This month marks the centenary of the birth of Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing), one of the most celebrated modern authors in the Chinese-speaking world. Chang is largely remembered for the works which first brought her acclaim in China: the romance stories she began publishing in the early forties while living in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. In addition to being canonised as Penguin Modern Classics, many of these stories – ‘Love in a Fallen City’, ‘Red Rose, White Rose’, Half a Lifelong Romance, ‘Lust, Caution’ – have enjoyed an afterlife in adaptations by prominent Sinophone filmmakers such as Ann Hui, Stanley Kwan, and Ang Lee (not to mention the numerous TV serialisations of Chang’s life and work).
Though her star lost some of its lustre after her immigration to America in 1955, Chang remained a cult figure – if not always on Mainland China (where her writing would have to wait until the eighties to be rehabilitated), then certainly in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where a ‘Chang school’ of writers emerged in the seventies. For writers and scholars either of Chinese descent or with an interest in Chinese literature, Chang’s legacy as the zushi nainai (‘Grandma/ster’ in Xiao Jiwei’s clever rendering of David Der-wei Wang’s epithet) of modern Chinese letters is one that can’t be ignored.
The scion of a once-powerful political family in the late Qing dynasty, Chang was born in Shanghai on 30 September 1920. Her birthdate sits between two landmark historical moments: just over a year after the May Fourth student protests in Beijing and just under a year before the Chinese Communist Party’s inaugural National Congress in Shanghai. While her early life was lived in the midst of revolutionary and reformist fervour, her oeuvre would seem to carve out a crevice rather than a building block in the literary edifice of modern China, the foundation stones of which were laid by Lu Xun (who would become the de facto laureate of Maoist China) and the May Fourth writers.
Defending her fiction in 1944, Chang self-effacingly professed that she was ‘incapable of writing the kind of work that people usually refer to as a “monument to an era”’; her art was more ‘prosaic’, concerned with ‘the trivial things that happen between men and women’. The difficulty of fitting Chang’s work within a national canon (or mythology) is, then, partially a matter of aesthetic strategy, which critics such as Rey Chow have interpreted as a feminist critique of totalising literary practices. It is also partially a matter of geography. Chang is an exemplary instance of a ‘translocal’ writer: a writer whose worldliness is routed through the byway of cities and local dialects rather than the highway of nation-states and official languages.
Chang’s stories repeatedly tell, in Leo Ou-fan Lee’s phrase, a ‘tale of two cities’: Shanghai and Hong Kong – two exciting centres of cosmopolitan life; two ignominious reminders of China’s impotence in the face of Western imperial aggression. Increasingly cut off from the rest of the world by the outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945), Chang retained some residual mobility by migrating between these two cities, repeating in miniature the intercontinental peregrinations of her Anglophile mother. In 1939, Chang went to study English literature at the University of Hong Kong, having initially intended to enrol in the University of London (a plan scuttled by the outbreak of war in Europe). Her studies were interrupted after two years by the fall of Hong Kong to the Japanese; back in Shanghai, Chang began writing – not just stories, but also essays and film reviews for a variety of venues including the pro-Axis English-language journal edited by Klaus Mehnert, The XXth Century. She was only twenty-four when she published her first collection of stories, Romances (Chuanqi), in 1944; this was followed by an essay collection, Written on Water (Liuyan), in 1945 and then an expanded edition of Romances in 1947. With these works, Chang became, according to Nicole Xincun Huang, ‘a principal architect of the cultural life in occupied Shanghai’. Her writing of the forties and fifties provides an extended ethnographic account of urban Chinese culture: the magazines and journals, women’s fashion, and film industry that transformed Shanghai into the ‘Paris of the East’. Though Hong Kong is an important and recurrent setting in her work, Shanghai remained the seedbed of her imagination. She was, as she put it in one of her essays, ‘Shanghainese to the end’ (‘Daodi shi Shanghairen’).
However, the Communists’ victory over the Kuomintang in the civil war that persisted after the withdrawal of the Japanese persuaded Chang to return to Hong Kong in 1952. Her impeccable bourgeois pedigree, as well as her short-lived marriage to a Japanese collaborator, made her position in the new regime on the Mainland precarious. While in Hong Kong, Chang produced two English-language novels, The Rice-Sprout Song (1955) and Naked Earth (1956), translations from her own original Chinese. Critical of the Communist land reforms in rural China, these novels were published under the auspices of the United States Information Agency (the director of USIA’s cultural operations in Hong Kong, Richard McCarthy, had tracked her career closely). Created by the Truman administration, the USIA (formerly the USIS) was an important part of Eisenhower’s Cold War strategy, in which ‘propaganda’ was rebranded as ‘information service’. Chang’s contributions to ‘literary information warfare’ (as Richard Jean So calls it) smoothed her passage to the United States.
While Chang would never re-capture the glory or the publicity of her Shanghai years, she found an appreciative audience among a generation of Chinese literary scholars in America. Chief among these was C.T. Hsia, who helped establish the study of modern Chinese literature in the American academy. Through a series of definitive monographs and anthologies, Hsia cemented Chang’s reputation among Western readers as ‘the most gifted Chinese writer to emerge in the forties, and certainly the most important’. The longest chapter in Hsia’s History of Modern Chinese Literature (1961) is reserved for an analysis of Chang’s work; he also commissioned Chang to translate her novella, ‘The Golden Cangue,’ into English for Twentieth-Century Chinese Stories (1971). After the death of her second husband Ferdinand Reyher in 1967, Chang began a decades-long retreat into seclusion, dying alone in her Los Angeles flat in 1995. Her literary remains (including the manuscript for her recently published roman-à-clef, Little Reunions) were entrusted to literary friends in Hong Kong, Mae Fong Soong and Stephen Soong. Towards the end of her life, Chang increasingly devoted herself to textual scholarship and translation. She published a book-length philological study of the Chinese classic, A Dream of the Red Chamber (1791), as well as undertaking English and Mandarin translations of Han Bangqing’s courtesan novel, The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai (1892), large swathes of which are written in the Wu dialect (Shanghainese is a variant). These works make Chang an important circulation agent in the network of world literature. With too much baggage to make a home for herself in the People’s Republic, she was always at home in the republic of letters.
Anatomizing the heart during a time of war, Chang’s stories transpose the themes of fidelity and betrayal from the intimate sphere of romantic and conjugal relations to the public sphere of diplomatic and geopolitical ties. Chang could draw upon her personal experience: the most controversial part of her legacy remains her marriage in 1944 to Hu Lancheng, a writer, literary editor, and bureaucrat in Wang Jingwei’s puppet government during the Japanese occupation.
A serial philanderer, Hu was in the middle of his third marriage when he began pursuing Chang, whose work he had published and reviewed warmly. In Little Reunions, Chang recounts their courtship: the rounds of daily visits, the slightly claustrophobic intimacy of a romance hothoused within the small apartment Chang shared with her aunt. When Shao Chih-yung (Hu’s proxy) first mentions wanting to settle down with the protagonist Julie (Chang), the latter is slightly unnerved: ‘his words sounded a little jarring, maybe because she sensed that what he called marriage was something else entirely’. Wary of the dangers that Hu’s alignment with the Japanese posed to Chang should the political tides turn, the couple forewent the ceremonial rituals usually required to validate marriage in the eyes of the law. By the time they separated two years later, their marriage had been made all but untenable by Hu’s incorrigible infidelities and collaborationist past.
Chang’s involvement with Hu provides the raw material for ‘Lust, Caution’, a short story written in the early fifties but first published in the Taiwanese literary magazine, Huangguan (The Crown),in 1977. It’s a story that can still ignite the tinderbox of Chinese nationalism, as shown by the backlash over Ang Lee’s highly eroticised 2007 adaptation which resulted in the film’s female lead, Tang Wei, receiving an official two-year ban. Mingling elements of romance, spy thriller and fairy-tale, ‘Lust, Caution’ revolves around a honeytrap plot hatched by a student drama troupe to assassinate Mr Yi, the head of intelligence for Wang’s collaborationist regime. The ‘trap’, Wang Jiazhi, disguised as the wife of an import-exporter, first makes contact with Mr Yi through his wife in Hong Kong, offering to be the latter’s shopping chaperone. An attempt to arrange a tête-à-tête with Mr Yi at a tailor’s is frustrated when the Yis suddenly re-locate to Shanghai to serve in the puppet government. The plot is suspended; not only has their quarry escaped, but the students lose their financing after one of the parents inadvertently bankrolling the scheme catches wind that their son has been co-habiting with a taxi-dancer. With the sea-lanes open again after Pearl Harbour, the students also return to the Mainland with their scheme now aided by an ‘underground worker’ named Wu. Mr Yi and Jiazhi soon begin their affair; the new plan is to lure the former into an Indian jeweller’s located near a second-run cinema where the assassins’ ticket stubs will serve as both alibi and getaway.
There is enough incident here to fill an entire novel (on the template, perhaps, of André Malraux’s La Condition Humaine, another spy thriller set in the Shanghai of the same period) and yet all these shifting circumstances and multiple displacements are compacted into a story that unfolds in just over thirty pages. Chang frames her narrative around the day of the rendezvous at the jewellers’, Jiazhi’s memories flooding back in and pooling in those moments of reflection and tense repose as she waits for Mr Yi at ‘Commander Kai’s café’ (which is full of Kuomintang regalia). The sensuous scrupulousness with which Chang attends to material culture is all over this story: from the ‘black wool capes, each held fast at the neck by a heavy double gold chain’ worn by the taitais (an honorific reserved for wealthy married women and head-wives) at the mah-jong table to the ‘fine linen white jacquard’ of the café tablecloths to the ‘cool, glassy edge’ of the stopper in her bottle of Cape Jasmine perfume. Instead of the lurid phantasmagoria of Malraux’s Shanghai (where the heroism of self-sacrifice is monopolised by men), Chang presents a lapidary world of intrigue refracted through the protocols of women’s sociability. It is not until after the assassination plot is foiled that we see Mr Yi as a public man, the conniving politician who executes the conspirators to keep himself in good standing with the Japanese. And yet even without this picture, Chang makes her reader tread a tightrope of nervous tension by highlighting the political stakes involved in not only the lovers’ game of courtship and the students’ game of make-believe, but also the taitais’ social games of mah-jong and banquet-hosting that bookend the narrative.
‘The affair,’ as Haiyan Lee has argued in her study of love in modern China, ‘is the guise that romantic love takes on once it has ceased to be le grand amour and made peace with the bourgeois social order.’ No longer the transcendent ideal animating the entwined projects of self-fashioning and nation-building that the writers of the May Fourth Movement took it to be, romantic love becomes, in Chang’s work, merely another item in a menu of ‘ordinary lifegoods [such] as work, marriage, family life, stability, security, and solidarity’. ‘Brief, discrete, and repeatable,’ the affair is what le grand amour becomes after it is subjected to the routinised sumptuary habits of commercial culture. The pervasive, paradigmatic quality of the affair in the romances of Chang and her contemporaries was partially inspired by the entanglements in Madame Bovary, one of the most influential works of European literature to be translated (by Li Jieren in 1925) into vernacular Chinese. As suggested by the example of Flaubert’s eponymous character, grand passions become ‘something the bourgeois cannot live with and cannot live without’. The affair, then, is the compromise that realism brokers with romance: an oasis of libidinal adventurism in a desert of increasingly staid consumer satisfactions.
Chang pushes this paradox to a violent extreme in ‘Lust, Caution’, where romance momentarily gentles into a state of grace the war-like embrace between the collaborator and the would-be assassin. Yi and Jiazhi’s love takes its first and last breath in the rarefied climes of a sealed-off space: the upstairs office where the jeweller keeps his diamonds, an interior that, in grisly foreshadowing, reminds Jiazhi of ‘a tale from the Thousand and One Nights’. This miniature fantasy world – doused in Orientalist torpor (‘The warm, sweet air … pressed soporifically down on her like a quilt’) – is suspended slightly above the claims and duties of the quotidian, but is never entirely free of the transactional: there is still the price to be negotiated and this cave of treasures is, after all, still a trap for the unsuspecting Yi.
Self-contained dreaming spaces where romantic fulfilment suddenly seems possible are a recurring motif throughout Chang’s fiction. The movie theatre is a common incarnation of such an enclosure (Chang was a lifelong cinephile; during the late fifties and early sixties, she earned her living by writing screenplays for a Hong Kong film production company). In ‘Lust, Caution’, Jiazhi’s reimagining of the ‘bright windows’ in the jeweller’s office as ‘a cinema screen across which an action movie was being shown’ marks the acme of her turn as a femme fatale as well as instigating her radical revision of the script.
Public transport provides another such space. In ‘Sealed Off’ (Fengsuo), one of Chang’s most highly acclaimed stories when it was first published in 1943, an accountant and an English teacher fall in love in a stationary tramcar during a blockade. The fever of intimacy breaks as soon as the tram is on the move again: ‘everything that had happened while the city was sealed off was a non-occurrence. The whole city of Shanghai had dozed off and dreamed an unreasonable dream.’ This is the phenomenology of the affair: an amorous interlude punctuating a rhythm of life already disjointed by the exigencies of warfare.
That so many of Chang’s love stories unfold against the background of war allows them to blur the boundary between realism and romance, the normal and the exceptional. But the bell of everyday necessity tends to drown out the siren’s call of wish fulfilment, after which the romantic enclosure can quickly assume the aspect of a tomb. There is something characteristically cruel about the way that Chang can summarily seal her stories off. ‘Lust, Caution’ also happens to feature a blockade – one that decides Jiazhi’s fate by preventing her from making her escape after divulging the plot to Yi through a single word (‘run’). The narrative abruptly breaks off at this point and the last few pages are focalised through Yi as he returns home, chastened but also chillingly exalted by Jiazhi’s selflessness. (I’m almost tempted to say that Chang kills off Jiazhi before Yi does.) Not all of Chang’s love stories are as volatile as ‘Lust, Caution’ or as compact as ‘Sealed Off’, but the way they draw a circle around themselves – sometimes explicitly through framing devices such as incense burning or the brewing of tea – suggests that, for Chang, the short story form was the romantic enclosure par excellence.
In the first piece of sustained criticism devoted to Chang’s fiction, Fu Lei, a fellow Shanghailander and famed translator of French literature, praised the young writer’s handling of narrative technique in stories such as ‘The Golden Cangue’ and ‘Love in a Fallen City’ (both published in 1943, the year before Fu’s essay) before proceeding to criticise the narrowness and triviality of Chang’s overriding concern with the domestic and the amorous. The handful of short stories and novellas Chang had thus far produced were, according to Fu, ‘variations upon a theme’ (a charge he made in English): ‘Old fogies and leftovers from the old dynasty, and petty bourgeois – they are all pestered by this nightmare of a romantic problem between man and woman’. Even the sense of ‘an unnameable waste’ that her works unerringly register becomes farcical when Chang flecks an otherwise ‘sombre prose’ style with ‘flippant talk’. With the whole world at war and a nation at stake, who had time for the ‘trivial battles of attack and defence’ being fought over and over again by Chang’s lovers?
Chang’s response to these indictments from a leading figure in Chinese letters is now one of the indispensable documents in her oeuvre. The essay, ‘Writing Of One’s Own’ (Ziji de wenzhang), is the closest thing she wrote to a theory of fiction. In it, Chang defends her choice of subject matter and outlines the principle of ‘equivocal contrast’ (cenci de duizhao) as the basis of her realist aesthetic – an aesthetic whose signature mood is one of ‘desolation’ (cangliang). While very few of Chang’s stories end happily, they nevertheless fall determinedly short of tragedy, which ‘resembles the matching of bright red with deep green: an intense and unequivocal contrast’ where her art of desolation was more like the imperfect complementarity of ‘scallion green with peach red’. For Chang, it was not a propitious time for art of the unequivocal:
Times as weighty as these do not allow for easy enlightenment. In the past few years, people have gone on living their lives, and even their madness seems measured. So my fiction … is populated with equivocal characters. They are not heroes, but they are of the majority who actually bear the weight of the times. As equivocal as they may be, they are also in earnest about their lives. They lack tragedy; all they have is desolation. Tragedy is a kind of closure, while desolation is a form of revelation.
If tragic knowledge and closure were an evasion of contemporary reality, what exactly did her desolate art with its technique of equivocal contrast reveal?
Chang’s answer emerges obliquely through a series of visual metaphors from colour complementarity to a figure-and-ground analogy. At the start of the essay, she argues that even the most strenuous works of literature – works that ‘concentrate on the uplifting and dynamic aspects of life’ – need to be ‘portrayed against the background of [life’s] inherent placidity’. The strenuous ethic of the Nietzschean superman might have appealed to Lu Xun, but ‘supermen are born of specific epochs’ while ‘the placid and static aspects of life have eternal significance’. In her trenchant summation: ‘without this grounding [in the placid], uplift is like so much froth’. Similarly, in concerning herself with ‘the trivial things that happen between men and women’, she can thereby ‘portray the rich duplicity and elaborate designs of modern people in order to set them off against the ground of life’s simplicity’.
In defending herself against Fu’s charges of superficiality and aesthetic decadence, Chang allied her storytelling with the revelation of deep time: ‘I use this method [of equivocal contrast] to portray the kinds of memories left behind by humanity as it has lived through each and every historical epoch.’ Her romances were, then, mythical dramas, as intimated by the title of her first collection: Romances is a strangely felicitous translation of Chuanqi, overlaying the Chinese meaning of ‘legend’ or ‘fable,’ specifically associated with Tang-dynasty tales of extraordinary exploits and Ming-dynasty drama, with the added English inflection of ‘love story’. There was a reason, Chang thought, why romantic love should offer the greatest scope for an art of such sweeping anthropological ambition: because ‘people are more straight-forward and unguarded in love than they are in war or revolution,’ love was the deeper, more fundamental phenomenon, ‘closer and clearer to our hearts than anything we might see gazing far into the future’. It was capable of recasting our entire sensibility where war and revolution could only call upon the conscious resources of our will or rationality. ‘A real revolution or revolutionary war,’ Chang asserted, ‘should be as emotionally unguarded and as able to penetrate into every aspect of one’s life as romantic love’.
Chang lived out the early parts of her life in the aftermath of an intimate revolution. In an effort to modernise its legal system along continental European models, the early Chinese Republic adopted a new civil code in the years 1929-1931 as a result of which, as Kathryn Bernhardt has observed, ‘China came to have one of the most liberal divorce laws in the world’. Lawmakers ‘intend[ed] the civil code to be a major force in reshaping gender and family relations’ by insisting upon the principle of gender equality (especially with respect to inheritance and expectations around fidelity) and introducing provisions such as no-fault divorce well in advance of their Western counterparts (Australians would have to wait until the Family Law Act of 1975). Chang’s parents were two of the earliest beneficiaries of the reform, divorcing in 1930. A divorce in those years, as Chang was later to remark, was as ‘modern [a] thing to have in one’s family [as] an automobile or a scientist’.
Yet the Republican legal reformers underestimated the recalcitrance of the social and cultural materials they were attempting reshape. The vision of the modern family enshrined in their civil code – small in compass (xiao jiating, ‘small household’) and firmly committed to monogamy (yifu yiqi zhi, ‘one husband, one wife’) – was confronted with a reality in which concubinage was still being practised, even at the top levels of the Republic’s administration and judiciary. As a character remarks in Chang’s ‘Love in a Fallen City’ (1943):
The law is one thing today and another tomorrow. What I’m talking about is the law of family relations, and that never changes! As long as you live you belong to this family, and after you die your ghost will belong to them too! The tree may be a thousand feet tall, but the leaves fall back to the roots.
Natality was the higher law. With its leaves, branches, trunks and root systems, the ‘big family’ (da jiazu) was precisely what liberal reformers since the May Fourth Movement had been trying to prune into a more Westernised conjugal-familial ideal of the xiao jiating. But Chang takes this imagery even further: that the tree’s ‘leaves fall back to the roots’ makes concrete what the anthropologist Elizabeth A. Povinelli has called ‘the drag of descent’, the almost gravitational pull of the genealogical matrix (family, race, caste) that socially and culturally ‘enfleshes’ our bodies.
In Chang’s stories, the ‘drag of descent’ can claim even the most self-consciously modern women and men, who find themselves backsliding into older, ‘residual’ forms of courtship and conjugality. In ‘Stale Mates’ (1956), an English-language tale first published in California, a young schoolteacher, Luo, sues for divorce in order to marry his beloved Miss Fan. The legal proceedings take ‘infernally long to negotiate through relatives who were … unreliable transmitters of harsh words, being peacemakers at heart, especially where matrimony is concerned’. While the separation is being negotiated, Luo discovers that Miss Fan’s family have tried to match her with a pawnbroker. His pride having been wounded, Luo arranges to be married to Miss Wang as soon as his divorce is sown up, leaving the unfortunate Miss Fan (whose match has not come off) high and dry. A chance meeting between Luo and Fan rekindles their romance and the former sues for divorce again, though ‘he now looked like a scoundrel where he had once had been a pioneer’.
As the story progresses through a number of farcical twists, we are made to see that the sanction divorce gave to a nimbus of fresh ideals – free choice of partners, companionate marriage, economic and emotional self-reliance – could be negated by the lure of male sexual entitlements enfranchised under the ancien régime. ‘Stale Mates’ ends with a veritable harem (Miss Fan, Miss Wang, and Luo’s first wife) under one roof in a modern re-writing of the ‘grand reunion’ that typically closes traditional Chinese tales of the literati – tales where (in Xiao Jiwei’s neat summary) ‘the women whom the man has bedded and conquered on his journey to the capital unite with him as his wife and concubines on the day he passes the imperial examination and acquires an official position’. But Chang’s irony is mostly directed at the moral confusion of a reformist age ‘that was at least nominally monogamous’. Though ‘it was already 1936,’ ‘people envied [Luo] his yan fu, glamorous blessings … living with three wives in a rose-covered little house by the lake’.
Yet Chang was not entirely a skeptic; of the very few stories that end happily, it is the divorcee who, given a second chance, comes closest to incarnating these new ideals. Upon the death of her ex-husband, Bai Liusu, the protagonist of ‘Love in a Fallen City’, is faced with the choice of either going into widowhood and looking after her husband’s children (the option preferred by her family since it transfers the financial burden of supporting her to her ex-husband’s family) or putting herself back on the marriage market with the help of Mrs Xu, the matchmaker. She is eventually matched with Fan Liuyuan, a playboy born and raised in England who is similarly a family outcast: the product of a love-match between his rich industrialist father and an ‘overseas Chinese’ socialite mother, he lives in Shanghai, exiled from the Fan family home in Guangzhou where his father’s first wife refuses to recognise him. ‘Love in a Fallen City’ is a story, then, about two rebels against the rule of ‘the law of family relations’. Liusu and Liuyuan’s love affair allows them to break free from the determinations (emotional and financial) of descent.
Part of what makes the protagonists in ‘Love in a Fallen City’ a modern couple is their urbane awareness of not only the contractual logic of marriage, but also the instrumental gamesmanship of courting (while engaging in it anyway). During a late-night phone call, Liuyuan says to Liusu: ‘Basically, you think that marriage is long-term prostitution’ (a self-serving if valid critique of the sexual contract). While Liusu, upon her return to Shanghai without a ring on her finger, is conscious of what her family will think of her cohabitation with Liuyuan in Hong Kong: ‘a woman who tricked a man was a whore. If a woman tried to trick a man but failed and then was tricked by him, that was whoredom twice over. Kill her and you’d only dirty the knife.’ The only way out, in Liuyuan’s mind, is a return to some pre-contractual ‘state of nature’ – ‘I want to take you to Malaya,’ he says to Liusu, ‘to the forest with its primitive peoples.’ Only there can her ‘romantic aura’ be preserved.
In this primitivist fantasy, love’s flourishing requires something like a clean ‘civilisational break,’ ‘resetting the clock at zero and obviating social history’ (I use Povinelli’s suggestive phrasing here). A break of this sort comes with the Japanese assault on Hong Kong, which, right at the end of the story, blows the lovers out of the straits of seduction into the bay of conjugal contentment. Chang dates this event rather specifically in her narration, superimposing the temporality of historical chronicle onto fictional time: the attack happens the day after Liusu has finished installing herself in a Hong Kong house rented and furnished by Liuyuan, who is due to depart for England (‘That was on December 7, 1941. On December 8, the bombing started.’) Up to that point, the story had taken a desolate turn, with the abandoned Liusu surrendering herself to life as a kept woman (potentially ‘go[ing] the route of the concubine’). Having grown up ‘in an overcrowded world [with] old people, young people, people everywhere,’ she now wanders through ‘this unpeopled place’ like ‘a warrior without a battlefield’. But in sealing Hong Kong off from the rest of the world (and thus preventing Liuyuan’s departure), the Japanese invasion reunites the lovers, who eventually take refuge in the ruins of their old home.
In ‘Writing of One’s Own,’ Chang had been keen to emphasise the ordinariness of Liusu and Liuyuan’s marriage. Despite being achieved in such extraordinary circumstances, ‘it remains prosaic, earth-bound, and, given their situation, it could be nothing more’. It is precisely this ordinariness – in which we follow the couple as they ‘spen[d] all their time preparing meals and cleaning house’ in an environment where ‘everything had ended’ – that gives the couple their archetypal quality. Chang was well-versed in the English canon literary and there is, I think, something of Milton’s Adam and Eve in Chang’s Liusu and Liuyuan (in Little Reunions, Chang has Julie memorise Paradise Lost from cover to cover in preparation for an English exam that is aborted by the Japanese bombing). For Milton and Chang, love is seasoned by desolation as the epic merges with the domestic. In both their works, an archetypal couple arrives at a threshold moment in human history, simultaneously poised at the end of things and at the beginning.
Time and timeliness are the prevailing occupations of Chang’s writing. Her fiction is littered with clocks that don’t work, characters who try to ‘hold back the wheel of history’, and lovers who miss their opportunity. Even as they continue to be examined for the glimpses of the past they afford, her stories seem to untether themselves from their precise historical pinpoints, allowing us to gaze from afar on scenes of human triumph and defeat with divine dispassion. This is how Chang describes the Japanese bombardment of Hong Kong’s Repulse Bay hotel in ‘Love in a Fallen City’:
It was a dark scene, like an ancient Persian carpet covered with woven figures of many people – old lords, princesses, scholars, beauties. Draped over a bamboo pole, the carpet was being beaten, dust flying in the wind. Blow after blow, it was beaten till the people had nowhere to hide, nowhere to go.
This image of people caught up in the ineluctable violence of their age turns on the slightly perverse juxtaposition (or ‘equivocal contrast’) between the pathos of collective suffering and the bathos of spring-cleaning. Household chore congeals into cosmic allegory, as our untroubled indifference to the carpet’s embroidered figures makes us complicit in a transcendent aloofness from the kinds of pain endured at a different scale. Yet this allegory stops just short of tragic knowledge: it’s not clear who is doing the beating and the infliction of terror is, according to the logic of the figure, a routine outcome rather than the product of malign will. Affording neither catharsis nor consolation, Chang’s simile proves unsettling in just how close it gets to the intuition behind Nietzsche’s remark that ‘it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified’.
Is the year 2020 a propitious time to be reading the untimely Eileen Chang? To some, Chang’s refusal of the moralism attaching to a more committed witnessing of history will always make her work appear trifling, ‘so much froth’ riding atop the ‘vast oceanic swells’ of modern history (to borrow from her own stock of images). And certainly at a time when Hong Kong has become a flashpoint for Chinese nationalism, stories such as ‘Love in a Fallen City’ and ‘Lust, Caution’ might seem a little jarring. By the same token, however, Chang’s translocalism – her work’s inability to accommodate the prevailing myths of and monuments to the nation – can only be salutary in light of the Chinese state’s recent push towards linguistic standardisation and cultural homogenisation. But it is perhaps with respect to our intimate lives that Chang’s work continues to resonate most strongly.
I’m struck by the similarities between the reformist spirit of the early Chinese Republic and our own contemporary moment – a moment of sexual enlightenment that has seen a fresh commitment to gender equality, the enshrining of consent in our sexual morality, and a liberalised conception of marriage. Yet Chang’s work also helps us see the tenacious hold that patriarchal forms of sexual entitlement still exercise over our romantic imaginaries. Read ‘Stale Mates’ and then watch The Bachelor: it’s hard to un-see the spectre of concubinage that hovers over this putatively ‘modern’ marriage plot. While she wrote romances, Chang was fundamentally a realist in terms of both her narrative art and her moral vision. The irony whereby Chang’s characters fall further and further into the very life stories that they are trying to escape seems designed to elicit from her readers the healthy self-suspicion that Lionel Trilling once called ‘moral realism’. Perhaps it’s best to think of Chang as a romantic realist, one who was well placed to see that revolutions of the heart have a habit of lagging behind revolutions of the head.
Ackbar Abbas, ‘Cosmopolitan De-scriptions: Shanghai and Hong Kong’, Public Culture 12:3 (2000): 769-86.
Kathryn Bernhardt, ‘Women and the Law: Divorce in the Republican Period’, in Civil Law in Qing and Republican China, ed. Kathryn Bernhardt and Philip C. C. Huang (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994).
Eileen Chang, Traces of Love and Other Stories, ed. Eva Hung (Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2000).
— , Written on Water, trans. Andrew F. Jones (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).
— , Love in a Fallen City, trans. Karen S. Kingsbury (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2007).
— , Lust, Caution, trans. Julia Lovell, Karen S. Kingsbury, et al. (London: Penguin Pocket Classics, 2016).
— , Little Reunions, trans. Jane Wiezhen Pan and Martin Merz (New York: New York Review Books, 2018).
Susan L. Glosser, Chinese Visions of Family and State, 1915-1953 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
Han Bangqing, The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai, trans. Eileen Chang and Eva Hung (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).
Haiyan Lee, Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007).
Leo Ou-fan Lee, Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930-1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).
Kenny K. K. Ng, ‘The Screenwriter as Cultural Broker: Travels of Zhang Ailing’s Comedy of Love’, Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, 20:2 (2008): 131-84.
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— , ‘Belated Reunion: Eileen Chang, Late Style and World Literature’, New Left Review 111 (May-June 2018): 89-110.