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[361] Eighteen Springs 半生緣 – Eileen Chang

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.

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10 Responses

  1. I especially like these lines:

    “感情這樣東西是很難處理的,不能往冰箱里一擱,就以為它可以保存若干時日,不會變質了。

    Relationship is something that is difficult to handle, something that can’t be shelved in the fridge, expecting that it can last for some time, without getting spoiled.”

    “我們都回不去了。

    We can’t go back anymore.”

  2. Matt, you might also enjoy the 1997 film as well. Ann Hui always does such a great job, and you will perhaps enjoy the performances of Leon Lai, Anita Mui, and one of my true favorites, the adorable Wu Chien-Lien.

    • I’ve watched the movie numerous times and in fact, have never grown a tad tired of it. The novel of course is more complete as the film has edited out a few scenes concerning Manjing’s enslavement, escape, and reunion with Shujun.

      • Apart from the part where it show the resourcefulness of Manjing by having Wu Chien-Lien laugh through the tears in the movie house upon knowing Shujun has got married, I don’t think the movie did full justice to the characters of the novel. It might be faithful to the *events* in the book, but not to the characters. For instance, the night Manlu tricked Manjing into staying over in her house so that her husband can force himself on her, in the book Manlu was much more ruthless and scheming even *after* finding out Manjing didn’t backstab her in front of her old lover. Instead Manlu reasoned once you started the plot you will have to be the villain to the end. If I remember correctly, in the movie it has Manjing arguing with Manlu unreasonably in her house that night, obviously to make Manlu a little less unsympathetic (I don’t know if Anita Mui being the big star has anything to do with it). Similarly, years later when the sisters finally reunited, in the book the utterly bitter Manjing still held a grudge and refused to forgive the dying Manlu. In the movie Manjing let Manlu off the hook so easily it just completely lost the drama of the story.

        One of the themes I notice when I read Eighteen Springs is how money and position can turn a victim into victimizer. From the perspective of young lover Manjing/Shujun Manlu of course is the villian. However, at one point (before the novel’s narrative) Manlu was the victim herself and it was through her sacrifice that Manjing and Shujun could possibly have their, as you said, ‘what if’ to begin with. In my opinion, Manlu’s ruthlessness is a result of her victimization, not just jealous. Not that I want to condone her behavior but my point is once Manjing became a victim, she herself is just as bitter as her sister (the reunion scene in the book is lot more dramatic) and I believe Eileen Chang meant it to be a vicious cycle between victim and victimizer. By softening both sisters’ characaters so much, Ann Hui just missed this theme of the story.

        Finally one plot point of Eighteen Springs that always stayed with me, Manlu’s husband of course is a character of the lowest degree. However, the novel gave him one redeeming quality: at the end he had an affair behind Manjing’s back with a single mother of a *daughter* who is not even his, while Manjing actually bore him his *son*. That echoes the Manlu’s ex’s sentiment when he tried to talk her out of marrying him: within a relationship, if one party is not happy, the other could never be happy either. When Manjing lost all faith in humanity, she thought she could please everyone (Manlu’s husband, their son, her mother) by agreeing marrying the man she didn’t love. But even a scumbag needs affection and he eventually found that with a woman who didn’t even give him an heir, the reason he wanted Manjing in the first place. I don’t exactly know at which point of her life when Eileen Chang wrote Eighteen Springs but judging from this plot point, I suspect Eileen hasn’t completely given up on romantic love at the time.

        Thank you for my long rambling.

  3. What a shame that this one is not available in English. I wonder why they didn’t end up publishing it after saying they would. The story sounds powerful with much to ponder about life and love.

  4. […] [361] Eighteen Springs 半生緣 – Eileen Chang […]

  5. […] Eighteen Springs, which is not available in English translation, The Rouge of the North is one of the two novels […]

  6. ファンタジー世界

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