Yet the question does arise of why he would leave and not marry Yingying. It might be seen that the two do face a moral dilemma throughout the story. Yingying is a gentleman’s daughter—in fact, she is the daughter of the prime minister and a person whose life unfolds within full view of the rest of the country. Her virtue is guarded because its loss would represent a blow to the family name. Furthermore, as a young aristocratic lady of the Chinese court, she is expected to abide be certain rules of discretion.
Therefore, though she appears to be somewhat affected by Zhang’s initial presence and the pointed interest that he shows in her, she initially offers him no encouragement. This fact indicates that she is aware of the Confucian moral code of action to which she is bound. Yet Yingying’s being bound to this moral code can only become a dilemma if she desires to break it, and she indicates this desire in her reaction to Hungniang’s mention of Zhang’s initial questions to her about Yingying. She listens all the while with a smile and urges her maid not to tell her mother about it.
This determination to keep her mother in secrecy hints that, though Yingying does not herself pursue the relationship, she intends to leave the way open so that it might occur. More evidence of this dilemma might also be seen in her actions toward Zhang during their numerous passing of letters via the maid Hungniang. Yingying is happy that Zhang appears sick for her and seeks at the same time to ease his pain and meet with him. Yet, when the time comes for the meeting, she goes back on her word and does not allow it to take place.
This demonstrates that her desires are in moral conflict with her duties, and that she is torn between them. Zhang experiences a moral dilemma as well that can also be described in terms of desire clashing with duty. He is bound, by his will to succeed, to abstain from fleshly desires of women that often drive men to distraction from their academic or professional pursuits. As a man who has spent so much time preparing for an exam, it becomes evident right from the beginning that Zhang has become distracted from his purpose by the sight of Yingying.
He is introduced as a scholar—and though he is repeatedly named as Scholar Zhang in the text, his business at the moment is in stark contrast with what his purpose is known to be. He is to be about academic business, yet his actions demonstrate that he is more concerned with the business of winning the affections and physical love of Yingying. This reasoning is given weight in his later conversations with his friends following his receipt of Yingying’s letter. He 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” (Zhen, 1978).
He believes that Yingying’s is inevitably bound to destroy him with her beauty should he remain with her as he has vowed. His initial distraction from his purpose does give evidence to his dilemma. He realizes (or recalls) that sensual pleasures and young love do not mesh well with professions and academics. 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. He is therefore faced with a decision that scourges his flesh while it edifies his mind and spirit.
Yet this dilemma ought to have occurred on two levels: he is also bound, by a moral code, to refrain from touching a woman he does not intend (or would not be allowed) to marry. Though Hungniang refers to Zhang as a gentleman, it is clear that this title cannot be given much weight on aristocratic grounds. This clarity comes from the fact that a reason Mrs. Ts’ui gives for reneging on her promise of Yingying’s hand is that Zhang’s societal rank is too low to allow his being taken in as a part of the Ts’ui family. This matter would have been apparent to Zhang even at the beginning of the story.
It is therefore surprising that he demonstrates little reluctance or ambivalence in the initial stages of his relationship with Yingying. He courts her unrelentingly and shows no indication of holding back his advances. He does not woo her as a cad; rather, he uses verse and bears the aspect of a true lover. Yet, his lack of ambivalence might betray him to be a master of duplicity. He hurriedly conjures a plan that involves vegetarian food and the mourning of his parents in order to be close to Yingying on the day that she publicly mourns her father.
It might be considered, from Zhang’s actions, that he lacks respect for the dead—both his parents and Yingying’s dead father. He shows no struggle or moral dilemma in defiling with his lustful desires the day for honoring these elders. Any such struggle might have revealed a level of honor in his intentions toward Yingying. Yet, all he does show during this time (before leaving her) is a constancy that might be attributed solely to his determination to get what he wants from Yingying.