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A Lifelong Romance: Reflections on Eileen Chang’s life, work, and legacy

In honoring ordinary people and gestures, Chang reminds us of things taken for granted, of cramped train rides and eavesdropped conversations, the sounds and smells of cityscapes and markets.

Essays | Eileen Chang, Hong Kong, Shanghai, tribute
December 23, 2020

My love for Eileen Chang (張愛玲) was slow to strike. Four years ago, in a secondhand bookshop, I skimmed the opening of Chang’s late 1970s novella Lust, Caution (色,戒). Diamond rings flash; the wives of officials shuffle mahjong tiles beneath a hot lamp. The next paragraph zooms in on the gold chains that fasten their cloaks, “offering their owners the perfect pretext for parading their wealth on excursions about the city.” I flicked ahead. Where was the sex? Disappointed, I wiggled the volume back onto the shelf. I was yet to appreciate Chang’s eye for detail, her talent for foreshadowing the tragedy that haunts beautiful things and beautiful people. Like the flame struck to light a cigarette, a favorite motif of hers, my interest flashed, then died.

A year later, I read Love in a Fallen City (傾城之戀), a collection of short fiction written in Chang’s twenties and translated by Karen S. Kingsbury. The blurb had me hooked—“keenly alert to sexual politics and psychological ambiguity … the stark and glamorous vision of a modern master”—and I fell for her wit: 

An ivory bodhisattva stood on the mantel of the fireplace, along with snuff bottles made of emerald-green jade … These Oriental touches had been put there, it was clear, for the benefit of foreigners. The English come from so far to see China—one has to give them something of China to see. But this was China as Westerners imagine it: exquisite, illogical, very entertaining.

In the opening tale “Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier” (沈香屑・第一爐香), schoolgirl Ge Weilong naively plunges into her aunt’s heady world of parties, wrestling with her feelings for a cavalier suitor. At that time, I too was uncertain about romantic love and continuing to write about men. In Chang, however, I found a model. I was moved by her persistence in the face of criticism and her portrayal of Chinese women. Despite material and social constraints, they possessed agency. I read everything I could find by, and about, Chang and would come to quote her time and time again in my own work. 

Set in cosmopolitan Shanghai and Hong Kong, Chang’s early works of fiction revolve around courtship, love, betrayal, gossip, and lies, the beginnings of a lifelong interest in juxtaposing one’s thoughts (private) against speech and actions (public). Weilong moves in with her rich aunt to finish her education but becomes a pawn, luring in young men to fill the widow’s “hungry heart.” Madame Liang cautions her niece, “For a woman, there’s nothing more important than her reputation.” This, she clarifies, does not mean old-fashioned ideas of chastity but what “poisonous tongues” would say if they found out Weilong had scrapped with a maid over a man. The trick, as always, is to know how much of the truth to reveal or twist, and when to stay silent, craftily allowing the other person to fill in the blanks.

Chang’s prose is cinematic and sensuous yet grounded in human behavior, probing what a society values and how it governs citizens’ relations. She delighted in colors and textures and is famous for lush, chilling descriptions of fashion, interiors, natural scenery, and material objects. The lights at Madame Liang’s hillside mansion, for example, shine “like ice cubes in peppermint schnapps,” while a starry morning sky is “a sheet of blue-green writing paper dusted with gold.” Motifs, such as the moon, rain, and fluttering curtains, hint at the fragility of life. An unwanted pregnancy, in Chang’s later novel Naked Earth, is described as “one of those imperishable clocks, quietly ticking its own secret time.”

Chang, who also ticked to her own beat, was born just over 100 years ago on 30 September 1920, at the precipice of a new era. The early years of the new Republic of China were tumultuous yet optimistic, marked by a New Culture Movement that promoted democracy, science, and individual rights, including women’s rights. Chang had hoped to study in London but was unable to due to the outbreak of World War II. She enrolled in the University of Hong Kong, but months shy of graduating, Japan invaded. The young writer returned to Shanghai, which was also Japanese-occupied, and started publishing for pay in newspapers and magazines. Her short story collection Romances (傳奇) sold out within days, but this fame was soon snuffed out. The author’s aristocratic family background and short-lived marriage to Hu Lancheng (胡蘭成) made her a target during the Cultural Revolution. Hu was a writer and literary editor, and had served in Wang Jingwei’s (汪精衞) puppet government during the Japanese occupation.

In 1952, Chang left for Hong Kong where she worked as a translator, then migrated to the United States. She met her second husband, screenwriter Ferdinand Reyher, while in residence at The MacDowell Colony. Chang, however, faced challenges breaking into the English-language fiction market as readers’ views of China were Orientalist and framed by Cold War ideologies. Through her Taiwan publisher, she continued to publish essays, translations, film scripts, and, less frequently, new fiction. She also turned to academic research, focusing on a monograph of the Qing classic Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢). In her later years, Chang withdrew from public life and her friends, dying alone in a Los Angeles apartment in 1995. Her reclusiveness was such that in the year before her death, the author refused to accept a major Taiwanese literary award in person. Instead, she sent a set of photographs of herself.

Banned in China for decades, Chang remained popular among Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Chinese diaspora readers, influencing generations of authors. Literary scholars, such as C. T. Hsia and Shui Jing, played a role in ensuring her place within the canon, while in the 1980s, a nostalgia for “old Shanghai” led to Chang’s work being “rediscovered” on the mainland. Chang’s cool, glamorous image continues to adorn book covers and is replicated on Instagram. Fans across the world post selfies and favorite quotes, with some even visiting her old Shanghai apartment. Her fiction has been translated into multiple languages, including Spanish, Catalan, Polish, Swedish, French, Italian, Korean, Japanese, and Dutch. Her works and life have also been adapted into Chinese films and TV series, introducing her texts to new audiences.

Noting that young Chinese readers today find Chang’s prose challenging, Kingsbury erred on the side of “over-translation”, picking lively equivalents of idioms and metaphors instead of letting them fade. “I was looking for a 20th-century Chinese writer who could speak to my English Department classmates and teachers,” she says of her thesis, “but not as an ‘exotic’ or some sort of charity case. Chang did.” Her fiction was “not just something about Chinese-ness, or about one huge people’s modern-day history of struggle and change, but about mental and social life in general.”

Chang’s emphasis on “irrelevant things,” on ordinary people, on the “trivial things between men and women,” ran counter to contemporary narratives of heroism and noble sacrifice. In her oft-quoted essay “Writing of One’s Own” (自己的文章), she responded to her critics, laying out the aesthetic principles that would underpin her life’s work. She wrote about tragedy and loss on a personal scale, emphasizing the effects of war, revolution, and fate on ordinary lives. Her characters’ fears resonate precisely because they are pedestrian. “Although they [Chang’s characters] are merely weak and ordinary people and cannot aspire to heroic feats of strength,” Chang contends, “it is precisely these ordinary people who can serve more accurately than heroes as a measure of the times.”

A love of theater and film fed Chang’s fascination with appearances, performance, and deception, the cat-and-mouse games of a staged life. Wang Jiazhi, in Lust, Caution, is the consummate performer: a student actress pretending to be a businessman’s wife pretending to be in love, to lead the head of intelligence for Wang Jingwei’s collaborationist regime to his death. Her performance is so convincing that she hesitates: “Surely she hadn’t fallen in love with Yi? Despite her fierce scepticism towards the idea, she found herself unable to refute the notion entirely; since she had never been in love, she had no idea what it might feel like.” Chang’s omniscient narrator, Leo Ou-fan Lee suggests, reveal “the author’s own attitude toward life, a philosophy of desolation.” Beneath the glitter lies loneliness, violence, and cruelty. Her characters tread carefully, wary of gossiping maids and relatives, spies and “comrades” looking to get ahead. She states:

And yet I do not place truthfulness and hypocrisy in direct and unequivocal contrast; instead, I utilize equivocal contrast as a means of writing the truth beneath the hypocrisy of modern people and the simplicity underneath the frivolity, and this is why I have all too easily been seen as overly indulgent and criticized for lingering over these beguiling surfaces.

Chang spent her later years obsessively rewriting and translating across languages and forms, including literature, photography, theater, and film. Eighteen Springs (十八春), published in the early 1950s, was significantly revised 18 years later as Half a Lifelong Romance (半生緣) and its ending changed. The protagonist fails to notice the bloodstains on the yarn wrapped around his lover’s ring, evidence of foul play; this, the narrator asserts, is true to life, as opposed to what happens in stories. Lust, Caution was revised over a period of 30 years. While working on autobiographical novel Little Reunions (小團圓), Chang wrote an English variation. Published posthumously, these two novels, Xiaojue Wang suggests, add to “a life story Chang never stopped fabricating, an autobiographical tapestry.”

What compelled this rewriting and self-translation? We may only speculate. Perhaps Chang sought to come to terms with personal and historical trauma. (Her relationships with her parents, who were divorced, and stepmother were fraught. In her childhood, her mother was often absent overseas; in her teens, her father beat her, then locked her in her room for half a year.) Perhaps she wished to correct her legacy, or was driven by a combination of perfectionism, linguistic challenge, and intellectual curiosity. David Der-wei Wang argues Chang’s writing emphasizes a capacity for continued replacement and transformation. Repetition, in her stories, indicates neither a dull duplication nor a return to the starting point but “a subtle dis-placement of the origin, a phantasmal re-presentation of the identical.” Rather, by rewriting and working across languages and genres, the author generated new meanings.

In the early 1950s, while in Hong Kong, Chang received a grant from the United States Information Service to write two anti-communist English novels, The Rice Sprout Song and Naked Earth. The latter opens with protagonist Liu Ch’üan arriving in a small rural village, as part of a group of university students, to support Land Reform. He quickly falls in love with the beautiful and similarly idealistic Su Nan. Wary of being chastised for “getting up man-woman relations,” the couple find snatched moments of privacy amid arrests and torture. Sensing their love is doomed, “Liu wished that he and Su Nan had met in some other age. … A few years earlier would have made all the difference.” The redistribution of land, however noble their intentions, is far from straightforward. To deflect criticism of their own corruption, kan-pu (cadres) manipulate the villagers, promoting several farmers, including the one Liu boards with, to the rank of Landlords, then executing them.

Shortly after, Liu is posted to Shanghai. Days pass in a blur of meetings and he begins to despair of ever seeing Su again. On the way home from a state parade, he reflects on his fellow city folk:

Liu could never get over the way life around him went on as usual, after what he had seen out in the country. … But how long would it be before it was their turn? Then Liu wondered if he wasn’t feeling sorry for them because he was envious.

Liu and Su rail against the “normalcy” others seemingly enjoy, reminding readers of the ways in which normalcy is actively created, maintained, and performed. State-mandated torture and murder, state neglect, the twisting of truths, all remain terrifying aspects of our reality. More terrifyingly, life goes on. Those with privilege continue to look away, wring their hands, fan the flames, or gawk. Immediately after Liu is hauled away by the police, his fellow boarders gather to hear how it had happened. With characteristic flourish, Chang writes, “The faces wavered like flat yellow flowers in a breeze, turned vacantly to each other and again turned away, making rustling, leafy murmurs.”

Naked Earth sweeps away the glitter, dialing up the stakes yet retaining an eye for melancholic beauty. Early on, the farmer’s teenage daughter tucks a small pink flower in her hair to impress Liu. As she leans over the huge water jar to fill a pot, she hurriedly checks her reflection. “The pink flower fell softly in absolute silence onto the glassy brown surface of the water and floated motionlessly over one eye on her mirrored face.” Erh Niu’s mother scolds her for dawdling as the young man pretends not to notice. Later, after Erh Niu’s father is executed, the family’s possessions, including the water jar, are redistributed among the villagers. In Chang’s world, as in ours, “The full white moon looked down coldly as it had done during all the past dynasties. Like a mirror it never remembered faces.”

At a recent event celebrating Chang at 100, Eileen Cheng-yin Chow wonders if we will look back on 2020 as a year in which the world “dreamed an unreasonable dream.” She quotes the story “Sealed Off” (封锁), in which a young teacher and married man flirt on a stationary tram during an air-raid:

The lights inside the tram went on; she opened her eyes and saw him sitting in his old seat, looking remote. She trembled with shock—he hadn’t gotten off the tram after all! Then she understood his meaning: everything that had happened while the city was sealed off was a nonoccurrence. The whole city of Shanghai had dozed off and dreamed an unreasonable dream.

Chang’s famous essay “From the Ashes” (燼餘錄), on her experiences during the Japanese attack on Hong Kong, emphasizes the incoherence of history. “This thing we call reality,” she writes, “is unsystematic, like seven or eight talking machines playing all at once in a chaos of sound, each singing its own song.” The sense of order, strung together by artists, writers, and composers, cannot apply to history; otherwise, it becomes fiction. “I have neither the desire to write history nor the qualifications to comment on the approach historians ought to bring to their work,” she adds, “but privately I have always found myself wishing that they would concern themselves more with irrelevant things.”

Her essay recounts the response of fellow students, from their initial relief at exams being cancelled to working as nurses in a makeshift hospital to intensive flirting. Their attitude was like trying to take a nap on a hard plank bench: “Although in terrible discomfort and ceaselessly complaining of such, we managed to fall asleep all the same.” The war did not bring about heroism so much as it revealed cowardice and selfishness. After the battle for Hong Kong ended, she describes, the citizens’ giddy joy:

Peace came as a kind of disturbance, acting on us like too much wine. … Time itself had been restored to us: the light of day, the dark of night, the four seasons. For the time being, our lease on life was allowed to continue.

Chang’s body of work is a study in human frailty and endurance. From one cusp to another, she writes to us of things old and new, big and small. Preferring “equivocal contrasts,” the soft green of scallions against the pink of peaches, she trusts readers to sit with complex characters and their motives. In honoring ordinary people and gestures, Chang reminds us of things taken for granted, of cramped train rides and eavesdropped conversations, the sounds and smells of cityscapes and markets. As we too wait for time to be restored to us, may we draw lessons, solace, and hope from Chang’s words.

Works Cited

Chang, Eileen. Half a Lifelong Romance. Translated by Karen S. Kingsbury. Penguin Books, 2014.

Chang, Eileen. Love in a Fallen City. Translated and introduced by Karen S. Kingsbury. New York Review Books, 2007.

Chang, Eileen. Lust, Caution. Translated by Julia Lovell, Karen S. Kingsbury, Janet Ng (with Janice Wickeri), Simon Patton and Eva Hung. Penguin Books, 2016.

Chang, Eileen. Naked Earth. Introduction by Perry Link. New York Review Books, 2015.

Chang, Eileen. The Book of Change. Introduced by David Der-wei Wang. Hong Kong University Press, 2010.

Chang, Eileen. Written on Water, Translated by Andrew F. Jones. Introduced by Nicole Huang. Columbia University Press, 2005.

Lee, Leo Ou-fan. Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930– 1945. Harvard University Press, 1999.

Wang, Xiaojue. Modernity with a Cold War Face: Reimagining the Nation in Chinese Literature across the 1949 Divide. Harvard University Press, 2013.

Read an excerpt of Chang’s “Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier”, translated by Karen S. Kingsbury, from Love in a Fallen City (NYRB, 2007)