“He came to her and her pulse quickened”: on calligraphy and commas in Jeannie Lin’s My Fair Concubine

Photo by MChe Lee on Unsplash

One of my favorite motifs in romance is watching two characters come together, and grow their attraction, over unexpected quotidian activities. In Jeannie Lin’s My Fair Concubine, the scenes where Fei Long teaches calligraphy to Yan Ling are some of the most richly detailed and achingly romantic of the book. Before looking at one of these scenes, here’s the cover and a description of the book from Publisher’s Weekly: 

In ninth-century China, Fei Long is a soldier from a noble family whose sister, Pearl, runs away with her lover to avoid becoming an alliance bride. After Fei Long gives his sister all of his money and allows her to escape, he meets the orphan Yan Ling, who begs him for help. He proposes a plan to substitute her for Pearl to maintain his family’s wealth and honor. As Fei Long and his friends undertake the magnificent transformation of the unlearned and outspoken servant into a well-bred noblewoman, fooling even the suspicious Inspector Tong, the teacher and the pupil soon fall in love—jeopardizing the whole scheme. (source)

Buy links and an excerpt at the author’s website.

This scene takes place about halfway through the book, and Fei Long’s attempts to help Yan Ling pass as a princess are hitting a rough spot. Following an evening that had seemed to draw them closer, Fei Long is now treating his protégée with distant coldness. They’re only starting to figure out their romantic feelings, as this passage makes clear in the way they tentatively move around each other. 

He came to her and her pulse quickened, but he was only there to look over her work. 

‘Better,’ he pronounced. 

She nodded. All she could see was the smear of ink on the ruined second column. She wondered if he really even cared and why it mattered that her characters had to be perfect anyway. Of course, Fei Long was meticulous. He always cared that things were in order. That everything and everyone was in their proper place. 

‘Here.’ His voice softened by the tiniest of notes. ‘I’ll show you how to write your name.’ 

She shifted her chair over to accommodate him and he moved in beside her. With measured grace, he took hold of the brush, dipped it into the ink and started to write on the edge of the practice paper.

Two characters emerged in Fei Long’s bold script, one on top of the other. There was no hesitation in his strokes. It was as if her entire name flowed out as one spoken verse, each lift of the brush a mere pause between words. 

‘Yan Ling,’ he said when it was done. 

Her name looked so much more elegant and complex than the girl it represented. ‘Thank you,’ she murmured. 

He set the brush down, but remained beside her. Was he any closer than usual? Was his voice just a touch warmer when he addressed her? She couldn’t know. She would never be able to know for certain.

‘Now you,’ he said. 

She tried to mimic his technique in her own deliberate manner. Fei Long waited patiently for her to finish with his head bent close to watch her work. This was his subtle, silent apology. No words. Just a small bit of gentleness to counter his earlier harshness.

‘Good,’ he said once she was done. He straightened abruptly. ‘Keep practising.’ 

She fought very hard not to watch him leave.

Jeannie Lin, My Fair Concubine. 2012.

The passage is about the characters in Yan Ling’s name, and the way Fei Long moves as he writes them – two things that a passage of printed English can’t really show us. It can intimate them, however, through the way it structures sentence-level prose: specifically, through its use of punctuation and paired sentences.

I will admit right up front that I am not the strictest adherent to punctuation rules, nor do I pretend to be an absolute expert on them. But when I first read this passage, parts of sentences seemed to move or even run together in a way that surprised me. To give a few examples: 

With measured grace, he took hold of the brush, dipped it into the ink and started to write on the edge of the practice paper.

He came to her and her pulse quickened, but he was only there to look over her work.

She shifted her chair over to accommodate him and he moved in beside her

Each of these sentences could theoretically be written with an additional comma before the word “and.” In the first, the much-discussed serial/Oxford comma is absent, a choice many people make one way or the other while having very strong feelings about it. I’m less interested in the motivation or style guide being followed here and more interested in what the effect might be on the reader. The lack of a final comma makes it seem like Fei Long can dip into the ink and start writing almost simultaneously. For Yan Ling, who has been struggling to learn calligraphy and making splotches on the paper, it conveys the almost magical smoothness with which he moves when he writes. 

In each of the other two sentences, a movement of Yan Ling’s is paired with a movement of Fei Long’s (He came to her and her pulse quickened./She shifted her chair over to accommodate him and he moved in beside her). The comma-less “and” in these sentences allows the movements to live in a space between simultaneity and causality: the movements happen not quite but almost because of each other.

Commas preceding “and” are often omitted throughout the book, with the overall effect of giving the writing a flowing quality. Particularly in a book about calligraphy, the clauses can read like flowing brushstrokes, the less-frequent commas like the pauses between them. In this passage in particular, sentences are punctuated to make certain movements move in pairs, while they are offset from others. 

Like the paired movements above, many elements of this passage come in sets of two, much like the characters of Yan Ling’s name: adjectives (subtle, silent), nouns (everything and everyone, gentleness and harshness), and even dialogue (“Yan Ling,” “Thank you,” “Now you,” “Keep practicing”). But I’d like to dive deeper into the heart of this passage, where we see arguably the most poignant connection between the two characters, expressed through sets of structurally paired sentences and clauses.

He set the brush down, but remained beside her. Was he any closer than usual? Was his voice just a touch warmer when he addressed her? She couldn’t know. She would never be able to know for certain.

I read this passage in three sets of pairs, starting with the first sentence: 

He set the brush down, but remained beside her.

The use of “but” instead of “and,” along with a comma where there doesn’t strictly need to be one, signals a rupture. The sentence is also structured differently than other paired movements in the passage. Rather than: 

He set the brush down and remained beside her.

which would mimic previous similar sentences, we get

He set the brush down, but remained beside her. 

As readers, we feel a kind of hesitation or contradiction between these movements, the sense of a breakdown to come.

The double rhythmic rupture (, but) is followed by a pair of questions that continues the theme of breakdown :

 Was he any closer than usual? Was his voice just a touch warmer when he addressed her?

Both sentences follow the same basic structure:

Was [noun] [adverb] [comparative] [expression of time]?

What interests me is how the two escalate as a pair. Virtually all the bracketed elements in the first question become 1-3 words longer in the second:  

Was [he] [any] [closer than] [usual]?

Was [his voice] [just a touch] [warmer] [when he addressed her]?

These successive lines have a rising rhythm of self-questioning, reflecting Yan Ling’s growing uncertainty over her relationship to Fei Long. The next two lines do something similar, in that they’re both built around the same structural kernel, but the second one reflects less stability than the first. 

She couldn’t know. She would never be able to know for certain. 

These two sentences share the use of “she” and “to know,” and they both express essentially the same idea: Yan Ling is unsure of Fei Long’s feelings for her.

I think, however, that the mood of the two sentences is entirely different, and that the shift between them is deeply meaningful. “She couldn’t know” is a categorical and timeless statement about impossibility. “Would never,” though, is about the future, and “be able to” is about personal emotional capacity. As a sentence opener, it feels much more unstable, and thus more open-ended. Whereas “She couldn’t know” denies any possibility, “She would never be able to know for certain” refuses only the ability to be certain about the future.

Not only does this section of paired sentences – as anxious as it sounds – leave open possibility for the couple’s future, but it also tells us a lot about Yan Ling as a character. As these lines develops she becomes more expansive, using more words to communicate her ideas. Communication is a major issue for her in this novel, and so while in some senses these lines undermine her confidence, they also open her up to uncertainty, and allow her to express herself more freely. 

Ultimately, this passage uses punctuation and paired sentences so readers can feel the movements and impressions of calligraphy even when they can see them. But beyond that, it allows us to develop a real sense for Yan Ling and her growing emotional and self-expression. Like Fei Long’s brush strokes, the passage accomplishes a great deal in a very compact space.

2 thoughts on ““He came to her and her pulse quickened”: on calligraphy and commas in Jeannie Lin’s My Fair Concubine

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s