall intentions and the strength of his character which come true at the end of the tale. The reader explores two possibilities for Zhang’s sudden love for Yingying.

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The first possibility is that perhaps he is not fully aware of the outside world as the reader once believed. It is, of course, necessary to see the situation in which he has taken his decision. At the time in which Zhang lived in China, male youth were traditionally not allowed to see or meet beautiful women of the court. Possibly he would have had no opportunity, due to his social standing to meet beautiful and cultured women of high birth as Yingying. He may have been exposed only to the lower class women as servants or as a student deeply occupied in his studies he would have had no time to see women. The above possibilities indicate that Zhang was innocent and had fallen in love with Yingying immediately after seeing her due to her beauty and good grooming and not with any ill intention. Zhang can thus be seen as a very noble person with good intent.

However, the second possibility is more alarming. In this Zhang can be seen as a man who is very much exposed to the World and after seeing a beautiful woman falls for her to enjoy the physical pleasure of her company. His reaction to her beauty is thus far from innocent and is only concerned with deriving as much pleasure as is possible from her beauty. After seeing his conduct when he is leaving for his examination, in a later part of the story, the reader may feel that such behavior is expected from men during that period in Chinese society. Yingying possibly aware that Zhang is about to leave her forever, says to him, “To seduce someone and then abandon her is perfectly natural, and it would be presumptuous of me to resent it. It would be an act of charity on your part if, having first seduced me, you were to go through with it and fulfill your oath of lifelong devotion”. These words provide a view to the reader that Zhang had never intended to be seriously involved with Yingying and was only flirting with her with false promises to leave her at an opportune time.

Yet the question does arise as to why he would leave and not marry Yingying. This moral dilemma is faced by both the main characters throughout the story. Yingying is a prime minister’s daughter. Thus all her activities and actions are exposed to the public. She has to ensure that she does not get involved with a weak match as otherwise it would spoil the family name. She also has some responsibility as a young lady from an aristocratic family to abide by high standards of behavior. Thus though she is initially impressed by Zhang and sees that he is taking a lot of interest in her, she does not take notice of him. The Confucian moral code that binds aristocrats is also binding on Yingying and she appears aware of her limitations in socially mixing with people of lower order as Zhang.

The moral code can be a dilemma for Yingying only if she is intending to break the same. Her intent to break it is obvious when she gives an indication of this to Hungniang when she asks her response to Zhang’s initial approach to her. She shows some interest in Zhang to her maid but tells her not to inform her mother. This indicates that she wants to keep her option open to pursue the relationship with Zhang. Thus the young lady is in a dilemma which continues as Zhang and Yingying exchange many letters through her maid Hungniang. Yingying is happy that she is getting Zhang’s attention and he wants to meet her. But when the actual time comes to meet she goes back on her words and refuses to meet Zhang. This shows that there is a conflict between her duties as a lady of high birth and desire to meet Zhang.

Zhang also experiences a similar moral dilemma between duty and desire. One voice tells him that women are a distraction to men pursuing studies or a profession, thus if he wants to succeed he may have to give up his desire to be close to Yingying. The very sight of her distracts the young man and he loses his focus on studies. While he is introduced and referred to as Scholar Zhang through out the text, his actions are directed more towards winning the love of Yingying than in pursuing his studies.

This becomes quite obvious in the conversation between him and his friends following the receipt of Yingying’s letter. Zhang says to his friend, “It is a general rule that those women endowed by Heaven with great beauty invariably either destroy themselves or destroy someone else.” He believes that Yingying will finally destroy him with her beauty if he continues to pursue her love as he has promised. Thus this creates a dilemma which is fully evident in the initial stages itself as he finds that his love for Yingying is clashing with his studies and professional growth. Though he perhaps would have liked to remain with Yingying and make her his wife, he cannot do so and complete his studies at the same time. There is thus a conflict between his body which wants Yingying and his mind which takes him towards his duty.

However this dilemma faced by Zhang between love and studies should have occurred at two levels. Though he has been referred to as a gentleman by Hungniang he is not of a noble birth. Thus he will not be allowed to marry Yingying even if he intended to do so and thus have no moral right to touch her. This is obvious and Mrs. Ts’ui tells him very clearly that he does not belong to the same high society as them and thus cannot form a part of their family by marrying Yingying. Given this reality it is quite surprising that he pursues his relationship with Yingying so enthusiastically and does not hold back his advances frequently demonstrating that he is not just flirting but is truly in love with her.

By falsely showing the force of his love initially, Zhang can be seen as a very dishonest person. Thus he mourns along with Yingying when she loses her father by recalling his own sorrow when he lost his parents and also makes up a plan of having vegetarian food to indicate his closeness to her. His action of false mourning can be interpreted as lack of respect for the dead. Thus he is not concerned about honoring the dead but only wants to fulfill his physical desire of being close to Yingying. There is apparently no struggle within him on this issue and he just seems to want to be near Yingying by any means.

This thought in the reader is supported by the subsequent action narrated in the story. The difference between the characters also indicates their mental states when they are apart. Yingying’s letter and Zhang’s reaction to it also show the same emotions. Yingying shows that she continues to love Zhang and understands why he is staying in the capital to pursue his studies even at the cost of missing her company. Zhang however only attempts to justify his own position. Yingying writes:

Our first meeting was at the banquet, as cousins. Then you persuaded my maid to inform me of your love; and I was unable to keep my childish heart firm. You made advances, like that other poet, Ssu-ma Hsiang-ju. I failed to repulse them as the girl did who threw her shuttle. When I offered myself in your bed, you treated me with the greatest kindness, and I supposed, in my innocence, that I could always depend on you. How could I have foreseen that our encounter could not possibly lead to something definite that having disgraced myself by coming to you, there was no further chance of serving you openly as a wife?

The reader can very clearly see that Yingying is truly suffering as much as she is expressing it as shown by the writer. She is also shown to feel the consolation provided by Zhang. However as the story progresses, Zhang’s true character is revealed to the reader when he curses Yingying for using her charm to bring disaster to him by distracting him from his studies and compares her to a monster capable of extreme cruelty. Zhang then crosses limits by comparing himself as one of those great men destroyed by low women as Yingying.

The story of love between these two characters, Zhang and Yingying, thus comes out as a very complex relationship. Zhang’s love is merely physical and demanding from Yingying, she indicates that the love experienced by her is caring and long lasting.

Yingying has a more favorable picture of Zhang though the reader is aware of the inconsistency shown by him. Zhang’s affection for her however comes out to be false and unbecoming of a gentleman. His love is weak just as he appears to be a person who does not display strong moral character. Zhang’s love is selfish while Yingying is more virtuous. A woman of noble birth, she is even prepared to give up her aristocracy, while Zhang while abandoning their relationship continues to stay in the capital with the comfort of the thought that he has once possessed her love.


  • Hightower, James. “Yuan Chena and ‘The story of Ying-Ying.” Harvard University, JSTOR: p. 90-122
  • Wang, Shifu. “The Story of the Western Wing.” Translated by Stephen West and Wilt Idema. University of California Press, 1995: P 232-264
  • Zhen, Y. (1978). “The Story of Yingying [trans. James R. Hightower].” in Ma Yau- Woon, Joseph S. M. Lau (eds.), Traditional Chinese Stories, Themes and Variations, New York: Columbia University Press, p. 139 - 145.
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