Eighteen Springs [半生緣] is a love tragedy set in 1930s Shanghai. Manjing, a young woman from a once-well-off family, works in a factory, where she meets Shujun, the son of a wealthy Nanjing merchant. Despite Shujun’s reservation about Manjing’s family, which seems to him harboring some secret (indeed, her older sister, Manlu, works as a nightclub hostess), they manage, in stages, not without timidity and qualm, to fall in love. Filial duty and familial obligation have it that the expected progress through engagement to marriage is interrupted, first by Manjing’s ambivalence about taking the step, then by Shujun’s rejection of her family, and finally by his family’s lying to Shujun and by her family’s conceived abuse and enslavement of Manjing. After a long period of separation, they meet, but ruefully realize that their happiness only exists in memory, in a nostalgic re-imaging of opportunities missed, understandings never arrived at.
Eighteen Springs is a love story, not in the sense of titillating dialogue and actions, but in the sense of fate’s convolution. It’s neither about romantic passion nor intimacy. Manjing and Shujun succumb to a succession of intrigues on which their families are to blame: misunderstandings, conjecture, white lies, and manipulation. The hunt for that lost love and happiness is always on, and in some tragic, truthful, stunning way it forever eludes them. This might very well be Chang’s view on love: one that is grim, unwarranted, and will-o’-the-wispy. Keeping a distance from her characters’ drama, at an angle of repose, Chang writes with a quiet prose that is emotionally detached, as if she is watching with an eagle’s eye her lovers are doomed by fate’s caprice and turbulence.
An irksome domestic arrangement and upbringing in which her step-mother abused her, Eileen Chang has adopted a jaundiced and misanthropic outlook of the world. The rarity of true love and happiness, the complexity of relationships, as they metamorphose through time—this is the drama she builds word by word, scene by scene, with an uncanny sensitivity to feelings of women. Throughout the novel there prevails an internal tension wrought by memory, the what-ifs and if-onlys that devour the people when they fall prey to the past and future. If only Manlu is not morbidly jealous, what if Shujun is less cowardly and more sensible, if only Mrs. Ku is not as opportunistic, what if Mrs. Shen loosens her grip on Confucianism . . . if only you had loved me as I loved you, if only you had courage, faith, fidelity, and trust . . . then fate takes on a different path, ensuing no tragedy, and the world would be a different world.
Under Chang’s misanthropic view, art is long, life short, judgment difficult, and opportunity transient. All that people believe would make their transient life in this world meaningful—power, status, money, desire, and vanity, only leads to a moral nihilism. When things did not go well the reasons why were all too familiar; bad luck, bad timing, bad cards, bad judgment, false friendship, ulterior motives, betrayal. The view at large in Eighteen Springs is one of philosophical at root. Chang’s attitude toward the human society is apathy and lack of interest, for no matter how prominent, respected, wealthy, and wise one is, fate still runs its course, and the only way to cope with the cards that fate deals is acceptance.
359 pp. Paperback, in Chinese language. [Read/
Skim/ Toss] [Buy/ Borrow]
Eighteen Springs is a Chinese Literature Challenge read.
*Note: Penguins Classic was supposed to release the first English translation ever of this novel in 2009. The book obviously has not been published for unknown reasons; and Penguins has neither given further announcement nor followed up with the matter. In the next post, I will include highlighted passages in original Chinese text along with the English translation. Chang’s short story collection, Love in a Fallen City, which I reviewed, and novel Rouge of the North are both available under NYRB Books in English.