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The People’s Writer: How Eileen Chang Remains Relevant By Not Writing Political Fiction
Essay by Gregory McCormick — Published on June 7, 2010
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Books discussed in this essay:
Love in a Fallen City Eileen Chang (trans. Karen S. Kingsbury). NYRB Classics. 312pp. $14.95.
Lust, Caution by Eileen Chang (trans. Julia Lowell). Anchor Books. 68pp. $9.00.
The Rice-Sprout Song by Eileen Chang. University of California Press. 182pp. $19.99.
Written on Water by Eileen Chang (trans. Andrew Jones). Weatherhead Press. 218pp., $24.50.
A Tragic Figure
For me, the recent tributes after the death of J.D. Salinger recalled the reaction in the Chinese press upon the death in 1995 of writer Eileen Chang. On the surface, the two had little in common: he, a 20th-century paragon of youthful rebellion, she, a chronicler of the lives of women in 1940s Shanghai. But both reached the pinnacles of their careers early in their lives, both became famous, both detested literary fame and notoriety and became recluses, and, as a result, both became near cult-like figures, stalked and hounded by fans and admirers.
It’s too early to say how Salinger’s legacy will play out, but 15 years after her death in a Westwood, Los Angeles apartment, Eileen Chang’s shadow continues to loom large in the Chinese world. Sheaves of semi-complete and incomplete manuscripts were amongst her belongings (apparently like Salinger, too) and this resulted in a flurry of posthumous publication: a translation of Han Bing’s The Sing Song Girls of Shanghai (a project that took her decades), and an unfinished book, A Little Reunion, finally published last year after years of rumors. The latter is an autobiographical novel that Chang toyed with destroying in the 1970s, and it sold out even before the first run of 300,000 copies was released. (That figure, moreover, doesn’t include Hong Kong, Taiwan, or pirated editions.) Even some cursory searching of the Internet finds literally hundreds of websites dedicated to Chang’s stories and essays, her life, and her legacy. Without a doubt, Chang’s name and reputation is firmly established in the Chinese-speaking world.
Though she is read widely from Beijing to Singapore, Chang should be read in the West. I realize that’s a didactic thesis but I feel it’s necessary to say because the Western market for Chinese literature seems to be stuck in the mud: over and over again it relives the same Chinese traumas (horrific as they are) and recycles anachronistic notions that require all literature from China to be overtly political. What Chang offers is what all good literature offers: engaging stories, interesting characters, beautiful central controlling metaphors, and evocative imagery. These works of Chang remain largely unknown in the West, despite two well-regarded novels written in English and a burgeoning Eileen Chang system in academia (centered around just a few schools with large Chinese studies programs), and even a 2007 screen adaptation of her novella, Lust, Caution, by famed Taiwanese director Ang Lee. It’s time for that neglect to change.
Though on one level U.S. publishers’ infatuation with the Cultural Revolution is understandable (this period does represent one of the most important modern periods of Chinese history and affected hundreds of millions of lives) Eileen Chang offers a refreshing change from this over-defined part of modern China’s literary landscape. Her novels capture a specific time and place in Chinese history, before the Communists took over, before any event as traumatic as the Cultural Revolution was even thought possible. In addition to her stories and novellas, Chang’s essays on painting, music, fashion, and, of course, literature, shaped an entire generation’s notions about what writing should do.
Though it doesn’t necessarily come across in her work, I’ve always felt that Chang is a tragic figure. Born in Shanghai in 1920 and long associated with that city, she lived the vast majority of her life in the U.S. And though she was enormously popular and famous for a brief period in the 1940s, she was also highly criticized for her refusal to take any political stand in her writing. At a time when all intellectuals were forced to take sides, some critics took Chang to task for writing about issues that were “petty” and “passive”; they also dinged her for betraying Nationalist sympathies in her refusal to throw her lot in with either side in China’s political debates, debates that ultimately cost millions of lives. Initially, Chang reacted to this criticism by asserting that these critics missed the point of her work, and of writing generally. In her piece “Writing of One’s Own” which was collected in Chang’s fascinating anthology Written on Water, she writes:
People who like to write literature usually concentrate on the uplifting and dynamic aspects of life and neglect those that are placid and static, though the latter is the ground of the former. That is, they concentrate for the most part on struggle and neglect the harmonious aspects of life. In reality, people only engage in struggle in order to attain harmony.
There are two things to say about the debate raging in Shanghai at this time. First, while it’s certainly true that Chang’s fiction focuses on the lives of women and their domestic concerns, these concerns have become clearly politicized. Critics of Chang’s disliked her inability to engage with the male politics of the day—even more they detested her refusal to define her political ideology. Yet to call Eileen Chang a non-political writer would be markedly inaccurate. Class, oppression, poverty, consumerism, decadence, drug addiction, women’s roles, gender relations: all of these supposedly non-political forces make up the bulk of Chang’s work.
It’s a tragic and ironic twist that despite being criticized as “apolitical,” politics was a force that Chang could not escape, one that ultimately altered the course of her life and career. She married early to Hu Lancheng, a small-time Nationalist politician in the Japanese puppet government of the late ’30s and early ’40s. Though the marriage was brief and ultimately unhappy for Chang, she was tainted for good once Mao’s forces conquered China and took over the country. She was further tainted by her upper class background, and by 1952 it was clear that her writing career would be over if she stayed in the mainland.
She fled to Hong Kong and was contracted to write for the U.S. Information Service. This was both a ripe and a fraught time to work for the U.S. government, cranking out propaganda to counter the propaganda accompanying the Communist takeover of the mainland. Chang wrote two novels for the U.S. information service, one of which, The Rice Sprout Song, is a subtle and powerful tale of hunger in early 20th-century rural China. Though ostensibly anti-Communist, the book, in typical Chang fashion, avoids towing a purely propagandist line, and her portrayals of Communist cadres are complex and nuanced. Published just 25 years after Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, The Rice-Sprout Song does what Buck, a mediocre writer at best, failed to do with her one-dimensional characters. Chang sums it up in her essay “Writing of One’s Own”:
There are very few people, after all, who are either extremely perverse or extremely enlightened. Times as weighty as these do not allow for easy enlightenment . . . people have gone on living their lives and even their madness seems measured. The only authority I have is to give expression to the inherent strength of my characters and not to fabricate strength on their behalf . . . although they are merely weak and ordinary people and cannot aspire to heroic feats of strength, it is precisely these ordinary people who can serve more accurately than heroes as a measure of the times.
Once Chang started writing propaganda for the U.S. government, the Communists in the mainland took her refusal to take sides prior to 1949 as a way to mask her sympathies for the pro-U.S. Nationalists. Chang, though, would have likely replied that she took no side and wrote for the U.S. government simply in order to survive. Regardless, even The Rice Sprout Song’s warm reception in the mid-1950s (Time called it the “most authentic novel so far of life under the Chinese Communists”) couldn’t prevent the death of Chang’s literary career in Shanghai. After she left for the U.S. a few years later, she would never return to her beloved hometown.
The Roots of Relevance
Lust, CautionIt is very clear to me why Chang’s writing still holds such relevance today: in avoiding overt “male” politics in her career, she innovated by exploring the minutiae of daily life, examining how the powerless—most often intelligent, working class women—are affected by the decisions of the powerful. This makes her books easier to relate to; moreover, the marginal role that politics plays in the lives of Chang’s characters reflects the role that politics play in most of our lives. These facts give Chang’s tales a charming universality: we can all relate to the morning commuter on the bus, or the middle-aged woman doing the grocery shopping. By contrast, it’s much harder to relate to Lu Xun’s Ah Q, an allegorical, starving man on the street meant to represent the conflicts raging in China at the time. Lu Xun is certainly a brilliant and intelligent writer, and this point isn’t meant to denigrate him or his contribution to Chinese literature. But Chang’s characters give us a much more realistic insight into the inner-workings of a certain class of Chinese in the mid 20th century.
Lust, Caution, probably offers a more politically developed sense than she ever allowed in any of her other works. Mainly written in the 1950s, it was, in typical Chang fashion, revised and rewritten over the next 25 years, finally being published in 1979. The novella chronicles the story of a group of young resistance fighters plotting an elaborate scheme to assassinate a leading member of the collaborationist government in Shanghai. If Chang had avoided political ideologies in favor of small narratives of daily lives of the “static” and “placid,” Lust, Caution seems—at least on the surface—a pointed response to those who criticized her for a lack of serious political engagement. But Chang’s sensitivities are, as usual, not with the story of political intrigue or murder. She is far more interested in the central metaphor: the processes by which lust, power, danger, and death are all intertwined. The book develops what might be argued is a central metaphor to Chang’s own approach to writing:
True immersion in the atmosphere of life usually takes place spontaneously. It isn’t something that can be forced or willed into being. All a writer can strive for is to live with integrity. A real writer can only really write about what he himself thinks. He will write about what he can write; what a writer should or should not write is ultimately beside the point.
Even Chang’s attempt at writing a political novel betrays her integrity—the politics, naturally, become secondary to the lives of her characters, and Chang is able to do something few writers can: take a politically charged situation, create characters on both sides of the divide, and with a few well-placed details and a complete lack of authorial omnipotence. Indeed, the novella “about politics” seems to refract a sense of anti-political writings generally.
In Ang Lee’s 2007 film version of Lust, Caution, the screenwriter and director extract a brief scene from Chang’s book of essays Written on Water and use it in a crucial moment in the novella. This was a wise choice and represents, I think, the central tension in most of Chang’s work:
On my way to market, I happened to run into a military blockade and was detained in an area just yards from home. So near, and yet it might as well have been the ends of the earth, as far as I was concerned. In a sunny spot, a servant woman tried to force her way past the lines, struggling as she shouted: “It’s getting late! I have to get back and make dinner!” everyone in the crowd broke into laughter. A Cantonese rice peddler sitting on the curb told her son: “They’ll let you go if you need to see a doctor but not to cook dinner.” . . . But for some unknown reason, her voice was somehow unsettling, as if there were something more to what she had said than might seem on the face of it. And yet there wasn’t really.”
As in the book, this brief anecdote gets at notions of men, politics, and the woman’s realm in 1940s Shanghai: politics was only important insofar as it dictated and influenced domestic life. And for the vast majority of people in the world (then and now), politics operates in a similar way. Chang’s characters are shaped by politics, but, unlike the characters of more established male writers like Lu Xun, not captive to it.
It’s ironic that Chang’s political neglect and her overtly politically laden marriage caused her exile from her beloved hometown (though she continued to set her stories and novels there for the rest of her life); yet, it is precisely the lack of a political ideology that makes Chang’s work so readable and interesting today. These books have much to say to a modern reader, much more so than those of many better-known writers of the time. Ultimately, she didn’t write to please the factional forces arguing around her. She didn’t write to appease critics. She didn’t write create stories of people she didn’t know to retell the story of China. And, as if stuck in some literary time warp, her work offers Western readers a beautiful and fascinating view of a world inside China that is not directed by political ideologies.
Much of that world can be seen in the 2007 NYRB Classics book Love in a Fallen City, a sampling of several of Chang’s 1940s pieces published in Shanghai at the height of her success and fame. Largely, these pieces underlie the accusations that Chang was anti-political and interested too much in “the static.” Yet, even here there are traces of how politics impedes the lives of everyday people. In “Sealed Off,” a man and woman share a seductive, entangled moment on a bus in Japanese-controlled Shanghai. In an ironic aside, the narrator tells us that the main character
was a good daughter, a good student. All the people in her family were good people. They took baths everyday; they read the newspaper every day. When they turned on the radio, they never listened to local folk opera, comic opera, that sort of thing, just symphonies by Beethoven or Wagner; they didn’t understand what they were listening to, but they listened anyway. In this world, there are more good people than real people . . . [she] wasn’t very happy.
Here, Chang is mocking the pretensions of upper class Chinese at a time when orphans and beggars died in the streets. This story shows her approach to class as complex, subtle, ironic, and unsparing. When a character from “Love in a Fallen City” says, “the law is one thing today and tomorrow,” and goes on to explain that “what I’m talking about is the law of family relations, and that never changes,” Chang’s tendency to emphasize the domestic over the national becomes even more apparent.
Chang was, of course, right, and her analysis that the placid and static has more staying power in artwork is borne out when one considers the fact that many of the overtly political novels from this period are largely forgotten, even in China. Those that remain exist as a kind of object under glass; for instance, works by much better-known writers like Lu Xun, as well as other women writers like Ding Ling. They make one wonder how much of the writing coming out of this current boom in Cultural Revolution fiction will fade with time.
Chang managed to write fiction that was both timeless and prescient. Hers are the sentiments that more often live on. They are, as Chang revealed in an essay about another popular writer from Shanghai, Su Qing, the extraordinary parts of the lives of “ordinary people”:
I was alone on the dusky balcony after Su Qing left. Suddenly I noticed a tall building in the distance, on whose edge hung a great swatch of rouge-like redness. At first, I thought it was the reflection of the setting sun on the window, but on a second glance, I saw a full moon, rising crimson above the city. I murmured to myself, “So this is what they mean by turbulent times.” In the evening mist, the borders of Shanghai were gently rising and falling in the distance, resembling layered mountain peaks, although there are no mountains surrounding our city. I pondered the fate of many people, including myself. I began to have a melancholy sense of what we call destiny. Such intimations normally connote self-involvement and self-pity, but I now think that they might suggest something altogether more broad. When the peace and security of the future finally do arrive, they will no longer belong to us; at the present moment each of us can only strive to comfort ourselves.
Gregory McCormick is a freelance writer, editor, and translator. Raised in Idaho, he now lives in Montreal.